x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

West of the middle kingdom

Last word Xiyun Yang travels to Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese uneasily coexist.

Xiyun Yang travels to Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese uneasily coexist.

From the sky, Xinjiang looks like all deserts do: chafed and thirsty, patched with liver spots. Valleys and mountain ridges merge until indistinguishable. From the window of my plane flying along the Tianshin mountains, I see nothing but dirt. It has been almost six decades since the communists pushed through from inner China to forcibly annex Xinjiang - rich in petrochemicals, two and a half times the size of France, larger than any other Chinese province. This ended a millennium and a half of shifting allegiances and sovereignty, often as a pebble lost in the churning tide of global geopolitics. Everyone has heard of Tibet and Tibetans; few have heard of Xinjiang or Uighurs.

The Uighurs, before they were called Uighurs, were a Turkic people who ruled over an empire in Mongolia for 100 years in the eighth century. They were defeated. They fled. Most of them have lived in Xinjiang's arid basins and deserts walled in by mountain ranges ever since. The Uighurs were Manicheans until the mid-10th century, when Islam arrived from Persia and Arabia. They farmed the river basins, their grapes growing sweet by soaking up the desert sun. They waged war with the Buddhists. They found jade in the rivers. They housed caravans travelling on the ancient Silk Road. Over the centuries, they paid allegiance to the Mongols, the Chinese, the Soviets, the British. Two independent states briefly surfaced in the 1930s and Forties, but were quickly swallowed up by warlords and communists.

In 1955, the Chinese government created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and started sponsoring the migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang. As a result, the region's population has shifted from being over 90 per cent Uighur to over 40 per cent Han. Every so often an independence movement makes trouble, and the Chinese government cracks down, labelling its members terrorists. I flew to Urumqi, Xinjiang's provincial capital, in the last week of Ramadan. All of China runs on one east coast time zone, so during Ramadan, fasts break when the sun sets - around 9.30pm.

The Han side of town is green, with tall trees shading wide boulevards and lending an air of tranquillity to even the most decrepit Fifties-style communist housing blocks. It seems to be an ordered, bustling third tier Chinese city laid out in no real hurry. The two Han receptionists at my hotel's front desk stare blankly when I ask for directions to the Uighur neighbourhood. "Uighur? There's a Uighur neighbourhood?" one asks. "Why would you want to go there?"

"It's dangerous," blurts the other. "Pickpockets." The Uighur neighbourhood, which I find by crossing a four-lane motorway, looks like something the Soviet world left behind to crumble. Grey streaked with grey. No trees. I turn down a mucky dead end alley whose one-room restaurants and private homes look dug into squat concrete walls. The cold, brisk air is opaque with smoke from kebab grills and giant coal ovens with rounds of nan stuck to their inside walls like seed spores. A restaurant owner, eager to do business, waves me in from the street.

The clientele is almost exclusively male, the food nothing but bowls of noodles and kebabs of lamb meat and liver. Everyone in the restaurant stops to stare, their chopsticks halfway to their mouths - as if, in this almost 40 per cent Han city of 1.4 million people, they have never seen someone who looked like me. Their stares are clouded not only with wonder but also with a thin film of hostility.

I pour hot tea from an aluminium kettle into a chipped bowl and order mostly with hand signals and gestures. Someone asks in decent Mandarin where I am from. For the first time in my travels since September 11, I decide to say that I am American instead of Chinese. But you speak such good Mandarin, my table-mates protest. I explain that I was born in Beijing, but grew up in the States and now carry an American passport. "Beijing," they say, and grow quiet.

Outside, I stop in front of a big mosque next to the Erdaoqiao market to read a red banner hung across the front. It warns, in Uighur and Chinese, against individual, non-government-sponsored haj activities. The Chinese government only allows pilgrimages under its auspices. In the Fifties, when the Communist Party was looking to subsume Islam and gain credibility with Uighur peasants, the haj delegation was picked for its loyalty to the party. Today, the government takes a totally different approach, one motivated by fear of fundamentalist separatist movements. Officially, no government employee is allowed to practice Islam, and the government collects Uighur passports to prevent unauthorised pilgrimages. Prospective hajis must apply through the public security bureau and offer proof that their children are married and that they have a certain amount of savings. The process greases many palms and often takes years.

"We didn't write that," one man offers haltingly, gesturing towards the banner. I ask him who did. His poor Mandarin doesn't allow him to elaborate. "They wrote it," is all he can say. "We wrote that." He points to a Uighur sigh that he translates as "mosque". Red banners hung along the street, their text in both Uighur and Mandarin, co-celebrate Chinese National Day and Ramadan and urge readers to form harmonious societies.

After Urumqi, I head through the ancient Silk Road towns of southern Xinjiang, where every woman covers her head and small mosques for 10 or more families are as conveniently located as any corner shop. Five times a day the muezzin stands on an elaborately carved second floor balcony and cups his hands. He raises his face halfway between the heavens and the people below and sings. Donkey carts and makeshift flatbed trailers towed by motor scooters are the primary modes of transportation. Everything is covered in dust.

Inside the Great Mosque in the oasis town of Khotan, a set of rules announces the following: worshippers are only allowed to go to the mosque in the city they are registered to live in. Friday prayers can last no longer than 30 minutes. People are not allowed to pray in public places other than mosques. The separation of education from religion is nearly absolute. Though schoolgirls can cover their heads, students are not allowed to fast. No one is allowed to study the Quran unless they are at least 18 years old, and then only allowed in government-run madrasas that also teach the wisdom of China's minority policies. Signs at one local junior high school in Khotan still urge students to rise to their roles as the inheritors of Mao's socialist revolution.

Xinjiang's economy is booming on the back of its natural resources, helped along by the government-sponsored Han influx. The Chinese government's campaign to Open Up the West, Xibu da Kaifa, begun in 2000, will invest RMB 900 billion (Dh483bn) over the next 10 years in transportation, water conservation projects, environmental restoration and massive oil and gas exploration. The government is where the money is, and everyone knows Chinese is the language of social mobility. The most promising Uighur students are given government scholarships to attend Chinese language schools in Xinjiang, then elite boarding schools in inner China. Then, if they are lucky, they get a chance to live in a cosmopolitan city on the coast. Otherwise they compete with the Han Chinese for middle class jobs back in Xinjiang - and usually lose. Those who can move out of the cool, damp labyrinths of their old cities' mud and straw walls. They move into high rises in Chinese neighbourhoods.

Then they live side by side with Han Chinese like Zhang, a businessman I met who moved who moved to Xinjiang from Sichuan a few years ago to profit from the construction boom. "The cultures are just too different," he tells me. "They're all lazy! They're always praying, even if there are things to be done. Who knows what they're praying for?" But, he adds, "Uighur officials are easier to bribe. You give them a little money and you can do whatever bad things you want. The Han always want more."

One morning in Khotan I walk through the just-stirring carpet market with a Uighur English teacher who studied Chinese and English at a university in Beijing. He met his friends, all Han, when they assumed he was foreign and approached him to practice their English. He returned to Khotan after graduation to take care of his elderly parents. Uighur independence is the last thing on his mind. "Even I am afraid of the Uighur," he tells me. "Because I see it in myself." And later: "We cannot govern ourselves. We are too hot-blooded and stubborn."

Xiyun Yang is a freelance writer in Beijing. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and the South China Morning Post.