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A Muslim Minority Keeps Clashing With the 'China Dream' in the Country's Increasingly Wild West

China blames the 'religious extremism' of the Uighurs for violence in the resource-rich region of Xinjiang, but residents say the real culprit is government-driven migration and economic development that ignores the need for cultural integration.
Photo par Alice Su/VICE News

Zhou* didn't expect Kashgar to give him a cough. Before moving to the ancient city in China's Xinjiang province a month ago, the 29-year-old Han migrant had steeled himself for ethnic tensions, violence, and culture shock in the country's far west. But he had not prepared for the fact that Kashgar, located at the crossroads between East and West, would have the same thick yellow air as southern China's special economic zones.


"This is just like Shenzhen in the nineties," Zhou said as we drove along the Shenzhen-Kashgar Great Road, a new eight-lane highway on the expanding outskirts of Kashgar. The road and surrounding area are named and modeled after the special economic zone where China pioneered its market liberalization reforms more than two decades ago, and appropriately, dust hung in the air due to construction — half-complete office buildings, sports centers, schools, and malls, many named after China's interior provinces.

Investors and businesses from those provinces are expected to develop Xinjiang, Zhou explained, just as inlanders began flocking to Shenzhen in the early 1990s. They're to bring Kashgar rapid urbanization and GDP growth, in line with president Xi Jinping's "One Belt One Road" initiative, a plan to spend billions of dollars on economic infrastructure along the ancient Silk Road and connect Chinese trade to Central Asia and the Middle East.

"The state wants us to come out here," Zhou said. "There's cheap housing, tax incentives, and it's not that hard to adjust." He's found freelance work installing appliances and décor for the growing stream of Han migrants from inland provinces like Hebei and Sichuan. "I don't eat lamb or speak Uighur, but it doesn't matter," Zhou said of the local dialect and popular cuisine; he rarely if ever engages with locals. "This place is becoming more 'China' every day."


In October, China's Communist Party marked the 60th anniversary of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a province the size of Alaska that is home both to the Uighurs — a Muslim minority ethnic group with Turkic roots and a history of discord with Chinese authorities — and the country's biggest reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas. Party officials held celebrations in Urumqi and released a white paper on "Ethnic Equality, Unity and Development in Xinjiang," lauding the region's economic growth, social harmony, and rising standards of living.

(Photo by Alice Su/VICE News)

Yet a week before the anniversary, at least 50 people were killed in a local attack on a coal mine in Aksu; most of the dead were Han migrant workers. In late November, China announced that government forces had killed 28 "terrorists" who had carried out the attack under the direction of "foreign extremists." Rights groups charge that there is no way to know who the government is really killing, and that there is little evidence of coordinated terrorism in the region.

There is no doubt, however, that hundreds have died in escalating Han-Uighur violence over the last two years, including stabbings and car bomb attacks at train stations, markets, and mosques. The party's response has been to initiate a security crackdown and information control, with cameras and police at every intersection. The streets are plastered with propaganda, bright red signs heralding the "China Dream" of national rejuvenation via all kinds of hua [change], xian dai hua [modernization], cheng shi hua [urbanization], and renmin tong yi hua [people's unification]. However, one kind of hua is going unspoken, Zhou said: Han hua — Han-ification.


Related: China Says Xinjiang Militants Are Being Trained by the Islamic State

"Han hua comes with development, which can't be stopped," Zhou said. "If you try to resist, hold on to your farm or whatever, they will get rid of you. This is how things work in China." He said his former boss had been present at the Tiananmen Massacre and that his grandmother lived through the Cultural Revolution.

"The Party has its priorities. You shouldn't get in the way."

Billboards in front of mosques and parks stipulate that minors should not grow beards or wear religious clothing, from headscarves to T-shirts with crescent moons. "The penetration and spread of religious extremist thought is the greatest threat to social harmony," read signs in Urumqi. "All China's ethnicities should embrace one another like the seeds of a pomegranate."

China's authorities attribute the unrest in Xinjiang to the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. But Han and Uighur residents of Xinjiang told VICE News the tensions result from rapid state-driven modernization and urbanization without cultural integration, and not as a result of foreign instigation or religious ideology.

Every evening at 8pm, Han women gather in the Rich Hopes, Peaceful City compound of Shule District, 15 minutes' drive from central Kashgar. They blast square dance music from a stereo and perform a blend of aerobics and Chinese dance, a tradition from their small towns in Hebei and Sichuan. One woman told me she'd come to Xinjiang 15 years ago, but still didn't speak any Uighur.


"I've never interacted with a Uighur at all," she said. "Why would you need to?"

Several feet away, a Uighur woman stopped to watch while walking her 3-year-old son across the square, but laughed at the idea of joining in. "Oh, no, we don't do this kind of dance." She said this in Mandarin, not Uighur.

(Photo by Alice Su/VICE News)

"Han hua is the reason Uighurs are unhappy," a Han mother told me inside the compound. She'd moved to Xinjiang a year ago and enrolled her daughter in a local kindergarten comprised of 32 Uighurs and 19 Han children.

"They don't play together. It's a bilingual school, but that just means Uighur children learning Mandarin, not the other way around," the mother said.

"When I take the bus, the police always check the Uighurs, but not the Han," she said. "[Although], once an all-Uighur police group called all the Han off the bus. They took ages checking our papers and copying every ID. I guess they want us to know how it feels."

Discriminatory security practices and lack of communal integration on the ground are worsening the Uighur-Han divide. Many Uighurs in official positions are seen not as emblems of state inclusion, but as sellouts to their own people, the mother said. "Uighurs were against Juhe Tahir because he was like a propaganda machine," she said, referring to the imam of Id Kah Mosque in the center of Kashgar, who was stabbed to death in July 2014. "He was always reciting the nationalist slogans. That's why the extremists called him a traitor."


At the Qinghai Mosque of Urumqi, Hui imam Xian Wenjun told VICE News there is no inherent clash between the Chinese state and Islam, but that extremist ideology is bringing unfortunate restriction on Muslims, both Uighur and Hui, the second biggest minority in Xinjiang and largest Muslim minority in China. Hui people speak Mandarin, have no separatist history, and enjoy much less police scrutiny than Uighurs — except in sensitive areas like Xinjiang.

'The gaps between minorities are getting wider, and these policies are making the problem worse.'

"If the government feels secure toward religion, they will open up as much as possible," Xian said. That's why the Hui Muslims in Yunnan and Qinghai can practice so openly, he said. "In Islam, our biggest enemy now is internal. The prejudiced, extremist Muslims are smearing blackness on our faith. This hurts peaceful Muslims the most."

Ma Rong, a Peking University sociology professor who researches China's ethnic minorities, said that China's policies often exacerbate the identification with ethnicity rather than nationality. Citizens' ethnicities are noted on their government IDs, and minorities get a range of different policy treatments, from extra points on the national high school exam to a history of more relaxed birthing policies.

"The gaps between minorities are getting wider, and these policies are making the problem worse," Ma said. China should seek to be more like America in this sense, he added, a "melting pot" where ethnic identities are overshadowed by common citizenship.


Li Jin, a 30-year-old Hui native of Urumqi who works in a family wool business, compared Chinese Uighurs to African-Americans. "There is social discrimination, but they're still citizens in the same system," he said. "I don't understand why Westerners are so fixated on human rights for Uighurs — I mean, do you think human rights is a priority in China?"

In 2009, violent riots erupted in Urumqi in response to two Uighur deaths at a Chinese factory in Guangdong. Li was a student then at Xinjiang University, where Han, Uighur, Hui, and other students locked themselves in school for several days to protect themselves while more than 200 people were killed on the streets. "There were taxi drivers who were pulled out of their cars and thrown over bridges," he said. "You can't imagine the chaos. No one wants that to happen again."

The Karakoram Highway that leads from Kashgar to Pakistan embodies China's dream of a Silk Road revival. It cuts through the intersection of the Hindukush, Himalaya, and Karakoram mountains, lined with Chinese projects as dramatic as their natural settings: glistening dams, hydropower plants, highways soaring through the sky in defiance of deathly mudslides below, and at the top, the Khunjerab Pass. There, about 15,000 feet above sea level on the China-Pakistan border, glaciered alps frame a gateway labeled in glinting gold: "PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA."

(Photo by Alice Su/VICE News)

The scene is a testament to the grandiosity of China's Silk Road plan, not only in budget but also in engineering ambition. The CCP's economic planning will defy nature itself, it seems, and nothing can stand in its way, whether glaciers, mountains, rivers, or deserts. Nothing, that is, except the Uighurs.


I drove along the road with Abdullatif, a Uighur driver who pointed out the Kyrgyz and Tajik autonomous counties on the way, sub-territories of Xinjiang reserved for smaller, non-Uighur minorities.

"Some of these ethnic groups laugh at Uighurs, saying we don't have our own country," he said. "You've probably heard the talk about 'East Turkestan [the Uighur separatist name for Xinjiang]. But look, those –stan countries are dirt poor. China built all the roads in this region. Chinese people excavated all the materials too."

Local Uighurs wouldn't be able to develop Xinjiang at China's scale, Abdullatif said. "In any case, Xinjiang is a treasure trove," he added. "China will never let this place go."

As we drove back to Kashgar, a Han tourist asked Abdullatif why Uighurs and Han were clashing. "Most of the Uighurs here are simple farmers with nothing against Han people," Abdullatif said. "Tell them As-Salamu Alaykum [peace be with you], they'll be moved to tears! But if you ride in on a motorcycle to scam them with fake goods, that's different."

(Photo by Alice Su/VICE News)

Last time he took a train, Abdullatif says, he heard a Han migrant talking on the phone: "'Here's Xinjiang in six words: big money, dumb people, come quick!'" The security situation only exacerbates mistrust and exploitation, Abdullatif said. In the villages, for example, security forces often recruit unemployed Uighur youth as assistant police, who then harass local farmers.


"Uighur police are even worse than Han police. Give these kids a uniform and they think they can do whatever they want. If you have any Islamic thing on your phone, they'll take it and report you," Abdullatif said, adding that local police sometimes framed farmers by saying there were Quran apps on their mobile phones and then confiscating their electronics. At least Uighurs in northern Xinjiang can speak Mandarin, Abdullatif said, so they're less easily tricked.

Back in Urumqi, I met two Uighur women in front of the Erdaoqiao Grand Theater.

We watched as a Uighur wedding party filed into a fleet of Hummer limousines.

"Clearly not all Uighurs are poor," said 21-year-old Almira, a university student fluent in English and Mandarin. She'd entered college as the only woman in the natural resources engineering department, hoping to get a job in the oil and gas industry. But she switched out after one semester upon finding that all the high-level jobs were reserved for Han males. "Those jobs pay especially well, but they won't even let women go near those mines and plants, let alone a Uighur," Almira said.

The other woman, 32-year-old Aygul, is raising two sons as a divorced single mother. Their Mandarin is already stronger than their Uighur, she said, and she struggles to teach them Uighur at home. "I would never let them lose our language," she said. But she'll keep them in the Mandarin school because education there is better. Once the boys are older, she wants to bring them to Japan, where her sister lives. "We can learn without forgetting who we are."

Related: China Claims 109 Uighur Refugees Deported From Thailand Planned 'To Join Jihad'

Discrimination exists, Almira said, and she knows people who resent that Han businessmen, not Uighurs, are reaping most of the economic profits from Xinjiang's resource riches. But she doesn't know anyone who would agitate for actual independence.

"We all remember 2009," Almira said of the Urumqi riots. "Now there's finally stability, so people can live their lives. Who wants to lose that?"

*Some names have been changed in this story.

Follow Alice Su on Twitter: @aliceysu