“Are there any Uighurs on this train?” asked the policeman. Yes, there were, and they all had to show their ID’s and open their bags for inspection. I was on a 46-hour train ride from Chengdu, a city of more than 10 million in eastern China, to Xinjiang, China’s largest province and home to the Islamic Uighur people. The Uighurs on the train knew what they were facing: China is systematically trying to destroy their culture, whilst creating an Orwellian police state in their province of Xinjiang.
The signs of a policed state were immediate. Within a few kilometres from the train station, we were stopped for an ID inspection. With my bags scanned, it was not unlike airport security. Every kilometre, cameras hovered the road, controlling the whereabouts of every vehicle in the province. In Xinjiang’s main Uighur cities, Turfan and Kashgar, armoured police vans relentlessly circulate, never silencing their sirens. There is an eerie feeling, wherever you are, as though Big Brother is Watching You.
Residing in the midst of this police presence are 11.5 million Uighurs. With Turkish ethnicity and primarily practicing Islam, they are culturally similar to the peoples of Central Asia. Though Xinjiang has been part of China for centuries, many Uighurs feel a rather weak connection to the Han Chinese, who are culturally very different. As such, dreams of an independent East Turkestan have been frequently proposed, and the relationship between Uighurs and Han Chinese has been tense for years.
Officially, the Communist Party’s installment of safety measures has been their response to this tense relationship, preventing clashes. In July 2009, Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi witnessed severe ethnic violence. Uighurs fought with Han Chinese, who through immigration now compose the city’s majority. Alongside over 197 casualties, the entire province was cut off from the rest of the world. Internet connections were severed, only seeing restoration in May 2010. Later, in 2014, eight Uighur men and women violently murdered 31 people in Kunming, a city in southern China. The violence was unhelpful to the image of China’s Muslim minority, granting legitimacy to the instalment of today’s oh-so-present safety measures.
I asked Abdul, an English-speaking Uighur, whether he felt safer with these checkpoints, cameras, and police. His deafening silence said it all. “Of course I don’t feel any safer”, he later said. “But even if the checkpoints were built to improve safety, the Chinese don’t care about the safety of Uighurs, but only about the safety of the Chinese settlers”.
It is a common sentiment: “they Chinese” are infringing upon Uighur lifestyles, not caring for the cultural heritage and values of the minority. At the same time, Chinese presence in Xinjiang is increasing significantly. Thousands of Han are migrating to Xinjiang annually, lurched by subsidies the government gives to those Han willing to live among the Uighur. In Xinjiang’s largest city, Urumqi, the Uighur presently constitute only 12.46% of the total population, mainly due to heavy Han migration. In other cities, the share of Han Chinese is similarly escalating.
The feeling that China is aiming at an irreversible ‘Hanification’ of Xinjiang is only strengthened by other measures taken by the central government. The Old City of Kashgar, centre of East Turkestan and Uighur culture, was largely demolished and replaced by soulless apartment buildings. Mosques must fly the Chinese flag or face closure.
Worse however are the government’s assaults on the Uighurs’ religious traditions. Students are forbidden from fasting during Ramadan, and blood sugar levels are tested to enforce this ban. Those who do fast are taken to ‘re-education classes’. Just last month, the authorities demanded that Uighurs hand in their prayer mats and Qurans. Opponents of this measure face “harsh punishments”.
The above actions have nothing to do with making Xinjiang ‘safe’, as the government claims it does. It rather aims at making the Uighurs a ‘truly Chinese’ people, who dare not dream of an independent East Turkestan. As the on-going case of Catalonia and Spain demonstrates, this goal is very difficult to achieve.
The vast cultural difference between the Han and the Uighurs poses a challenge for cultural co-understanding. “I never ate any Chinese food in my life”, says Mehmet, a young father of two. I am surprised, but he has a valid reason: Chinese food rarely is halal. Another essential aspect in Chinese social life, binge drinking, further isolates Uighurs, who cannot drink alcohol. These two examples, while small parts of social life, demonstrate how alienated the groups are from each other.
For the Chinese government, destroying Uighur culture may appear a necessary means to create ‘good citizens’ of their Turkic minority. Mindful of Xinjiang’s vast wealth in oil and other natural resources, Beijing considers this a small price to pay.
Meanwhile, Uighur people try to maintain their culture. People are praying at the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, goat-head soup is being served on the ruins of the Old City, and sheep are being traded at the Sunday Market. Yet whether they will be successful in maintaining their culture remains the question. Children are losing their ability to speak and write their language, as all schooling is in Chinese. They are taught in school that being a Muslim is old-fashioned and a direct assault to the state. As a result, the young generation of Uighurs is becoming more and more Chinese, alienating them from both their own culture and from their parents and grandparents.
The case of the Uighurs mirrors events in Tibet: the wilful destruction of a culture. But the Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, and were able to attract global awareness of their situation. The Uighurs have nothing of this, and their situation has attracted little international outrage. They are alone in their struggle for cultural survival, and alone in their battle against Chinese cultural domination. Their ability to survive against a state so powerful as the Middle Kingdom’s remains to be seen.
“I hope you liked Xinjiang and its people”, said Mehmet, “I love it myself”. He was quiet, looking sad. Through endless deserts and steep mountain passes I continued to Kyrgyzstan. Walking across the border I said “Freedom! No more police checks!” Freedom for me, that is. The Uighurs still are in Chinese Xinjiang.
Some names in this article have been changed