One of the few foreign reporters to have lived in Xinjiang, British journalist Nick Holdstock tells Time Out Shanghai why Chinese Muslims are struggling to preserve their way of life.
Your recent book, China’s Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State looks at the country’s far northwest. What prompted you to write this book?
The main reason I write about Xinjiang is to try to address some of the misunderstandings (and misrepresentations) that exist about the region. In this book I wanted to provide a wider context for the recent violence in Xinjiang. It’s become common to speak as if there’s a long and well-understood history of terrorism in Xinjiang, when really this is a narrative that has only been promoted since 9/11 by the Chinese government (and to a lesser degree, by the foreign media). I felt that there needed to be a basic account for non-specialist readers of how Chinese government policy has affected Uyghur communities in Xinjiang over the last 40 years, and the different ways in which they have expressed dissent, many of them non-violent.
How much ‘autonomy’ does Xinjiang have?
Xinjiang is one of China’s five ‘autonomous regions’ (the others are Tibet, Guangxi, Ningxia, and Inner Mongolia). These were created in 1955 as a kind of weaker version of the Soviet Socialist Republics, which had the right to secede. While China’s autonomous regions weren’t allowed this option, the expectation was (and perhaps is) that they’d be granted a greater level of self-governance than other Chinese provinces. For the most part, this hasn’t been the case – policy has been dictated by the central government.
How was it incorporated into China?
There are many versions of this story – but the official view in China is that the region we now call Xinjiang has always been part of China. The historical evidence doesn’t support this – there were eight centuries when there was no meaningful Chinese presence in the region. For most of its history, the region has been ruled by a diverse set of powers, whose boundaries have often followed the physical geography of the region – e.g. the north/south division imposed by the Tianshan Mountains.
The idea of the region as a unifiedwhole really starts with the Qing Dynasty, in the mid-18th Century. But while the Qing did introduce many reforms, the huge distances between Xinjiang and the imperial centre meant that it remained a satellite territory with only a small Han Chinese population. The process of incorporation has mainly taken place since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Why have ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese reached such a fever pitch in recent years?
While Xinjiang is often characterised as a ‘restive’ part of China, it’s arguable that it doesn’t deserve this label – protests and violent incidents occur all over the country in response to local corruption or land grabs; during the 2000s Xinjiang was probably one of the least ‘restive’ parts of China. But it’s fair to say that since 2009, when a peaceful protest in Urumqi ended up becoming a riot that caused at least several
hundred deaths, relations between Uyghurs and Han Chinese do seem to have worsened. Having said that, most of what we know about the state of ‘ethnic tensions’ in Xinjiang is anecdotal – it’s something we tend to infer from a limited number of sources, or the increased frequency of violent events, when in fact these might not be representative.
The causes of friction between Han and Uyghurs at present stem, in broad terms, from decades of economic marginalisation. The state has encouraged investment in northern Xinjiang, where most of the Han Chinese in the region are concentrated, while neglecting the poorer, agricultural south, where most Uyghurs live. Uyghurs also remain excluded from working in the oil and gas sectors, and from the bingtuan, the network of state farms and factories in the region.
What are the challenges of working in the region?
It’s very difficult for journalists to gain access to communities in Xinjiang, especially outside the major cities. Even if they gain permission, they are likely to be followed by the police, and anyone they are seen talking to will probably receive at the very least some harassment from local officials. Some people have also been imprisoned for talking to foreign journalists.
In your research, what best captured the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang today?
For me, the destruction of the old city of Kashgar epitomises the problems many Uyghurs face. This incredible labyrinth of mud brick houses, which had been a centre of Uyghur culture and community for centuries, was almost entirely demolished in only a few years. The local residents had no say in the matter – most were moved to shoddy apartment blocks on the edge of the city. But these demolitions have taken place in every Chinese city, irrespective of residents’ ethnicity. The problem for Uyghurs in Xinjiang is that while they are subject to the same pressures and forces that are widening the gap between rich and poor throughout China, they are further disadvantaged by their exclusion from many sections of the economy, even when they speak good Mandarin. The frequent (and usually spurious) linkages between Uyghurs and terrorism only serve to worsen their already precarious position.
China’s Forgotten People is available on Amazon.com for 125 RMB. Nick Holdstock’s latest novel, The Casualties, is also on sale now.