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In China's wild, wild west
Anurag Viswanath in New Delhi
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May 05, 2008

Beyond the stereotypical notions of dragons and daggers, kung-fu and Confucius, lies another, less-known face of China and the people of China. In the narrow alleys and bylanes of China's glittering cosmos, you can spot people who share few facial similarities with the Chinese or Han people, and who speak Mandarin with a rough and garbled accent, if at all.

Mustached, fez-capped, Pathan-robed men are often seen fanning mutton kebabs on charcoal grills at street corners -- a ruddy-faced, distinctive Central-Asian looking lot who may screech 'Aamir Khan!' at the recognition of an Indian face and launch into a giddy, antiquated Indian disco number. A few bravehearts may even scribble a few frantic lines in Arabic.

They are the Uighurs of China's wild western frontier -- the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Xinjiang province in Chinese, pronounced Shin-jee-ang), some making a living as kebabwallahs and kabuliwallahs, selling dried fruits, stale pecan nougats and, according to some, quite often than not, hashish.

Most people think of China as a homogeneous, somewhat 'ethnically unified' whole, backed by 5,000 years of history and a common language. Though the country is overwhelmingly Han (90 percent plus), 55 other ethnic minorities divided by cultural, ethnic and linguistic differences make up the rest of the vibrant and perhaps troubled spectrum.

Of them, the least-known and most controversial are the Chinese Turkic Muslims -- the Uighurs of Xinjiang, a minority which occupies a sizeable chunk of land area, almost one-sixth of China's landmass (1.6 million sq km), on the historical Silk Road.

While the contentious Tibetan issue comes home to India because of geographical proximity and the Dalai Lama [Images], little is known about the geo-strategic, resource-rich region, considered to be China's historically troubled backwater province.

Xinjiang, which literally means "new territory", is one of China's five minority autonomous regions. It lies at the extreme north-western frontier, where China meets Central Asia, standing literally at the crossroads of six different cultural and geographic regions -- Russia [Images], Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), Mongolia, the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan and Afghanistan), Tibet [Images], and China.

Quite naturally, Xinjiang has not remained impervious to neighbouring cultural influences and boasts of its own distinctive history. The province is dotted with an estimated 23,000 officially registered mosques. The landscape of Xinjiang reflects that of its neighbours and ranges from steppes to massive sand dunes. In common parlance in China, it has been dubbed a place which is luoho and luan, meaning backward and chaotic.

China's claim over this region has been a contested and tenuous one -- after the British influence waned in the early 20th century, Russian influence displaced it until the 'liberation by China' in 1949. Thus, for over a century, the province with porous borders was oriented towards Soviet Russia. Today, Xinjiang's 20 million demographic includes Hui (another Chinese Muslim minority), Kazaks, Mongols and Daurs, but the Uighurs constitute the majority at 47 percent.

The Uighurs bear many distinctions from the Han. Not only are they practicing Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school, they also speak Turkic languages, use the Arabic script; Chinese, for them, is at best, and most, an uncomfortable second language.

They have cross-border kin relations with the Uighurs of neighbouring countries (an estimated 185,000 Uighurs are in Kazakhstan) and given the province's place on the map, have larger ethnic, historical, spiritual and cultural ties with Central Asia.

Some two-thirds of the 60 million peoples of Central Asia are Turkic Muslims, which prompted former Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel some years ago to say that the Turkic world stretches "from the Adriatic to the walls of China".

Yet, the Uighurs feel unconfined by these walls, and keeping this seemingly incongruous province a part of the nation's fabric has been no easy task. Xinjiang, which lies two hours behind Beijing [Images] time geographically (though the whole of China is officially set at a common Beijing time), is far from Beijing both literally and figuratively. Urumuqi -- the capital and administrative centre -- is over 3,800 km away.

The two sides cannot even agree on the history of how they became united. While the Chinese may have romantic stories on hand, such as the claim that the Fragrant Concubine (who hailed from Xinjiang) became Emperor Qianlong's favourite (due to her mysterious exotic fragrance) in the18th century, Uighurs are quick to point out that she kept herself armed at all times while plotting to kill him at her convenience.

China has tried to embrace this region and its over-zealous efforts at economic and political integration include the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (or the PCC, a party-government-army unit) which critics say carried out a top-down, heavy-handed Sinification campaign in the post-1949 period. Efforts at integration included a share in booming China's economic largesse by way of subsidies, channelised through the PCC.

Beijing has, over the years, swamped the province with factories and plants, communication links and infrastructure development, ostensibly to 'develop' the province, but also to tap into its immense natural resources. This has paid rich dividends: the province has important natural resources such as coal, gas and petroleum, and feeds a hungry China.

The northern part of the province is more or less integrated but the south-west part of the province continues to pose challenges emanating from its cultural and geographical proximity with Pakistan, Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics.
While the province is feeding China, critics also allege that China is feeding off the province. There is little doubt that subsidies -- the goodies and freebies -- have helped, but questions have arisen as to who the real beneficiaries are. Also hotly disputed has been the population transfer policy, which is also the issue that Tibetans vociferously complain about.

Critics allege that Xinjiang's vast tracts of land have been used as a storage facility for rusticates, the unemployed, demobilised troops, vagrants and vagabonds, and the population displaced by development projects such as the Three Gorges Dam. This policy, colloquially referred to as 'mixing sand', has changed the ethnic composition of the state and generated widespread anger and resentment.

According to estimates by noted Sinologists Donald McMillen, Emily Hannum and Nicolas Becquelin, among others -- in 1949, over 90 per cent of the 4.2 million population was ethnically non-Han and the Han presence was feeble at 7 per cent.

The Han presence has risen over the years to 41 per cent (in 1978). The 1990 statistics, however, show that Han presence has declined to 37.5 per cent. Official estimates say that the Han population is expected to fall to 25 per cent by 2030 because of lower birth rates.

Xinjiang's pivotal location makes it hard to ignore � at the head of Central Asia and the Middle East, its vast reserves of oil in the Tarim basin, deposits of coal, gas and strategic nuclear installations such as at Lop Nor are crucial for an energy-hungry China. Recent reports of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway from South Xinjiang to Central Asia (to be completed in 2010) will make Xinjiang a thoroughfare in oil trade.

While China has tried to neutralise the impact of Islam and Central Asia through cross-border trade, cross-border communication links (such as the Karakoram highway with Pakistan) and regional cooperation (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation), increasing cross-border collaboration is going to be one of China's challenges. Economic benefits are pouring in with unwarranted partners; besides the oil flows, a cultural flow of ideas and Islam as a political force have come as a steady barrage.

Given this tumultuous background, the province has been reverberating with turbulent undercurrents, some reported and others not. Xinjiang continues to be a hotbed for eastern Turkistan or Uighurstan. The region is known for two short-lived Muslim independence movements (1912 and 1949) as also widespread protests in 1997 (the Yining incident). The ethnic unrest is being officially blamed on a rather convenient and predictable scapegoat: Islamic resurgence.

As is often the case, a clampdown on 'separatists' de novo has meant a clampdown on Uighurs leading up to increased surveillance and control. While officials say that jao pai or secret societies are on the rise, as is infiltration from across the borders, increasingly Chinese scholars themselves recognise their own flawed policy and the lacunae that needs to be addressed, namely ethnic power sharing and recognition of Xinjiang's distinctive identity.

With the Olympics [Images] round the corner, China is increasingly on the guillotine. All eyes are on China and whether yet another mishap, a la Tibet, is round the corner is open to conjecture.

On the surface, all is quiet on the western front. In the east coast of China, far away from XUAR, the enduringly popular Uighur restaurant whips up Uighur exoticism in downtown Shanghai. The restaurant displays an array of garish Uighur memorabilia: from pictures of Hami melons, Turpan grapes to tapestries of mysterious women woven in frayed aidelis silk.

Precluding any hint of opposition to the Chinese state, it is selling what sells best -- vignettes of a minority culture, besides piles of nang (flat breads) and the barbecued meat. In the background, a boisterous boy band belts out Uighur numbers, dragging even the most unwilling diners up onto the dance floor, while speaking Mandarin in their own accented way, as if to say: "Like it or not , we may be a part of China, but that doesn't mean we're Chinese." 

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