Uighurs chafe under Chinese
by Salim Mansur
Urumqi, the capital of China's northwest province of Xinjiang, for most people in the West could well be on the dark side of the moon.
Yet news has seeped out of that remote region of ethnic unrest and violence as a reminder that beneath the surface of the world's fastest growing economy there is much trouble.
Xinjiang is the largest of China's provinces and the traditional home of Uighurs, a people of Turkic ancestry and Muslim faith. The region was brought under Chinese rule in the mid-18th century, named as a Chinese province in the late 19th century and, after communists took power in October 1949, reorganized as the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region.
Uighurs have chafed under Chinese rule of the majority Han people.
Their ethnic affinities lie with the Turkic people of the Central Asian states bordering China. These states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan – once ruled from Moscow, are now sovereign and they represent together the same longing for independence among Uighurs.
China's official figures for 2007 show Uighurs number over 10 million and comprise nearly half the population of Xinjiang. In terms of percentage, the 2007 figures indicate a sharp drop from a high in 1949 of 95% of Xinjiang's population as Uighurs.
The huge increase of non-Uighurs in Xinjiang – rich in oil and gas reserves as in neighbouring Tibet – is a result of Beijing's deliberate policy to secure control over these distant autonomous regions through transfer and resettlement of Han Chinese people.
Both Uighurs and Tibetans have been made to bear the oppressive burden of Han Chinese colonization directed by Beijing. Their cultures and religious traditions have been severely constrained and under communist rule any display of cultural autonomy without Beijing's approval has been brusquely dealt with.
Kashgar in Western Xinjiang is the ancient seat of Uighurs of Eastern Turkestan. Several years ago travelling with a couple of friends over many weeks on the ancient Silk Road through Xinjiang into the Central Asian republics, I spent some time in Kashgar.
In Kashgar's main market and around the central mosque – the original built in the 10th century and standing – I witnessed the ethnic tension goaded by the unmistakable signs of Han overlordship.
Kashgar is now threatened by Beijing's plan to tear down and rebuild the ancient city. This is Beijing's way of demonstrating authority and control over the lives of Uighurs, even as their language is restricted and religious tradition mocked under communist dispensation.
To escape communist tyranny the Uighur diaspora has grown in size and now numbers over a fifth of the 10 million in Xinjiang. But neighbouring states are under immense pressure from China not to lend support to Uighur aspirations.
The recent violence in Urumqi suggests, irrespective of the immediate cause, that historic grievances of Uighurs against Beijing's tyranny will keep ethnic tensions going without any satisfactory resolution.
Communist rulers of China displayed their ruthlessness 20 years ago in crushing the aspirations of young Chinese students for democracy gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
They will do the same repeatedly in Xinjiang, in Tibet, and anywhere else in China where the desire for decency and hopes for freedom threaten their rule. They also know the rest of the world will appease them.