Uygur nightmare

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 September, 2009, 12:00am

For the Uygurs there are three 'butchers of Xinjiang' - the Kuomintang general who controlled it before world war two, Wang Zhen after 1949 and Wang Lequan. In the name of 'stability' they have lost the hearts of the people.'

So reads one of the opening chapters of the most unusual book written by a mainland Chinese about Xinjiang - Your East Turkestan, My Western Region. It has been selling like hot cakes in the Chinese world since the Urumqi riot on July 5, as people try to make sense of what happened. It is the best exposition in Chinese of the Uygur version of history. Published in Taiwan in October 2007, it is banned on the mainland.

The author is an independent journalist, Wang Lixiong, who carried out research in Xinjiang over nine years. In January 1999 he was imprisoned there for 42 days for 'leaking state secrets'. During this time, he befriended a Uygur intellectual named Mohetaer, who became his passport to the Uygur community, providing access unavailable to most Han Chinese or foreign researchers.

In his version of history Xinjiang is like Palestine, a country belonging to one people, the Uygurs, which is being colonised by another, the Han. Over the past 20 years this process has accelerated, with the arrival of more than two million Han and the marginalisation of the majority of Uygurs.

'I estimate that 5-10 per cent of Uygurs want to remain in China,' Mohetaer said in the book. 'We want an independent state and it is a matter of time,' he said. 'The international environment is unfavourable to us now, but this is temporary. Our moment will come when the economic interests of China conflict with those of the US, Russia and Japan, and the central government will waver. The Western countries and Russia will use democracy as a reason to dismember China.

'Once the civil war begins, 60 per cent of the Han will leave Xinjiang within the first year ... The Han have weapons and we will lose one to two million people. But we will have the support of the Islamic world and 150 million Turkish people,' he said.

This apocalyptic language is so different from the Chinese version of history. Ma Dazheng, director of the Xinjiang Development and Research Centre at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that since ancient times Xinjiang had been a melting pot of many races, of which the Uygur was only one.

Ma said the Uygurs were content to work for a high level of autonomy within China until the second half of the 19th century when, under the influence of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism, and the support of foreign powers, they began thinking of a separate state.

'In 1933, the Republic of East Turkestan was declared in Kashgar during a time of warlord chaos and peasant rebellion. It only lasted for a few months, but the damage has been deep and long-lasting.'

The republic was put down by one of the three rulers regarded by many Uygurs as a 'butcher' - Sheng Shicai, a Nationalist-backed warlord who ruled Xinjiang from 1933 to 1944. When he left Urumqi he took 50 trucks, many loaded with gold and silver. In 1949 he took his riches with him when he went with the Kuomintang government to Taiwan, where he died in 1970. He repressed the minorities, including Uygurs, and was infamous for his use of torture.

After Sheng left the republic was declared again, in the border region of Yili , and lasted until the communist conquest in 1949, commanded by Wang Zhen. He ran the region until 1956, waging a fierce war against those fighting for independence.

He established the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, paramilitary settlers who have become the single most important instrument of Chinese control in Xinjiang. The corps began with 175,000 soldiers and now has 2.6 million people, with a gross domestic product in excess of 65 billion yuan (HK$73.89 billion).

The Han of Xinjiang regard Wang Zhen as their hero, for binding the region more closely to China.

Mohetaer said Wang Zhen was responsible for the deaths of 60,000 Uygurs, including intellectuals and religious leaders, in the name of introducing socialism and 'stamping out superstition'.

Wang Zhen's brutality was too much even for Mao Zedong , who recalled him to prevent further deterioration in relations between the different ethnic communities.

Mohetaer said a brief period of liberalisation followed the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the government eased restrictions on religion. But this changed after an armed uprising by Uygurs in Baren county in April 1990, in protest against enforced abortion, which led to the killing of 100 to 200 PLA soldiers; it was put down by 60,000 soldiers using tanks and helicopters. Mohetaer said organisers of the rebellion had hoped for an uprising throughout Xinjiang, using bases in the Soviet Union.

The uprising was polarising. It persuaded the government to make law and order its priority in Xinjiang, increase restrictions on Islam and encourage Han immigration to secure control of the region.

On the Uygur side, a portion of the population joined radical groups that carried out bombings and assassinations, often of moderate Uygurs 'collaborating' with the government. These two extremes - government hardliners and Islamist radicals - came to dominate policymaking for Xinjiang.

The other pillar of government policy was economic development, to improve living standards and divert people away from extremist groups. As part of the 'Go West' policy, Beijing poured investment into infrastructure, telecoms and development of oil, gas and other resources. This gave Xinjiang one of the fastest economic growth rates in China and attracted tens of thousands of Han migrants.

During his first visit as president to Xinjiang last month, Hu Jintao summarised these two policies. 'Xinjiang must focus on economic development, maintaining social stability, and promoting ethnic unity and common prosperity,' he said.

The man implementing these policies is Wang Lequan, Communist Party chief of the region since 1994. He is by far the longest-serving provincial or regional leader on the mainland.

'Wang Lequan is like Sheng Shicai and other high officials sent from China,' Mohetaer said. 'They are carpetbaggers who enrich themselves and their associates, give contracts to companies from the interior and retire there with their fortune.'

For Ma Dazheng, the fight for a separate state is like a poison. 'This evil precedent [the Republic of East Turkestan] and the separatist activities have become like dirty water in the stability and development of Xinjiang,' he said. 'Separatist organisations have revised history to confuse their listeners and used religion to poison people's minds.'