September 2020


by David McRae

The Uighurs of Xinjiang

A visit to Ürümqi’s quieted streets and contested museums

Ürümqi is the capital of Xinjiang, China’s largest province. In its very fine regional museum, several mummified bodies can be found. They come from Lop Nur, some distance south of Ürümqi but still in Xinjiang. One, particularly well preserved, is known as the Loulan Beauty. She is important for several reasons, including that her body and the cloth in which she was buried have been assessed as being around 4000 years old. Another is that she wasn’t embalmed, or wrapped in protective bandaging. As with the other “mummified” bodies here, hers is more correctly a desiccated corpse preserved by shallow burial in salty soil, consistently low temperatures and minimal humidity. But the most important reason by far is, as the tag notes: “According to scientific test, she belong to ancient Europoid.” She could be Uighur, the main ethnic group in Xinjiang, but she is definitely not Han. According to our guide, the implications are volcanic: proof that Uighurs were here first. They are the children of the soil; their wishes should prevail.

There is a second, more recent tag on this exhibit. It states that a team of scientists has modified the Loulan Beauty’s estimated age, and has judged that she is actually Han, and therefore an antecedent of China’s dominant ethnic group.

A day after our arrival in Xinjiang, our guide drove us through the forests of tower blocks so familiar in Chinese cities, but these ones were unusual. Many had been abandoned unfinished: no rooftop, variable heights, no windows, limited cladding. Even in Yunnan, another part of China a long way from the immediate influence of Beijing, they finish buildings. Fast. “What’s that about?” I asked. “The building has been stopped,” our guide said. “The government-building funds have been transferred to making prisons. There are 10 million Uighur in China. More than one million are in jail.”

The Uighurs are Muslim. The spouse and four siblings of our guide (whose identity we’ll protect) went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. These five people have been imprisoned now for more than two years. What they are charged with, their whereabouts and their future are all unknown. Did our guide fear for his/her freedom? “Of course – every time there is a knock at the door. Why do they do this? To wash the brain.”

The police presence in Ürümqi was ubiquitous. There were checkpoints seemingly on every corner, more than 700 in the city centre alone. A squadron of helmeted officers stood outside the entrance to Ürümqi’s latest tourist attraction, the Hongguangshan Ecological Garden, with its giant golden Buddha. Built around five years ago, the Buddha is the same age as the Hilton Hotel located nearby. There are negligible adherents to Buddhism in Ürümqi, or Xinjiang as a whole for that matter. A huge sign at the entrance to the garden has been translated into English. In part it says: “Love the Motherland … safeguard ethnic solidarity and maintain stability … Treat others politely, respect elders and take good care of children.” 

For Xinjiang’s Uighurs, government abuses include the use of forced sterilisation, but there are also ones of a small, pervasive nature. In houses, sitting on rugs and cushions, as was traditional, is banned. In our guide’s family there are several children. Every time one of them speaks Uighur at school, their parents are fined 200 yuan ($40, a good deal in this context). So far this year our guide’s family has had to pay 4800 yuan. Teachers who speak Uighur to their students are fired. Uighur stories and songs have been banned from the curriculum. Doctors who speak Uighur to their patients are struck off and imprisoned. “One year, women who wear long Uighur dresses in the street were stopped by police and their dresses were cut short with scissors,” our guide explained. “This year, headscarves are removed and they are fined. Next year they go to jail.”

Downtown Ürümqi is littered with countless building sites covered in green sheeting. Behind this, pointed arches are being removed and replaced by rectangular openings. Curves and angles are being straightened out. Decoration that reflects an Islamic past is being removed.

To enter the main square outside the magnificent Grand Bazaar, the old hub of Ürümqi, one is searched and put through a metal detector. The market, once one of the busiest in Central Asia, is now almost silent: shopkeepers sit on their stools in the walkways examining their phones, waiting for customers who, for now, aren’t going to come.

Ürümqi’s previously burgeoning economy is being deliberately run down as a means of controlling its population. With unemployment now a serious problem, Uighurs are being recruited to the police and armed forces. It was suggested that these “turned” Uighurs were among the most brutal members of the police.

Over the past decade, the Han population of Ürümqi has increased by 800,000 through a mass migration program. That happened in Tibet, too. Just as Tibet’s formal name is the Tibet Autonomous Region, Xinjiang’s full name is the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The two regions have something else in common: the official formerly in charge of Tibet, Chen Quanguo, was transferred to oversee Xinjiang in August 2016. He is re-running the key elements of his strategy: extrajudicial internment camps, surveillance of residents including facial recognition procedures, increased police presence, and severely regulated religious and cultural expression.

Ürümqi is situated in a highly strategic location. In essence, to go west from China by land you have two options. The first is to travel past the Taklamakan Desert, one of the world’s largest, to Kashgar, and then north through the forbidding Tien Shan mountains. The second option, much easier, is to pass north of those high mountains. Ürümqi is key to that route. (Both routes are part of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative.) Consequently, this area has been contested for hundreds of years. The fact that Xinjiang shares a border with eight countries – including Russia and India – underlines its historical complexity.

The disagreement between the Uighur and the Han-dominated national government about which group has greater claim to the Xinjiang region has a long history. The Uighur believe their ancestors were indigenous to the area, whereas government policy considers present-day Xinjiang to have belonged to the various dynastic rulers of “China” since around 200 BC. Uighurs have been classified as a “national minority” rather than a “nationality” group. This means, unlike other defined nationality groups, they are conferred no special cultural rights, and are regarded to be no more indigenous to Xinjiang than the Han.

Some historians point out that, 400 years ago, the Qing brought in Han, Hui, Uighur and Kazakh people as colonists after the Mongols who had previously lived in the region were driven out or slaughtered. Before that, Xinjiang was populated for hundreds of years by a collection of nomadic peoples, including those known as the Huns.

But matters like that have been easy to ignore, as the struggle in Xinjiang has become more defined as just two ethnic groups at loggerheads. Forget the rest. A census of Xinjiang in the early 19th century indicated that the population was 30 per cent Han and 60 per cent Turkic (a language group, mostly Uighur). By 1953, this had changed to 6 per cent Han and 75 per cent Uighur. By 2010, the population was 40 per cent Han and 46 per cent Uighur.

At our hotel, I asked the receptionist if we could get a wake-up call for 4am. Our plane left at 7 and it would be about 40 minutes to the airport. The clerk was nonplussed. “Do you mean Uighur time, sir?” A moment of panic, not having a clue what he was talking about. I showed him our schedule. It was quite clear, but he thought it was “too early”. The fact that all of China is on Beijing time means that people in places such as Ürümqi, where it is twilight at 11.30pm, often work to a separate, unofficial time zone. In this case, “Uighur time”. The receptionist set us straight, but even this muddle had murky undertones.

A couple of kilometres from the airport, our taxi was pulled over by police. I wondered if it was because we had a Uighur taxi driver, but it wasn’t him they were after. We were searched. The police also went through our luggage and put it through an X-ray machine located in their roadside cabin. We were put through another search as we entered the airport. Very thorough body searches: fingers feeling around your mouth, firm hands searching between your legs – that sort. At check-in, we passed through yet another metal detector, and our passports were confiscated for a time. There was a flavour of blank threat to all of this. Then customs. Another check and search. I had to remove my shoes so they could examine the soles of my feet and between my toes. I was then sent to a small room to stand on a platform that moved back and forth, making buzzing noises. I have no idea what that was. Another metal detector and luggage search took place at the gate before we got on the plane. 

In Ürümqi’s regional museum, just a few metres from the Loulan Beauty, is a striking display of Uighur hats. On the label below is written:

The Uighur Nationality’s costume has condensed the national spirit, embodied unique creativity and ability of presentation … Through various kinds of caps, it reflects the Uighur peoples’ natural and unrestrained individual characters. Precious jewelry, gold and silver ornaments all reflect the invariably limitless and lofty sentiments of Uighurs who like to explore nature, integrate quintessence of works of god with their heart, and create their own beauty.

How much longer will that text or that display be there, I wonder. How much longer will the regional museum be open? How much longer will the culture it represents even exist?

David McRae

David McRae is an education consultant who has worked in China.

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