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Souls of Uighur Folk

In his 1903 classic, William Du Bois considered what he called ‘double consciousness,’ defining it as a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Like the Black folk of his essays, Uighur folk also live in the cold shadow of the white people of Asia, the ethnic Han. But rather than address a lack of opportunity, the national narrative presents a story of cultural conflict. When tensions boil, leaders point to the nomadic background of Xinjiang natives or their Islamic faith rather than the conditions under which they live. And in the wake of the 2014 Kunming massacre, the Department of Dissemination has again forfended state interests by freezing even the merest freshet of transparency. We all know the Chinese media is a millpond, but when Xinjiang violence spills into other provinces, questions emerge that Great Unity tropes cannot slake, and though these attackers are a desperate few whose actions do not typify the whole, their desperation is widespread.

Literally “New Frontier,” the region that is modern Xinjiang was for centuries a source of jade. Under the Han relative peace prevailed, but after its collapse lasting calm was not restored until the arrival of the Tang 400 years later. Cosmopolitan Tang rulers maintained warm relations with the western Turks. In fact its frontier armies comprised mostly native Uighurs and some, like the great Ashina She’er, even rose to the rank of general. Islam came in the 9th century and a newborn Turkic confederacy managed to cultivate some measure of peace, at least until the hordes of Genghis Khan swept through in the 1200s, followed by the massacres of the brutal Qing Dynasty and the Turkish Muslim Yaqub Beg’s reign of terror beginning in 1865. General Tso, after whom the chicken dish is named, defeated Beg and in 1912 the Qing were out and the Republic of China was in. The Kuomintang crushed a grab at independence in the 1930s after which Russia, seizing upon the region’s instability, planted a local military base and installed a governing warlord named Sheng Shicai who tortured and executed several officials visiting from the capital in 1943 upon suspicions that they were spies. As fate would have it, among them was Mao Zemin, younger brother of Mao Zedong. Russia continued to back local rebels and Beijing countered by supporting anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan, but when pro-Soviet forces took power there in 1978 China militarized Xinjiang as a buffer (with the help of the US). The region has since seen increased terrorist attacks, meanwhile the government has worked to develop local industry via paramilitary groups that do not actively hire locals.

As millions of ethnic Han move into the region taking jobs, local unemployment remains staggeringly high.As millions of ethnic Han move into the region taking jobs, local unemployment remains staggeringly high. Uighur economics Professor Ilham Tohti, who has been repeatedly incarcerated for his views, believes jobs are the solution to civil unrest in Xinjiang. He has a point, but locals need more than material progress. They need leaders, therefore they need access to the kind of education that crafts leaders. In an interview with Michel Martin for NPR, Professor of Anthropology Dr Dru Gladney explained that Uighurs currently have no one to represent them in the way that Tibetans have the Dalai Lama. Yet illiteracy remains high among Uighurs and rates of higher education low. And whatever light-bringers their culture does produce, the government remains hell-bent on silencing. Proud intellects could be the saviors of the people, and mollifying agents against sectarian hatred, but so far such minds have mostly been imprisoned or forced to flee. The rest, it seems, are recently departed. For instance there is the novelist Adburehim Otkur, who was arrested by Sheng Shicai in 1937 and held for seven years, then handed two years’ hard labor in 1958 after which he ran to Soviet Russia and died in 1995. Or the poet Turghun Almas, who was jailed for five years and his book of Uighur history banned, and who spent the end of his life under house arrest and died in 2001. Or Tohti Muzart, arrested for stealing state secrets in 1998 because he was doing doctoral research on Uighur history and who served 11 years and is now unable to complete his degree in Tokyo as Beijing no longer issues passports to Uighurs. Or activist Wu’erkaixi, who must now live overseas along with Anwar Turani and Rebiya Kadeer. Like the Black folk of America, Uighur folk need heroes of accomplishment to inspire them — athletes, artists and great thinkers like Olympic boxer Mehmet Qiong, the soprano Dilber Yunus or the intellectual Kahar Barat. But there are hardly a handful of such people alive today.

And not only do they lack leaders, but neither can they choose them. Sure, progress means voting for many citizens of the world but that will not be the path for Uighur folk. Neither is sovereignty a realistic goal. The first step, if not the final one, will have to be civic equality. To this end the education of Uighur youth is principal, but not in buttressing cultural identity, though not to its exclusion either. Frankly I don’t see an end to the influx of Han Chinese, and if Dr Tohti is correct then the way forward will mean greater assimilation, if only in ways that will grant Uighurs a growing voice within China. And one of the best ways to obtain a voice is through literacy — and by this I mean literacy in Mandarin, the language of economic opportunity and cultural influence in modern China.

In one section of his essay, Du Bois writes of the so-called “Wings of Atlanta.” He complains how a single-minded focus on gaining wealth has threatened other considerations. Teaching in Urumqi, a good friend of mine saw firsthand the famished and vulgar grasping for cash that is too common in Chinese society today. Uighur folk, she told me, have a gentler way about them, but they still reach above all for the fruit of monetary gain. There are no young poets in Xinjiang.

Thus Uighur folk must learn to look not merely to what Du Bois calls the “lower training” that earns money but also to the “lofty ideals of life.” That Talented Tenth of which Du Bois writes is essential to saving the culture of Uighur folk, for it will not be saved by any government intervention. All the opposite. Black folk in the US preserved their culture through literature and song, and Uighur authors writing in Mandarin will clear a sea for their people to follow.

It is not my intention to argue that literacy in Mandarin and examples of Uighur success will be enough on their own to preserve the precious culture of these people, particularly as long as they have the boot of the State Council on their throat and the barrel of the PLA’s gun in their ribs. Perhaps even more harmful than this, however, are the negative stereotypes of Uighur folk that thrive within Chinese society and seem to resonate and grow with every new incident of violence committed by a Uighur. In a pattern reminiscent of US inner-city gang recruitment, many young locals are attracted to radical groups for the prestige it brings, and because they lack attractive alternatives. Add to this the fact that Uighurs, like many nomadic people, have a great love of liberty and often violently buck against Chinese authority. For example after the 2013 Yilkiqi incident, violence broke out across Xinjiang and hundreds of Uighurs were arrested. And the violence is sometimes internal too. In 2014 a Uighur religious leader was stabbed to death in the city of Turpan on his way home from prayer, murdered by members of his own community for having called some of his fellow Uighurs “terrorists”. But external aggression is clearly playing its role too. That summer, just before the end of Ramadan, police in the town of Akyol opened fire on a crowd of Uighurs who were protesting restrictions on prayer. And this external aggression is not always unwarranted. Also that summer, a mob of Uighurs with knives attacked a police station in Lukchun and up to 46 people were killed in the police retaliation, in the bloodiest conflict since the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the province’s capital.

The violence of Xinjiang is not easily parsed. Some of it is attributable to government aggression, some of it is attributable to homegrown terrorism, some of it is more gang-like in nature and some of it is simply the desperate lashing out of a people being economically suffocated. For although CCTV reported in 2013 a rise in the number of jade craftsmen in the region, Xinjiang is now valuable to the capital for an entirely different reason: natural gas.Xinjiang is now valuable to the capital for an entirely different reason: natural gas. The gas fields of the Tarim Basin are carried by a 4,000-kilometer pipeline to Shanghai. There is also a 9,000-kilometer pipeline from Khorgas to Guangzhou and a third pipeline set to run from Horgos to Fuzhou, as well as two additional pipelines under development. In other words, the government isn’t cracking down on violence in the region simply to prove who’s in charge, discourage separatism or smack Russia’s hands away. Rather, or in addition, there is a powerful economic incentive.

However locals are not regularly hired for jobs within the field of natural gas. The company managers are largely ethnic Han and, to make matters worse, Uighurs don’t have much better opportunities outside Xinjiang either. And the opportunities that they do have do not build positively upon their reputation. For instance in the cities in southwestern China where I have lived (Nanning, Kunming, Chengdu), Uighurs were most commonly spotted either running BBQ stalls or trying to sell stolen iPhones and Samsung tablets to passersby.

Another element of the problem of Uighur positioning within Chinese society is of course religion. Mainland Chinese are mostly irreligious. Not only this, but unless they are religious they tend to have little knowledge of the world’s major religions, primarily as a result of a lack of exposure either through education or personal experience. So the average Chinese person is not particularly open-minded when it comes to some of the more conservative forms of religious practice, and as it happens Uighur folk belong to a faith that requires more open-mindedness than most. The faith of a faithful people bespeaks their heart, and the faith of the Uighur people is Islam. More specifically, most Muslims in Xinjiang belong to the Hanafi madhhab, one of the four schools of Sunni law. The Hanafi school is one of the oldest and most widespread of the four schools and is common in Central Asia. It is also, in several ways, the most liberal of the four. For example, adherents may pray in their own languages, couples may marry without consulting a guardian and women may be judges. Nevertheless it is Sunni Muslims that, for example, take offense at depictions of Mohammad. However the people of the Xinjiang mountains tend to be Ismaili Shias, and to use the same metric, it is generally the case that Shia Muslims do not mind depictions of Muhammad (indeed many wear pictures of him around their necks and there is even a giant mural of Muhammad in a public square in Tehran).

But the much of the conflict Uighurs face is not the result of their orthodox religious views. It is instead an ethnic conflict steeped in bigotry and senseless violence. One of the final passage of Du Bois’ text asks the question: is a dead son better than one living in a world such as this? And the question of course is its own answer, for once you have reached a point where you can even ask a question like this, things are already so bad that the question is beside the point. In 2013 a 7-year-old Uighur boy in Pichan county was hacked to death. Police later arrested a 52-year-old ethnic Han man. The boy, Enkerjan Ariz, was playing with his friends near a brick factory. According to a report by senior police official Ahmet Ismail, the elderly man, a worker at the factory, believed the boys were there to steal supplies and grabbed little Enkerjan by the arm. Enkerjan’s friends ran off and, Mr Ismail said, the older man “took the child into his home and killed him.” After this, about 150 relatives of the boy targeted the homes around the factory but were stopped by local police.

It is difficult to make sense of such horrors. But in reflecting on the matter, I often consider an experience I had myself quite recently. One afternoon last year, it took me an unusual length of time to get a taxi in my neighborhood. When I finally did, I asked the driver why he thought it had taken so long. Was there some event I didn’t know about? Had the hour of shift change been moved? He looked at me and laughed, and said it was because I was a Uighur. No one wants to take a Uighur, he explainedHe looked at me and laughed, and said it was because I was a Uighur. No one wants to take a Uighur, he explained. Their Turkic heritage, probably along with some degree of Russian, means Uighurs sometimes have remarkably European features and, as I had recently grown a beard, I cannot say I was too surprised to hear that drivers had assumed I was Uighur. But why wouldn’t they take Uighurs? Was it simply all the recent reports of terrorism, I asked. No, said my driver, it was because drivers who did take Uighurs were often asked to go someplace beyond Third Ring Road, almost outside the city, where they were jumped by gangs and their cars were taken. It had happened a number of times, he told me. But then he told me another story. One that involved a young Uighur man he had taken in his cab one day. The young man was well-educated and spoke Mandarin with a crisp standard accent, as though he had spent some time in Beijing or the north of China. But the young man had moved back west after he had found it very difficult to make any friends. Sadly, however, when he returned to Xinjiang his fancy accent and education made him an outsider amongst his own people. The driver said the young man was so polite that it completely changed his view of Uighurs, especially since he had never spoken to one in depth, and he felt incredibly sorry for the young man. “We are all Chinese people,” he told me, “China is one. One country, one people. It shouldn’t be like this. This isn’t China.” And his story struck me dumb with its similarity to the one related by Du Bois about the educated Black man who became a foreigner in his own home and died humming a German song. Education will be the way out of darkness, but only if Uighurs themselves embrace it and celebrate when their brothers and sisters achieve it.

“Left here by my unkind brothers, you must speak of everything you see […]

Hideous problems have fallen on my head, food and drink are like poison

My eyes gouged out, left here in this den, my friends like snakes and scorpions.”

—Horliqa Hemrajan Destiny

Photos: Elasticitea

David Volodzko

China correspondent for The Diplomat and author of the blog Rational Consent.