Tales of two cities

by Jeff Kingston

The seeds of political tension in Xinjiang are not hard to find.

The incoming Han and the local Uighurs — divided by class and ethnicity — do not seem to have found much common ground. While living in close proximity, they are worlds apart, putting the Uighurs on the wrong side of the tracks in their own home.

China’s problems in Xinjiang reflect the absence of a strategy for wooing Uighurs. They have no stake in their governance, and under such circumstances, improvement in their status or their relations with the authorities seems unlikely.

But while they may be poor and marginalized in contemporary China, the Uighurs’ identity is partly derived from the rich and colorful history of Silk Road trade and the sagas of empire and partly their own fierce streak of independence.

Wandering around the smoky Korla market on a chilly morning, we passed charcoal grills laden with plump chickens — no avian flu worries here — butcher shops and blacksmiths, and stalls piled with knives, tools, colorful scarves, dried lizards, spices and furry hats.

My friend ducked into a barbershop with invitingly steamy windows emblazoned in Arabic, a world away from the sleek computer mall we had visited earlier, only a 5-minute taxi ride across the river. The smells, sounds and feel conjured up Dickens, as vendors hawked their wares, barking at passersby and haggling with wary customers.

The vibrant scene pulsing with frenetic activity contrasted entirely with the hush inside the cozy three-seater barbershop. An antique brazier belched smoke and heated the shaving water for 50 yen shaves. As my friend sat down in a pump-handled, wrought-iron chair with cracked leather upholstery, the barber arranged a warm towel on his face and whisked shaving soap in a battered tin can.

Meanwhile, I gazed at posters featuring the holy places of Islam, scenes from Central Asia and Pakistan, even a portrait of Yassar Arafat. Aside from the obligatory Chinese Telecom license, there was no sign that we were in China.

While the Dr. Zhivago look-alike barber drew his straight razor along my friend’s throat, he explained that he had been educated as a mechanical engineer at a Chinese university and was fluent in Chinese. But, he said, he had been unable to find work in his specialty.

Eager for a handout

Given the booming natural gas sector around Korla, and the high demand for skilled workers, this seemed implausible, but on a visit to a local drill-rig repair shop, everyone looked Han.

Later, when I asked about Uighur employment in the oil business, the Louisiana oilman explained that the Uighurs did not have a good reputation among the Han, who regarded them as lazy, unreliable and more eager for a handout than a day’s work. In five years working all over Xinjiang, he said he had only seen a handful of Uighur workers — all capable and hardworking — in skilled positions; mostly they are engaged as manual labor clearing work sites.

About 60 percent of Korla’s population is Han, and most of the unemployed and underemployed are Uighurs. The influx began in the 1970s, due to a major famine in inner China, and has gained pace since then with the development of the oil and gas sector.

Today, Korla exudes the air of a town that is going somewhere — a place where big deals are negotiated in high-rise office buildings. On the swish Han side of town, designer boutiques, mirror-glass malls and upmarket hotels and restaurants cater to a well-coiffed crowd in shop-to-drop mode.

Only Uighur buskers remind one that this is Xinjiang, their hypnotic drumming and haunting flute-like horn riffs cutting through the din of modern commerce. Playing at the entrance to an underground mall, close to a traditional crafts shop that’s also selling Barbie Dolls, their dark-hued clothes, beards and fingerless gloves set them off from the fashionable crowds studiously ignoring them.

Passersby also ignored the large street-side posters of self-sacrificing, quota-exceeding working-class heroes — anachronistic Stakhanovs for the 21st century — that nobody even pretends to emulate anymore.

Western news media and international human rights organizations regularly report about assimilation and migration policies that are marginalizing Uighurs in their homeland, and ethnic Han now constitute more than half the population. Chinese is the language of upward mobility, but even this is a limited option for locals, as Han-managed companies entice Han workers to relocate to Xinjiang with higher wages and better benefits.

Whether it is at the oil complexes or in the shopping malls, locals remain on the outside looking in.

The relative deprivation is one of the factors driving separatist political movements. There have been several uprisings and violent outbursts in Xinjiang over the past 50 years — all have been resolutely quashed. The government is vigilant about this resource-rich, strategically located region contiguous to Russia and Central Asian countries where cross-border ethnic and religious ties are strong.

Systematic repression

Now, in the post-9/11 world, Beijing has cracked down on what it terms “Islamic extremism,” without provoking a murmur of Western government criticism. National security and the “war on terror” are trumping concerns about religious freedom and human rights.

One advocacy group, Human Rights in China, recently issued a report titled “Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang” that asserts that systematic repression of religion in Xinjiang is a matter of state policy. As in rural areas all over China where violent clashes and unrest have exploded over the past two years, conditions in Xinjang contradict official support for greater democracy.

However, the government increasingly acknowledges that the clenched-fist approach to dissent is not working, and in January, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made apologies for “historical errors” when unveiling policy initiatives aimed at containing growing resentments among China’s dispossessed.

Howard French, Shanghai bureau chief of The New York Times, explains that “historical errors” is polite Communist Party jargon for “blowing it big time.” Whether it involves the environment, land rights, medical care, corruption or media freedom, the government is acknowledging errors and reconsidering policies.

Acknowledging errors is one thing, but translating government reform initiatives in these areas into local realities remains a huge challenge — though there is at least hope in the process. The problem for Uighurs may be that, in the ranks of the dispossessed, they pose less risk to the government and are thus not deemed worth the trouble of coopting.

It remains uncertain whether the central government considers its actions in Xinjiang as one of these “historical errors,” nor if local party officials will take a softer line. In 2003, Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan stated, “Xinjiang will always keep up the intensity of its crackdown on ethnic separatist forces and deal them devastating blows without showing any mercy.”

If such problems did not exist, such statements would not be made.

In 2005, Human Rights Watch reported that the crackdown was continuing, citing internal Chinese government documents that acknowledge, ” . . . vast increases in the number of Uighurs imprisoned or held administratively for alleged religious and state security offenses, including through the discredited re-education through labor system.”

Given energy and security concerns in the region, there is little reason to expect a shift in state policies toward Uighurs — a group suspected of questionable loyalties and terrorist inclinations.

Since December 2005, Xinjiang has been the site of an important 1,000-km oil pipeline from Kazakhstan, and another is planned — so upping the ante on security to quite new heights. Overall, oil seems to be a mixed blessing for the Uighurs, boosting infrastructure and development subsidies, but also attracting more Han, and more security forces, while generating few jobs for locals.

It is not hard to see who are the “haves” and “have-nots” in the oil boomtowns of Xinjiang — nor what a dead-end policy looks like.