Notes from the Uyghur Homeland

Photo: Hsiao-Hung Pai / Flaming mountain, Turfan, Xinjiang

Forced assimilation targeting Uyghurs and other minorities in East Turkistan

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Notes from time in East Turkistan in 2011

If there is one place in China that always brings a worried frown to the face of a Chinese citizen, it is Xinjiang. "New Frontier", the name of this most westerly region, entails so much contested meaning even in its label. Going to Xinjiang has always invited much curious questioning, warnings, and more often, a stream of racially-charged commentary about the region and its people. Talking about Xinjiang is like opening a long book of secrets and lies. It is China's Pandora's box. 

Photo: by Hsiao-Hung / Slogan "Build harmonious Xinjiang", Urumqi; Slogan "Promote Mandarin across the country", Kashgar

In my last evening before setting off to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in 2011, I met with a man who worked for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. I thought he would be able to give me a few contact names for my time in Xinjiang. In an over-priced café decorated in a colonial English style, he talked cautiously with me while his girlfriend, a TV reporter in her twenties, sat sipping coffee next to him. "You should be very, very careful in Xinjiang...It's chaotic," he warned sternly, pushing up his glasses. "It can be very barbaric and dangerous over there," his young girlfriend added, "It's better you don't go." Neither of them has ever been there in their lives. 

This Han-Chinese portray of Xinjiang and its people has been repeated to me ever since.

Photos: by Hsiao-Hung / First pic: China-Eurasia Exposition, Urumqi; Second pic: Exposition in the eyes of a local photographer

However, when I arrived in Urumqi's chaotic train station, the only person who came up to me and helped me with my heavy suitcase down all the stairs and made sure I was alright before he left was a Uyghur man. It brought back fond memories of the good people I befriended in Urumqi years ago. My letters never seemed able to reach them. 

The first sight as I stepped out of the train station was the intimidating presence of fully armed police. They were carrying rifles, hurrying and rushing the crowds through the station gate. It was as if we were all escaping from a war zone. 


When I arrived, a two-month anti-terrorism crackdown had just been launched, scheduled to last until mid October. The measures involved the deployment of the "Snow Leopard" Unit under People's Armed Police, stationed in Aksu, Xinjiang, since early August. 

During this anti-terror campaign, security had been raised particularly in the midst of the China-Eurasia Exposition as well as the National Day celebrations. Flights and even hot-air balloons were banned. This meant full-scale surveillance in the middle of Urumqi: round-the-clock street patrols; increased security in public places; plain-clothes security stationed in major areas. I was told that there was one plain-clothes police officer for every ten people in Urumqi. 

The Chinese authorities stepped up using the global War on Terror to expand its anti-terror operations abroad. In late October 2011, the Chinese government expressed an interest in setting up military bases in Pakistan's northern areas, "to counter extremist activities." In the same month, the government drafted a bill defining the "precise meaning" of terrorism, putting new emphasis on acts that are "meant to disrupt social order or cause social panic," thereby widening the scope for the definition of terrorism and terrorist acts and making it easier to criminalise organisations beyond those that had long been blacklisted as terrorist (such as ETIM, the East Turkestan Liberation Organization, the World Uyghur Youth Congress and the East Turkistan Information Center).

What is certain about the new legislation is that it will provide the tools for the state to further blur the distinction between so-called terrorist groups and the pro-democracy or pro-independence organisations - therefore strengthening a process that has already been carried out for decades. 

In December 2011, the authorities in Urumqi began a house-to-house "security check", as part of a 100-day "Strike Hard" (yan da) anti-terror campaign in the region. Four Uyghur men were detained for "taking part in illegal religious activities," while many others were fined. The region's CCP party secretary Zhang Chunxian - brought into Xinjiang following the 2009 "Urumqi riots" - said that he would step up measures to preserve social stability during Urumqi's next China-Eurasia Exposition in 2012 and even more importantly, during the Party's 18th Congress.

     Photo: by Hsiao-Hung / The polluted Urumqi

Urumqi has developed beyond all recognition in the past decade: the high-rising buildings concentrated in the centre of the city were an immediate give-away. Construction projects are everywhere and developers are profiting massively. The meaning of this "development" can be seen most evidently in the fact that Urumqi has become one of China's most polluted cities. 

Pollution has become its well-known characteristic, embracing Urumqi with a grey, thick smog all year long - "And it will get worse in the winter," people kept telling me. The smog is caused by factories and coal-burning energy supply.

Xinjiang, officially known as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), takes up one sixth of the country and has a population of 20 million, yet it remains the most unknown region, hidden away under the media image of a "troubled", restless region. Rich in natural resources - its oil accounts for a third of China's oil production and is a major pipeline route into Central Asia -- and significant in its strategic position bordering Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrghizstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Xinjiang is nevertheless seen as both culturally and geographically remote. The Chinese government claimed that the region is "an inalienable part" of the country, but it was only in 1884, during the declining Qing dynasty, that the region fell under Chinese territory and became a province under General Zuo Zongtang's policy of frontier defense.

During the chaotic rule of warlords following the fall of Qing in 1912, Xinjiang went through a period of relative autonomy when rebels declared independence in 1933 and formed the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan. However, the new republic of China regained control of the region in the following year. The Uyghur people sought independence once again, in 1944, and formed the second Islamic Republic of East Turkistan, supported by the Soviet Union, who soon turned against the rebels and helped the People's Republic of China to regain the region in 1949. 

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autunomous Region was set up by the Chinese state in 1955. A year prior to that, the Chinese state implanted an institution specifically for the region: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), also known as Bingtuan (literally means military corps). Following the tradition of Bintuan (referring to military cultivation) practiced during Qing dynasty, Bingtuan in Xinjiang is responsible for cultivating the region and defending the frontier. It built military agricultural settlements and has introduced waves of migrants from China's interior to settle in its farming villages.

Since the 1990s, Bingtuan has been operating in parallel to the regional government and been granted the same status. Its double-edged functions become even more prominent: It runs the economy of the region and serves as an arm of the PLA in putting down civil unrest. Therefore, in the eyes of many Uyghur people, Bingtuan is a colonial institution that stands above local societies in Xinjiang. 

The Uyghur people in Xinjiang have found little outlet for the decades of repression of basic civil rights and endemic poverty. Meanwhile, the re-opening of cross-border trade in the 1980s, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Central Asian states in the 1990s had opened up new channels of communication and revival of religions. Since the early 1990s, many Uyghur people have begun to protest and demand social change. 

Their demands for political freedom and economic betterment culminated in the Baren Uprising of 1990 and the Ghulja Uprising (or known as the "Yining riot" in Chinese terms) of 1997. The Chinese authorities responded with further repression, the worst of which was the bloodshed in Ghulja in 1997. It forced the Uyghur people into a long silence. But they revolted once again, throughout 2008, in Urumqi, Khotan and Kashgar. 

Nevertheless, the government would not loosen its grip on controlling the ethnic minority communities. It would not allow space for civil dissent. All protests by Uyghur people have been put under the blanket of "promoting separatism" and "threatening national security."

Photo: by Hsiao-Hung / Left: residence permit; Right: police station, Urumqi

I finally settled in a twelfth-floor apartment in a housing estate behind People's High Court in northern Urumqi and ten minutes' walk from Xinjiang Normal University. Foreign nationals are required to register with the public security department within three days of arrival in a place. They are certainly required to register when they rent a property and to apply for a temporary residency permit. In Xinjiang, these rules are even tighter, for reasons of national security. The landlords who rent out properties to foreign nationals are required to apply for a registration. Foreigners' movements are strictly managed and controlled.

I don't know how many times I was asked to produce documents for the authorities during my time in Urumqi. Photocopies of my passport. Photocopies of my residency permit. Photocopies of my tenancy agreement. Even the well-guarded estate where I lived asked to have details of my identity. I came to learn that organising your daily life wasn't an easy task here.  

"Integration" and racism

Photos: by Hsiao-Hung / faces of East Turkistan

Adel (not his real name) is a graduate in international trade and was teaching Mandarin to Uyghur students at the Science & Information College in Urumqi until the riots in July 2009. He is clearly fluent in Mandarin - more fluent than many Han Chinese people - and one of the most culturally "integrated" Muslims, as he put it. Nevertheless, he has never stopped suffering from racism.

"Work opportunities are scarce for people from ethnic minority groups, particularly in the public sector," Adel said, "Jobs in the state sector are seen as iron rice bowls, but they are basically denied to the ethnic minorities, particularly since the late 1990s when quotas became minimal - one out of ten posts is filled by ethnic minorities." Yet this is happening in an autonomous region where ethnic minorities are the majority.

Adel himself was denied an interview when the employer asked his ethnic origin and he replied he was Uyghur. "Without connections, Uyghur graduates find it virtually impossible to get into jobs in the state sector. You'll have to bribe your way in, which would cost you something like 100,000 yuan [£11,000]."

On the 5th of July, 2009, which was a Sunday, the city was in turmoil. Adel was asked to go into college, to protect the Uyghur students who were asked to stay inside the college during the riots. He recalls: "There was bloodshed on the streets. Students were frightened. Only those picked up by their families were allowed to leave. I stayed with my students inside the campus for the entire week."

"Only the teachers went out to buy food when it ran out...During the first three days of the riot, no one dared to go out of campus - if caught on the street, you would be killed, by either ethnic group. More than three hundred Chinese were out on the street searching for Uyghurs to retaliate...Dead bodies were on the streets. People went into hiding."

Despite Adel's efforts in protecting his students, the College blamed him when two of his students who had nothing to do with the riots but happened to be out on the street were arrested. One of them was from Kashgar and was detained for a month. "That student had his ID taken by the police during his first arrest. They never returned it to him. Later, they arrested him again, because he had no ID on him. Such senseless arrests and detention was common." 

Adel eventually quit the teaching job as he couldn't tolerate the ill treatment coming from the College anymore.

"And discrimination against ethnic minorities has continued to worsen since the 2009 riot," he said, "Life became even more difficult for us." It is a vicious circle: Part of the cause of the riot was Uyghur people's anger at the increasing level of discrimination against them - on an institutional as well as personal level, reflected in the severe unemployment amongst Uyghur youth. Then, as a result of the riot, unfortunately, the discrimination intensified.

The Urumqi riot did not seem to have taught the Han Chinese anything about racism. Many believe that the current level of surveillance in the region is the only way forward. "The day-to-day security isn't and shouldn't be a problem," a Han-Chinese trader in his early thirties said to me, "With this level of policing in Urumqi, it would be hard to imagine any danger. They [the perceived ethnic minorities] will not stand a chance in fighting the police or the army. It would be like cracking eggs on a stone." This trader, from Hubei, said he belonged to the "young urban middle-class," who have benefited from the government's encouragement of investment into Xinjiang.

State racism and nationalism

The prevalent racism is the ideological framework and justification for the state's ongoing anti-terror, anti-separatist practice in Xinjiang. This racism serves a political-economic purpose for the Chinese ruling class.

The idea of ethnicity and nationality in the post-1949 China had actually followed the tradition established in the Chinese Nationalist past at the beginning of the twentieth century. Assimilationism is at the centre of the conceptualisation of nation and "nationality" (minzu). The founder of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or the KMT), Sun Yet Sen, theorised the assimilation policy towards ethnic minorities in his idea of "five-group co-existence" (wu zu gonghe), which encompasses Han, Man (Manchurian), Meng (Mongolian), Hui, Zang (Tibetan). His ethnic identification and recognition, which at the same time rules out the possibility of self-determination of ethnic groups, was inherited by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in its theory and practice towards the minorities. The CCP developed it into the classification of 56 ethnic groups in China and ensured the predominance of the ethnic majority by adopting the Chinese Nationalist conceptualisation of the all-encompassing "Chinese nation" (Zhonghua minzu).

Since 1949, China's state policies towards ethnic minorities have had two main sides: limited, superficial autonomy in stated principle (called "paper autonomy" in Binh G. Phan's research on China's regional autonomy) and repression in reality. In 1954, the Constitution formally illegalised secession and introduced the idea of "regional autonomy" (difang zizhi), meaning granting limited autonomy in areas where the ethnic minorities are the majority. Xinjiang, Tibet, Ningxia, Guangxi and Inner Mongolia became designated as autonomous regions. 

What "regional autonomy" really means on the ground in Xinjiang is that Han-Chinese migration has been imposed while segregated areas have been created among all ethnic minority groups: the state set up autonomous prefectures, separating ethnic groups from each other and minimising their opportunity to govern. Meanwhile, whilst Han-Chinese culture is represented as modern and monolithic, the ethnic differences of the minorities are highlighted and minority cultures are exoticised and therefore marginalised.

Under gaige kaifang (economic reforms and opening up to the world market), Chinese nationalism has evolved into a much-racialised ideology, particularly since the 1980s. This process contradicted with the idea and assumption that the free flow of capital and commerce would mean the end of a strong state and aggressive nationalism. What has actually happened in Xinjiang is a demonstration of the compatibility between the growth of trade across borders and the intensification of nationalist indoctrination and control. The state institutions, such as the media, have been instrumental in the propagation of this increasingly fierce Chinese nationalism, which forms the essence of the state's deepening assimilationist policies practiced in Xinjiang.

The racialisation that works to the benefit of a unified Chinese nation draws on cultural concepts of Chinese civilisation and "an imaginary boundary of the Chinese state" as Dr Abanti Bhattacharya put it. Within this conceptualisation, Han-ren, synonym of the Chinese people, are set opposed to the culturally "under-developed" yi, literally meaning "barbarian," and had historically assimilated yi and incorporated them into the sphere of Chinese civilisation by leading them to a higher stage of development. 

The Chinese Nationalists since the beginning of the twentieth century - and later the CCP since 1949 - had both adopted this cultural notion of the "Chinese" and the "Chinese nation". To be "Chinese" means being incorporated into Chinese culture and adopting Chinese cultural practices. Thus, the common derogatory comments often heard among Han Chinese people about the ethnic minorities are that "they are culturally backward."

Not surprisingly, racialisation and its intensified representations over the past two decades has led to the deterioration of ethnic relations in Xinjiang. The appointment of Wang Lequan as secretary of CCP's Xinjiang Committee between 1994 and 2010 certainly made things a lot worse. Wang was a prominent politician and had also served as a member of the Politburo since 2004. While developing industries and using Xinjiang's natural resources to fuel development of eastern China by linking up pipelines from Kazakhstan to the coastal region, he adopted the toughest approach towards the ethnic minorities. In the name of promoting "stability", he introduced the ban on beards and wearing headscarves, fasting and praying among workers in the state sector. As part of the national policy of standardisation of language since the early 1990s, Wang suppressed the need for Uyghur people to learn their own language and culture by strictly substituting Mandarin for ethnic minority languages in Xinjiang's primary schools. Adding insult to injury, he made a notorious statement that "minority languages contain only limited amount of information."

However, it was only when the Han Chinese population began to feel frustrated with Wang's rule (because they believed he was incompetent in restoring social order after the 2009 Urumqi riot), that he was finally removed from his position. He was replaced by the new secretary Zhang Chunxian in April 2010. 

Zhang continued with the emphasis on stability and has carried out a series of anti-terrorist campaigns since he came into office, from the anti-terror crackdown between August and October 2011, to the 100-day Strike Hard campaign in late 2011. According to the Xinjiang Daily, Zhang called on regional officials to "make a watchful security stance the norm rather than the exception." He said: "Officials at all levels must harden their stance on opposing splittism and stepping up their crackdown on extremist religious forces and their activities."

The experience of ethnicity and "race" is very different among a small minority of Westerners I happened to become briefly acquainted with in my area of Urumqi. Some of them were studying Chinese in the College of Foreign Language and Cultural Exchange at Xinjiang Normal University. This is a reflection of China's rising power in world politics and its dominance in terms of commerce and cultural influence in Central Asia. Most language students here come from Central Asian states, Kazakhstan being the country of origin of the largest group of students. They all come here to spend at least a year, to be taught Mandarin Chinese, the language of the market - and future - in the region. For these students, learning Chinese will clearly bring employment opportunities and advancement in life.

I was hoping for a part-time job to sponsor my stay in Urumqi. Introduced by a Spanish-speaking student at the Xinjiang Normal University, I met a forty-something Chinese lecturer surnamed Chen, who seemed very keen on meeting anyone from outside the country. Mr Chen offered the Spanish student a job at his department, but the student didn't seem interested. I butted in: "What does the job involve?" I asked.

"Propaganda work for our university's website," he said.

"What does propaganda work involve?" I asked again.

"Writing stuff for our courses," he answered.

At this point, I volunteered myself: "I'm a degree holder in Britain and I can write."

"No, no," he said, not really looking at me, "We are looking for Westerners. You are not a Westerner."

"But I have three masters' degrees in Britain and I live there," I carried on, trying to sell myself.

"No, no," Mr Chen dismissed the idea, "As I said, we want Westerners. I mean, white people. You are not white."

On another occasion, a Dutch student who is married to a Chinese woman working in a prestigious joint-venture and has been living in Xinjiang for years, revealed how he saw the racial hierarchy: "In this country, you'll get everything you want if you're white." You'll get constant flattery whether you deserve it or not. You'll be guaranteed decent jobs - with no previous experience or qualifications required -- with a salary six times the local average.

On one occasion when we had dinner together, the Dutch student invited his North American friend and his Chinese landlord. No surprise, ethnic relations became a topic no one would easily relax with. The twenty-something North American man said his girlfriend comes from the Muslim Hui group and she's very relaxed about her religion. The Chinese landlord, however, looking preoccupied, turned to me and asked: "What do you think of the Muslims?"

I paused at the strangely-put question. He said with a stern look, before launching into a rant about Uyghur people: "I don't like them. They're barbarian."

Through numerous interactions such as this, I came to understand that Uyghur Muslims have, for a long time, been placed at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.

 Photos: by Hsiao-Hung / Han-ized Urumqi

Photo (below): Children playing, old town of Kashgar

Photos: Top: People of Khotan; Bottom: Preparing for New Year, Khotan, southern Xinjiang

Photos: Top: Sadir Palwan, Uyghur rebel against Qing rule, in Ghulja; Bottom picture: Ghulja street

Daily lives in Khotan, Kashgar and Ghulja  

All photos by Hsiao-Hung Pai

Photos (top, bottom, left): People of Gaotai old town, Kashgar

Photos (above & left): Livestock market, Kashgar

Photos: Top & Bottom: Market and bakery, Kashgar

Photo: Children playing, New Year, Khotan

Photo: Afternoon snacks at a friend's place, Ghulja

Deprivation of basic civil rights in the name of War on Terror

All photos by Hsiao-Hung Pai

Photos: Locked-up mosques in the old town in the middle of forced demolition, Kashgar, 2011

Photo: Top: A widely-used image representing national unity, Gaotai old town, Kashgar; Bottom picture: Official National Day celebration, central Kashgar

Photo: "Be patriotic, be grateful, be hardworking; Help one another, be open and make progress," says government slogan, Kashgar   

During my time there, the permanent question I had in my head was: How do you remain sane when the public speech is dominated by the state loudspeaker?

I often liked having conversations with cab drivers as they were usually full of colourful local information and clues to what goes on day-to-day. Here in Urumqi, like in most cities in China, cab drivers don't make a good living as the vehicle hire fee is too high - 160 yuan per day. As the number of cabs in Urumqi doesn't seem able to meet the demand, there are numerous unlicensed cabs (hei che) around - basically they are people who stop their cars anytime, anywhere, to get customers. Some are doing it on their way back home from a day's work, in order to boost their income a little.

One day, I got into one of these unlicensed cabs when trying to get away from a street packed with armed police who were guarding a job fare. "My friends are among those," the driver said, pointing to the police carrying pistols, "Special force police are deployed every time there is a major event in town." His line of work means constant contact - mostly hide and chase - with the public security authorities. "The cops searching us are all armed," he said, shaking his head. "Sometimes they find their own colleagues among us...I have two friends in the special police force and they take up the work as unlicensed cab drivers, while going on the streets penalising other unlicensed cab drivers for 10,000 to 30,000 yuan each time. It's their way of making extra cash." He laughed, shaking his head again.

Another day, when chatting with a Uyghur cab driver on my way to town centre, he pointed to a small camera at the right top corner of the cab, which I'd never noticed. He said: "Don't talk too much - it's all being recorded." He said that public security department takes care of these recordings and this is one of the ways they monitor suspicious activities. I asked him what "suspicious" meant. He replied, without a doubt, "separatist and terrorist."

The conscious linkage of "separatist" and "terrorist"- and the disappearance of a distinction between the two -- is a steadily growing phenomenon. The two terms began to surface jointly in the official Chinese discourse of Xinjiang in the 1990s. 

After September 11, 2001, the Chinese government began to internationalise its anti-separatist campaigns by publicising them outside China and linking them with the War on Terror of the Bush administration.

In late 2008 and early 2009, Chinese authorities have intensified its implementation of harsh security controls throughout the region, before the Olympics Games. A White Paper on national defence was announced in January 2009, declaring a war on "the three threats (separatism, terrorism, religious extremism) to China's unity and security." 

As Dr Abanti Bhattacharya, Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian studies, University of Delhi, points out, in the post-9-11 era, the war against international terrorism has influenced the region, and effectively allowed the Chinese state to blur the distinction between separatism and terrorism.  Campaigns were fervently launched, particularly over the past two decades, and anti-separatism became part and parcel of anti-terrorist campaigns. Under the anti-terror banner, the Chinese authorities were able to restrict religious freedom of Muslims (particularly the Uyghur Muslims) in Xinjiang by banning certain religious practices during Ramadan, closing down mosques and exercising strict control over Islamic clergy. The anti-terror banner helped the state to justify the suppression of Uyghur people's right to assemble, associate and organise. It has legitimised criminalisation of Uyghur civil and religious groups.

Many Xinjiang specialists have grave doubts over the reality behind the anti-terror rhetoric. Andrew J. Nathan, professor and China expert at Columbia University, thinks that China's security concern for terrorism is being exaggerated. Dru C. Gladney, author of Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities and Other Subaltern Subjects and Ethnic Identity in China: The Making of a Muslim Minority Nationality, observes that many of the "terrorist" incidents that the Chinese government has attributed to "terrorist" organisations are actually "spontaneous and rather disorganised forms of civil unrest."

According to Amnesty International, "Separatism in fact covers a broad range of activities, most of which amount to no more than peaceful opposition or dissent." However, as Amnesty International recognises, in China, "preaching or teaching Islam outside government controls is also considered subversive." Amnesty International said in its report in 2008 that, Chinese government is using the War on Terror to justify repression of the Uyghur ethnic minority.

The reality is that the majority of pro-independence groups in Xinjiang aim at fighting for basic human and civil rights for the Muslim peoples of the region. They are civil rights or nationalist movements rather than religious movements. Some of them may call for an independent East Turkestan state. However, almost all of them denounce terrorism and have no connections with Al-Qaeda.

In the name of anti-terror, the regional authorities have tightened its control over religious activity. The campaigns included "weakening religious consciousness," implementing rules to expel religious leaders for missing political study classes, monitoring students' activities during school vacations, and holding open trials to punish "illegal religious activity" and demonstrate its consequences to the public. 

The walls have ears...

In Urumqi, I became acquainted with a man in his mid-twenties from the Kyrgyz ethnic minority group. He chose not to use his Chinese name (except in public) - he said it sounds too much like a car brand. To not to reveal his identity, I will call him by the Kyrgyz name of Kylych. He comes from the city of Atushi near the area bordering Kygyrstan, and has come to Urumqi to study business management in Xinjiang University.

On one occasion, I invited him to dinner in my flat, and prepared the popular Uyghur dishes, paulaw (rice with carrots and lamb dices, originated from Uzbekistan) and dapanji (stewed chicken with potatoes) for him. 

I asked him whether he has been visiting the mosque during his time in Urumqi. "Not much," he said, looking as if he felt embarrassed.

After a pause, he explained: "I don't go to pray often because there are rules that forbid us to practice religion. People are not permitted to visit the mosque if they happen to work in state institutions and state-run companies and if they are students, of all levels, from high school to university. It is the state policy to curb religious practice among ethnic minorities and to stop the influence and growth of religions." (Private companies would determine individually, on their own terms, whether Muslim employees can go to the mosque.) [This was in 2011.]

"Under these rules, if caught by the police, we'll face a penalty. I've heard of people getting arrested as well," he said. His sister, currently a student at Xinjiang University, has also stopped practising religion and doing prayers during her time as a student here.

Kylych is clearly angry when talking about this. He said: "Despite these rules, people tend to carry on practicing their religion, quietly and secretly, outside of college and work...They defy the rules in their private life. In southern Xinjiang, particularly, people always defy the rules and practice Islam."

But obviously, the rules have created much fear among the Muslim population. "And that's why you'll see that most of the Muslims you'll find regularly in the mosques are jobless people. They're the only ones with nothing to lose..."

Kylych smiled bitterly and nicknamed the repression of religious practice as "Islam with Chinese characteristics."

"This personal level of repression of religious freedom must lead to revolt and uprising in the end," I said to him.

"It did already," he responded, "the last time, in 2009."

More than once, Kylych said to me: "In law, it says everyone is equal [according to China's Constitution], but the reality is different. You have to look beneath the surface." He said that his parents' generation tends to identify more with the Chinese rule. But as repression has deepened as a result of development in the past three decades, youth like him don't think the same anymore.

"Since the 1980s, the Han Chinese began to dominate the top ranks of officialdom here... Among the five autonomous states (Yili, Bole, Changji, Artux and Korla) in Xinjiang, the Han Chinese have dominated all positions of top officials..."

"Their dominance penetrates, down to the level of townships and villages... In a township in Kashgar, there are 9,000 people among whom there are only two Han Chinese - one of them is general secretary, the other one is the head of the township. That's the way it is."

He said that the inflow of Chinese population since the 1980s has exacerbated the existing severe situation of inequality. "The unequal opportunities between the Han Chinese and ethnic minorities is the cause of unrest and uprising in recent years, culminating, again, in the riot of 2009. The cause of the riot lies in the inequality and injustice in Xinjiang."

During the 2009 riot, two of his friends from Kashgar and Khotan were shot dead without trial on the street of Urumqi on the 7th of July. They were Xinjiang University students and were protesting because they were angry with the state-imposed inflow of Han Chinese migration in poverty-stricken southern Xinjiang. Kylych tried to get in contact with them, but their mobile phones were switched off for a while. He only realised ten days later that they were killed. Not only was he very upset about their death, but he became very frightened for his own safety.

"I had a rail ticket to return home on the 7th of July, but I couldn't get on the train as all transportation was halted. I couldn't get in touch with my family in Atushi and couldn't send any emails as internet access was stopped."

A month later, when he finally got home, his family told him that during those days of the Urumqi riot, fear permeated the air in Atushi. Villagers were distributed a bag of flour per household and all shops were closed for business. No one was allowed to go out.

Kylych would never forget the feeling of being treated as the "enemy within". I think it must have taken a great deal of political repression to make someone of his age so politically aware. He said with sarcasm: "The real meaning of autonomy [he refers to the official title of the region, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region], if you'd like to know, is that in this multi-ethnic region, only one group [Han Chinese] dominates and makes decisions." 

Then he paused, refrained himself from saying more, and looked around. "Back in Atushi, my relatives and friends always said 'the walls have ears.' They would avoid talking about their political views, even at home."

Breaking apart communities with the aim to achieve stability

The "New Frontier", a name acquired since the Qing dynasty's conquest of the region, is at the top of China's national security agenda. Military settlements have been deliberately enlarged over the years, and the armed forces are heavily deployed throughout the region. A series of anti-terrorist campaigns have been launched here as part of the US-led war on terror, while investment has been poured into a number of targeted cities in order to secure stability and maintain a "harmonious society".

Ten months after the 2009 Urumqi riot, Kashgar was designated by the central government as a new Special Economic Zone. Since then, this Uyghur-majority city near the border to Tajikistan has seen trade and investment come in from the much more developed eastern coast of China. 

The strategic importance of Kashgar, and Xinjiang as a whole, increased with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2015. Xinjiang is China's bridge to Central Asian, Middle Eastern and European markets, making it the heart of the BRI. Xinjiang is the largest logistical centre among the BRI countries. Of the six planned BRI economic corridors, three will pass through Xinjiang, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Kashgar in Xinjiang to Port Gwadar in Pakistan. A distribution hub is also being developed in Khorgos on the Xinjiang-Kazakhstan border.

As Wei Shan, NUS East Asia Institute, points out, in 2017 around US$66 billion was invested in infrastructure in Xinjiang - a 50% increase year-on-year. "The government has promoted trade and financial cooperation between Xinjiang and BRI countries. Trade with BRI countries accounts for over 80% of Xinjiang's total trade. In terms of financial development, the region is expected to become a cross-border renminbi settlement centre."

Photos: by Hsiao-Hung / Old town, Kashgar

Despite investment, severe unemployment remained for Uyghur people. Chinese development projects in Xinjiang depend heavily on large corporations that always prefer to hire Han Chinese workers.

Massive income inequality across ethnic groups remained. "The 2012 China Labor-force Dynamics Survey indicates that the average annual income of a Han Chinese person in Xinjiang is 28,900 RMB (approximately US$4120), whereas the average income for Uyghurs is 12,800 RMB (approximately US$1830). This is also much lower than other ethnic minorities in China," according to Wei Shan. 

The real agenda for developing Kashgar has been clear to everyone: to keep it firmly under the thumb of the authorities. The first sign of this intention was the demolition of Kashgar's old town, home to the most ancient Islamic communities in Xinjiang.

September 9, 2012 

They've just sent Premier Wen Jiabao down to see us, the poor relatives, in the far west of China! "Grandpa Wen" smiled a lot in front of the cameras. He said promoting "leapfrog development" is the key to stability in this region and reiterated the state principle of "reform, development and security" for us. "We must step up efforts to build a more prosperous, harmonious and stable Xinjiang," "Grandpa Wen" said during his inspection tour of Xinjiang from the 3rd to the 5th of September. He urged the region to speed up construction of major bases for gas, oil, coal and wind energy, and he didn't forget to say that these infrastructure projects "should also focus on local people's livelihoods by increasing employment and income."

September 12, 2012 

China National Petroleum Corp. completed construction of its Yining-Horgos natural gas pipeline, designed to move coal-based synthetic natural gas (syngas) from Yining, Xinjiang, to Zhejiang in the southeast coastal region. The company has consistently recruited workers from outside of Xinjiang, regardless of problems of unemployment among the local Uighur and other communities. 

September 13, 2012 

Urumqi hosting its second China-Eurasia Exposition 

Heavy security deployment during the entire season, just like last year's Expo. 

Chinese authorities ban fasting in Xinjiang

Ethnic tensions are rooted in inequality

October 9, 2012

What does the state-encouraged, state-planned Han-Chinese migration mean to those who have migrated to Xinjiang for work? 

Photos: by Hsiao-Hung / Top two: Chinese migrant workers in Urumqi; Bottom pic: Chinese migrants sleeping rough, Urumqi

I met two coal traders on the train and they introduced me to a coalmine labour contractor Ma Zhiyou based in Urumqi. Mr Ma was pleading help from everywhere to resolve what he described as a crisis situation. I met with him several times in Urumqi. 

He told me that he came from Shaanxi and had been in the recruitment business for years. He saw himself as a law-abiding contractor. He'd recruited eighty villagers from his home province Shaanxi and the neighbouring Shanxi province, to work in a state-owned coalmining enterprise, Shenhua Xinjiang Energy Company (Shenhua Xinjiang Nengyuan Gongsi), who haven't paid the migrant workers their two-year wages.

"In August 2008, we came to work for the Liudaowan section of Shenhua Xinjiang Energy Company (Shenhua Xinjiang Nengyuan Gongsi), in line with the government policy of 'Developing the West'. We became Liudaowan's second exploration team. In order to fend off criticism from the local population about us only using Han-Chinese labour, I also recruited thirty local Uyghur workers into our team. The company said to us that they will sign a contract with us once we started working. So we did. But the written contract was never given to us. We thought perhaps this was all based on mutual trust and didn't make a fuss about it. It was assumed by all our workers that we will be paying them wages. We had also made the promise that we'd pay workers annual leave...But in April 2009, the company announced bankruptcy, and demanded that we withdrew our team. The company director and coalmine managers promised to compensate our losses and pay back all the money they owed us, but they never did. Therefore we couldn't pay our workers."

"In October 2009, the company resumed production and we were back to work again, being promised that we'll get paid all the owed wages...Two months later, the company announced bankruptcy for the second time. We again suffered huge losses. We again owed wages to workers. We could only afford to pay them some living expenses out of our own pockets. Meanwhile, our team also worked for the same company's Manasilaobeiwan Coalmine that June. In November, our team was told to stop work due to weather conditions. The company said work will resume in 2010 when it became warmer. We waited till January 2011, but work did not resume. Then we heard that our work was to be transferred to another team. We suffered losses for the third time. We heard that we're not the only contractor who had had this happened to us - some other contractors also cannot pay their workers. We tried to contact all departments but all they did was passing on responsibilities. We've written to the managing director but there was no reply. This company group is a well-known state enterprise. Why does it operate in such a way in Xinjiang? Is it because 'emperors are far away'? Like the folks would say, the leaders of the company reside in Western-style mansions and each of their meals costs a cow. Their salary is up to a few million per year..."

For three years, Mr Ma had tried in vain to claim back the payment of 20 million yuan in total. The eighty migrant workers have not returned home for three years since then. I met with one of the migrant workers, Mr Sun Wangming. He was in his early forties but looked older and exhausted. He had come from a village in Yulin of Shaanxi province, and was recruited into Ma's team along with fifty other peasants from Yulin in 2008. 

"From August 2008 to now, my fellow villagers and I have not received one yuan from the company. I couldn't go home because they needed me to stay here to earn and support them. I've had no income, and so I borrowed money from moneylenders from Shaanxi, in order to support my family. I have a son and daughter at home. But as I borrowed more, I became more indebted. Now, three years on, I'm owing the moneylenders around 200,000 yuan. These bosses have no conscience at all -- it's been eaten by wolves. Do they know what it's like not to be able to return home for three years?"

The migrants did not want to give up. Eighty of the workers went to visit the Managing Director of Shenhua Xinjiang Energy Company in September 2011, trying to claim back their wages. When they reached the company gate, they were immediately surrounded by a team of security guards, who called on more guards to come out. "When the total of the security guards reached around fifty, they circled us workers in the middle and started to beat us with their fists and batons. We couldn't believe it - they actually were using physical force against us. They were not worried at all about our request for our two years of wages. Most of us were beaten and injured," said Mr Sun.

"Following this assault, we went to report it at the local police station, but apart from taking a written statement, they did nothing. Then we went to the labour department in Urumqi, to inform them about what happened - they were already informed about our case of non-payment of wages before but did nothing. When they heard of the assault by the company's security guards, they simply said to us: "You need to go somewhere else. We don't deal with central government enterprises (yang-qi)."

Mr Sun and other migrants have become Urumqi's street cleaners, rubbish collectors and beggars. He earns 20-30 yuan a day collecting rubbish and sometimes takes up casual labour work on building sites. Today [autumn 2011], they are still waiting for their owed wages and are staying six to a room in a dingy cheap hotel near Urumqi train station.

Photos: by Hsiao-Hung / Chinese migrant workers at Urumqi train station

Liu Bokun, former chairman of the board of directors of Xinjiang Shenhua Mining Co. Ltd. [the company in question in my previous post], was accused of corruption, bribery, and embezzlement of more than 30 million yuan (US$4.8 million) during his tenure of office, reported.

Liu has been brought up on public charges in the Beijing Second Intermediate People's Court. A Hebei native, the 57-year-old Liu carried other titles such as the legal agent of the Xinjiang Shenhua Mining Co. Ltd; legal agent and general manager of Shenhua (Beijing) Remote Sensing Exploration Co. Ltd.; and legal agent of Hunan Provincial Zhongxunda Anti-counterfeiting Technology Co. Ltd. During his tenure of office from February 2005 to November 2008, Liu embezzled 27.62 million yuan in public funds to purchase villas and jade, and make investments for personal gain, prosecutors alleged. 

"As an official of state agencies, Liu took advantage of his position and power to illegally posses huge amount of public property, seek improper benefits for others, illegally accept huge amounts of other people's properties, and embezzle huge amounts of public funds for personal use. He must [accept] criminal responsibility for corruption, bribe-taking and embezzlement of public funds," prosecutors said in a statement. 

September 6, 2013 

Murders conducted by the Chinese state in the past few months

In June, in Khotan prefecture's Hanerik township, police fired on hundreds of Uyghurs protesting the arrest of a young religious leader and closure of a mosque. The authorities acknowledged that up to 15 people may have been killed.

In early August, police opened fire on a crowd of Uyghurs protesting prayer restrictions in Akyol town in Aksu prefecture ahead of the festival marking the end of Ramadan, killing at least three and injuring about 50 others.

As reported on 25 August, Chinese authorities have shot dead at least 15 Uyghur residents, accusing them of terrorism and illegal religious activity, in the Yilkiqi township in Kashgar prefecture. They were among a group of more than 20 Uyghurs surrounded and fired upon by police in a lightning raid.

Yilkiqi township police chief Batur Osman said that they were conducting an anti-terror operation and "have successfully and completely destroying the terrorists." He refused to give to the press the number of Uyghurs killed in the shootout, saying many of them were from out of town and some were not carrying identification documents.

August 4, 2014 

How Chinese government dismantled Uyghur internet

Ilham Tohti given life sentence for challenging China's historical narrative