Book review: dry prose mars valuable summary of Xinjiang's plight

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 9:34pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 9:34pm

Far to the west in China is a place that is as different to the rest of China as one could imagine. Its people have fair hair and green eyes, the land is sandy and mountainous, and the languages spoken have no relation to those heard in the east.

But Beijing insists it has always been a part of the motherland, and it is unrelenting in imposing that view on those who live there. It uses its economic might and intolerance of dissent to overwhelm the people in this land, causing outbursts of violence and anger.

This place, of course, is Xinjiang, and the people are Uygurs, and both have more in common with their Muslim and Turkic neighbours to the west than with their Han rulers to the east.

"The cultural distinctiveness of Xinjiang is also reinforced by its physical location," writes Nick Holdstock in China's Forgotten People. "The region is so far to the west that it's in a different time zone from the rest of the country. 'Xinjiang time' is two hours behind the time used elsewhere in China (known as 'Beijing time')."

The writer looks at two recent incidents: the jeep that exploded in Tiananmen Square on October 28, 2013, and the attack by knife-wielding Uygurs in a Kunming train station on March 1, 2014, which killed 29 people and wounded more than 140. These attacks led to a sharp crackdown on Xinjiang and the Uygurs. What led to these outbursts, Holdstock asks, and what does Beijing need to do to prevent such things happening again?

"The degree of support for 'separatist' ideas among Uygurs is perhaps the biggest unanswered question about the problems in Xinjiang, and is likely to remain that way," he writes.

Holdstock, a Scottish-based journalist and writer with long experience reporting from Xinjiang, opens with a history of Xinjiang and the Uygurs, and their interaction with China through its various dynasties, years as a republic, and finally as part of a communist state. It's a slow start, but it undermines Beijing's claim that Xinjiang has always been part of the country.

The large numbers of Han Chinese coming to Xinjiang have led to a huge separation. The Han and the Uygurs live in different areas, buy supplies in their own shops and markets and eat in different restaurants. They also enjoy different economic fortunes.

But the story he tells is devoid of colour, characters and flavour, which is disappointing given that he is one of the few foreign journalists who has lived in Xinjiang. This book does little to bring to life the exotic and enchanting characteristics of Xinjiang, which so few foreigners have ever visited.

China's Forgotten People is a valuable summary of Xinjiang's journey to become what it is today, for better or worse. But the book's dry writing and lack of narrative belies the true appeal of the region and the insider's view that the author has of it.

China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State by Nick Holdstock (I.B. Tauris)