KASHGAR - China wants nothing more than to portray Xinjiang as ripe to become
Central Asia's primary trading hub and not a hotbed of ethnic unrest. It
shouldn't be surprised however if an increasing focus on economic prosperity
opens up a gateway to Uyghur militancy.
Less than two months after ethnic-related violence in Hotan and Kashgar cost
the lives of 25 people, Chinese security patrols were beefed up throughout
Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, for the first
annual China-Eurasia Expo from September 1 to September 5. About 20,000
community workers were employed to monitor Urumqi's 550 neighborhoods, each of
which is allocated more than $35,000 annually by the government to support
local security efforts.
The influx of foreign traders from more than 30 countries, especially
neighboring Central Asian countries and Pakistan made China determined to put
on a good show, with an inauguration ceremony featuring Vice Premier Li
Keqiang, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, Kyrgyzstan's interim leader
Roza Otunbayeva, Azerbaijan's Vice Premier Abid Sharifov, and Kazakhstan's
Deputy Prime Minister Aset Isekeshev.
An upgrade from the 19-year-old China Urumqi Foreign Economic Relations and
Trade Fair, this year's expo recorded contracts worth $130 billion, a sign of
Xinjiang's emergence as one of Central's Asia most prosperous regions. As a
province, Xinjiang's gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is third only to
Kazakhstan and Russia among the eight countries with which it shares a border:
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Pakistan, India, Russia, and
As the Old City comes down, new buildings (foreground) are taking their place.
All pictures by Jacob Zenn.
But beyond statistics, China's long-term challenge in Xinjiang is to placate
the region's indigenous Uyghurs who constitute roughly 8 million out of a
population of 20 million people in the province. July 2011 was Xinjiang's
deadliest month since July 2009, when clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese
and Chinese police forces in Urumqi left more than 200 dead.
The ethnic dimension
Uyghur concerns about China's unbalanced development are roughly the same as
those of China's Han majority, but in Xinjiang these concerns take on an added
ethnic dimension. The problem boils down to representation. In "neidi",
or Inner China - the term Xinjiang's Uyghurs use to refer to the Han-majority
interior of the country - the Han Chinese have begun protesting government land
seizures on a scale unseen before in China's history.
A protest in April 2011 in Sujiang, Yunnan, for example, was attended by up to
2,000 people who claimed the government's compensation of approximately $1,200
per acre (0.405 hectare) was inadequate. More than one-third of the city's
160,000 residents were forced to move to make way for the new Xiangjiaba
New buildings rise in Kashgar.
The difference between Han and Uyghur protests, however, are that the Han
have the Communist Party - a government dominated by their own - to blame,
whereas the Uyghurs do not feel the autonomy provided to them protects their
Although Xinjiang is officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the
Uyghurs see the Communist Party as representing Han interests by promoting Han
in-migration from neidi to Xinjiang and exploiting Xinjiang's vast
natural resources for the benefit of neidi. There is a common belief
among Kashgar's Uyghurs that the government is sending in 20,000 Han Chinese
per month in order to facilitate population displacement and exploitation.
The Uyghurs' negative perceptions about Xinjiang's economic boom revolve around
two main issues. First, the economic pie in Xinjiang is not shared equally
between the Han and the Uyghurs. Southern Xinjiang (Nanjiang), where the
Uyghurs constitute more than 90% of the population, only contributes half the
GDP of Han-dominated Northern Xinjiang (Beijiang).
In Urumqi, many of China's development plans involve creating new residential
districts and industrial parks, most of which will support an additional two
million Han Chinese from neidi who are expected to in-migrate to Urumqi
by 2020 and raise the city's population to five million.
Second, and even more disconcerting for the Uyghurs, is the loss of their
heritage. Nowhere is this more evident than in Kashgar, where in the name of
making the city "earthquake proof" the government is tearing down large swaths
of the Old City.
Uyghurs fear the traditional bazaar culture - animals, people and all - will
disappear in a few years.
In practice, this will turn Kashgar's Old City into a version of what Urumqi's
Old City now looks like - a football-field size shopping area called the Grand
Bazaar, or ErDaoQiao, that bears little resemblance to Urumqi's past.
For Kashgar's Uyghurs, who take pride in their city's role as a major trading
post and Islamic center along the ancient Silk Road, the destruction of the Old
City can neither be compensated with money nor the promise of new and modern
Adding insult to injury, the new apartment buildings in Kashgar are often too
expensive for Uyghurs to afford. Many Uyghurs will have to move away from
Kashgar's city center and into the rural areas surrounding the city while Han
in-migrants from neidi move into the new apartment blocks. Uyghurs who
can afford to live in the new apartments worry about the loss of the sense of
community that has defined Kashgar's Old City neighborhoods for millennia.
In neidi the same type of destruction of historical landmarks is also
The Three Gorges dam, completed in 2008, inundated historical landmarks such as
the Taoist Temple on the Stone Treasure Fortress and other ancient villages.
Gentrification in Beijing has forced the destruction of 1,800 Hutong alleyways
which have a history dating back to the Yuan Dynasty of the 13th and 14th
A Uyghur couple sets up a stand in an empty space where a building was torn
In Xinjiang the destruction of old cities is only exacerbated by perceptions of
Han destruction of Uyghur history, even if the government's policies have less
to do with the purposeful elimination of Uyghur culture than no-holds-barred
Kashgar's upgrade is part of the government's plan to make the city the focus
of a 50-square kilometer special economic zone that will boost Kashgar's
economy and raise its population to one million.
This will also mean an increase in road and air links between Kashgar and
neighboring countries and the establishment of consulates for issuing visas to
Central and South Asian countries for the purpose of facilitating border trade
and attracting foreign investment. Currently, Kashgar's airport only serves
Urumqi regularly on direct flights and there are no foreign consulates in the
While the internationalization of Kashgar heralds a return to a cosmopolitan
Silk Road past, how much the Uyghurs will stand to benefit is uncertain.
Uyghurs require special permission from the Chinese government to obtain
passports and their visa applications to travel abroad are often denied based
on their ethnicity. This includes for the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca,
which especially angers the religiously conservative among them.
China fears that when Uyghurs travel abroad, especially to Mecca, and
encounters Muslims from all over the world, they will learn about and be
influenced by the example of other Muslims seeking autonomy from "infidel
occupations", such as in the Philippine island of Mindanao, and in Chechnya and
Kids play in the rubble of a demolished building.
Additionally, travel gives Uyghurs opportunity to become more linked to their
Turkic ethnic brethren in Central Asia and as far as Turkey. The further
removed Uyghur identity is from the Chinese state, the more likely the Uyghur
separatist movement will grow and even thrive.
There is a point where Uyghur frustrations over the situation in Xinjiang and
international trends converge. The violence in July 2011 is an example.
On July 18 in Hotan, what began as a protest at a local police station (which
in Xinjiang is also responsible for issuing travel permits household
registration), evolved into a drawn-out hostage crisis in which as many as 14
Uyghur protesters, two Han Chinese hostages, one security officer, and one
policeman were killed.
While the pro-Uyghur German-based World Uyghur Congress says that the protest
began as a "peaceful demonstration" calling for the release of fellow Uyghurs
detained at the police station, a Chinese government called the incident a
"severe terrorist attack".
The new city provides new forms of recreation - Uyghur girls enjoying bicycing.
Terrorists in Xinjiang have previously targeted police in the field, but never
a police station itself. In Kashgar in 2008, two local Uyghur men armed with
explosives, machetes, and a gun rammed a dump truck into a line of 70 Chinese
police officers jogging near a police compound and then attacked the officers
The two men were arrested during the fight after killing 16 officers. And in
Aksu in 2010, three Uyghur men drove an explosive-laden tricycle into a patrol
of police officers in Aksu killing seven.
Yet, the violence in Hotan is different from these two attacks because both the
Chinese government and the World Uyghur Congress agree that there was a protest
at first, and it was not a direct attack from the beginning. On the strength of
their non-Hotan accents, the hostage-takers were also believed to be from out
of town. It is very likely that this incident was based on local concerns, but
the resort to violence and hostage-taking could reflect the inspiration or
influence of international terrorist groups.
Whereas the Hotan incident hints of local actors lashing out because of local
concerns, the Kashgar attacks on July 30 and July 31 show signs that
international jihadi groups and Uyghur extremists are collaborating. The
attacks in Kashgar have the signature of previous terrorist attacks in
Xinjiang, notably in Kashgar in 2008 and Aksu in 2010, but only now can Chinese
assertions that foreign-trained militants are responsible be corroborated.
The attacks began on the evening of July 30 when a vehicle-borne explosion
detonated on a street lined with pedestrians and food stalls frequented by Han
Chinese. Shortly after, two Uyghur men hijacked a truck, killed its driver, and
then steered the truck onto the sidewalk and into the food stalls and then
stabbed people at random.
On July 31, another attack continued on another popular dining and shopping
street for Han Chinese. After two blasts at one restaurant as many as 10 Uyghur
men shot and stabbed people indiscriminately, including the firefighters who
came to the rescue. Overall, more than 10 civilians and eight attackers were
killed and more than 40 others wounded on the two days.
A video released by the Turkistan Islamic Party in late August shows one of the
attackers, Memtieli Tiliwaldi, in a Pakistani training camp wrestling with
other fighters. Tiliwaldi was killed by Xinjiang police in a corn field days
after the attack. This is the most concrete evidence ever introduced that links
attacks in Xinjiang to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement or militants in
Local police conduct rounds in front of Kashgar's oldest and most famous
mosque, Id Kah.
By hosting events like the China-Eurasia expo and making Xinjiang a focal point
of its foreign policy projection in Central Asia, China is exposing the
province's Uyghurs to more influence from abroad. Ideally, the benefits of
opening up Xinjiang's economy to its neighbors would endear the Uyghur
population to China, but with the greater portion of the profits being seized
by Han "newcomers" to the region many Uyghurs feel alienated in their own
Combined with the loss of their physical heritage, especially Kashgar's Old
City, many Uyghurs succumb to the idea that the minority must submit to the
majority. However, a growing number of Uyghurs in Xinjiang neither see the
benefits of economic development, nor are willing to succumb to the realities
that the Uyghurs are facing. For this group, other Muslim separatist movements,
such as those in Chechnya or Mindanao, provide a path to resistance.
With Pakistan across the border from Xinjiang and the Uyghurs' close linguistic
and ethnic affiliation to the Uzbeks from which the Islamic Movement Uzbekistan
that rejects the secular autocracy in Uzbekistan, disaffected Uyghurs find
plenty of options for resistance if they so choose.
This is China's Catch-22. With Xinjiang emerging as a gateway to Central Asia,
the province's economy will continue to boom. But the side-effects of this
success could include Uyghur militancy, locally rooted as in the Hotan protest
and internationally influenced, as in the Kahsgar attacks.
Jacob Zenn graduated from the Georgetown Law Global Law Scholar's Program
in 2011 and previously studied Uyghur at Xinjiang University in Urumqi. He was
based in Kashgar in August and September 2011.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)