Xinjiang's culture is rooted in its history as a key
junction on the Silk Road
Uighurs defy Urumqi mosque closure:
Several mosques in the riot-hit Chinese city of Urumqi have opened
for Friday prayers, countering earlier notices that all places of
worship would be closed following clashes that left more than 150
Uighur ‘MOTHER’ looms large
Troops patrol riot-hit Urumqi
While reports of unrest in Tibet frequently grab headlines around
the world, little attention is given to what several human rights
groups have dubbed China's "other Tibet".
China's frontier to Central Asia, the vast western region of
Xinjiang has in recent years seen escalating ethnic tensions and the
imposition of a heavy military presence to suppress what Beijing
says is a growing terrorist threat.
Covering an area more than three times the size of France, Xinjiang
has long been an important crossroads of trade and culture.
For centuries its oasis towns were essential stopping points along
the legendary Silk Road – a history that has left Xinjiang with a
unique cultural legacy.
The region's indigenous population are the Uighurs - Muslims who are
ethnically, linguistically and culturally Turkic, and worlds apart
from their Han rulers, the ethnicity which dominates the rest of
After a chequered history with the Chinese Empire, Xinjiang's
present incarnation as an officially "autonomous region" within the
People's Republic of China began in 1949.
From Beijing's point of view, Xinjiang has always been a part of
But while the region has a history of domination at the hands of the
Chinese, Beijing's claim overlooks long gaps where the region merged
with Central Asian and Turkic states.
To this day, most Uighurs feel more culturally aligned with the
Turkic peoples to the west, rather than Beijing to the east.
Conversely, and almost without exception, Han Chinese feel China's
control of the region is perfectly legitimate.
"I've talked to a lot of people in China about it and they just
don't question it," says Michael Dillon, author of Xinjiang:
China's Muslim Far Northwest.
"It's always presented as Zhongguo Xinjiang [Chinese Xinjiang] like
Tibet is Zhongguo Xizang [Chinese Tibet] and so the assumption is
that it's always been part of China.”
The region is of value to China due to "a very complicated mixture
of political, economic and psychological reasons," says Dillon.
Among these, he says, are Xinjiang's bountiful natural resources and
raw materials, and its strategic position buffering China from
But he adds, there is also the idea that "if Beijing doesn’t retain
Xinjiang, it's a question of losing face, because Xinjiang is part
of the motherland."
On top of that, Xinjiang also boasts something clearly lacking in
the rest of China - space.
Accounting for one sixth of China's total area, Xinjiang not only
produces 30 per cent of China’s cotton, but between the 1960s and
mid-1990s it was also used as the test site for China's nuclear
Perhaps most unpopular with the Uighurs though is the use of their
land to resettle huge numbers of Han from the overpopulated east of
The numbers of ethnic Han settlers in Xinjiang has risen from well
under half a million in 1953 to 7.5 million by 2000, and is rising
According to the latest available figures, Han settlers make up
around 42 per cent of Xinjiang's total population of 18 million,
dictating a life that is culturally alien to the native Uighurs.
"There are more and more Han arriving here all the time," explains
Tursuntay, a 45-year old Uighur man from the Xiniang border city of
"When I was young there were very few – this place belonged to us.”
Hislat, a 22-year old Uighur woman from Urumqi, the Han-dominated
capital of Xinjiang, is also feeling the squeeze.
"Before, looking for work was easy, but now they all want Han
people, they don't want us," she says.
"It's really difficult, but there's nothing we can do about it."
Arienne Dwyer, Assistant Professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the
University of Kansas believes the situation in Xinjiang has got
worse over the last decade.
"In the eighties and early nineties we saw quite a lot of Uighurs,
particularly intellectuals and those in the northern area, who felt
that the Chinese project in Xinjiang, though very far from perfect,
was OK," she says.
"One thing that people of any ethnic group in Xinjiang would agree
on with the central government is that economic development is a
good thing. This is one change that has continued and has been a
positive force all around."
However, what has followed says Dwyer are increasingly Han-focused
policies where cultural activities are more tightly constrained and
there is a stronger effort to bring ethnic minorities, particularly
on the periphery such as Xinjiang, "into the Chinese fold".
This cultural tightening accelerated rapidly after the late 1990s
and was characterised by increased police action, suppression of
unrest and changes in language policy, increasing the use of
Mandarin in schools at the expense of the Uighur language.
"From the point of view of the government, this is because Uighur
pupils and university students don't have the adequate Chinese
language skills to be competitive in the market economy," says
"But from the point of view of the Uighurs, this is a bold-faced
attempt to be assimilated and it has not been viewed favourably."
This is causing many Uighurs to feel disillusioned, angry and afraid
of losing their distinctive culture says Dwyer, and as a result
many, especially Uighur youths, are becoming more religious than
their parents and there is a growing trend to study Arabic.
Dwyer does not believe claims from some Chinese officials that there
is any connection with a radical Islamist movement.
Instead she sees such moves as "a statement of Uighur identity, to
say 'we are fundamentally different from the Han Chinese'".
For Urumqi resident Hislat, religion is the root of her
dissimilarities with the Han.
"We are very different from Han people," she says.
"They don't believe in anything, they have no religion. We only eat
Halal foods, but they don't worry about that, they can eat anything.
Also they don't pray, they don't know how. They don't believe.”
Although assertive about their identities as Uighurs and as Muslims,
Hislat says she and her peers are in no fear of being radicalised.
Their culture and traditions are important to them, but they are
living in a Han-dominated city and their lifestyles are accordingly
They love American pop-stars, playing on the internet, going to
discos and are prepared to be pragmatic with prayers in order to fit
in with their work or study schedules.
But in the border cities Kashgar, Aksu and Ily, the atmosphere is
different, with a much stronger military presence and more attempts
by the government to control political activity and the Imams in the
Beijing says the security presence is needed to meet the challenge
of separatist movements and conflicts which have plagued Xinjiang
since its annexation.
These activities peaked in the 1990s, the time that the Soviet Union
was breaking up.
At the time "the old Muslim states of Central Asia, like Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were all becoming independent states,"
says author Michael Dillon, "and there was a strong feeling among
certain parts of the Uighur population that they ought to have their
own Uighuristan or Eastern Turkistan.’
More recently that sentiment in Xinjiang has subsided - or been
Whether that is as a result of government measures, or a lack of
reporting in the Chinese media is difficult to tell.
According to Dillon, it is a result of China's clever use of
economic and diplomatic measures to dissuade its Central Asian
neighbours from helping Xinjiang gain independence.
"I think this is one of the reasons that things have quietened
down," he says. "The Uighurs have got no real external support."