The strangers: blood and fear in Xinjiang
In the winter of 2009, I was spending my weekends in the northeast Chinese city of Tangshan, and eating most of my food from the far-western province of Xinjiang. Like many minorities, the Uighur, the native people of Xinjiang, have made their chief impact on mainstream culture through cuisine. I have always favoured their ubiquitous restaurants when travelling.
But there was something unfamiliar about the place I usually ate at in Tangshan; the waiters were young children. Two solemn little girls of about eight, wearing Muslim headscarves, would take my order and relay it to the kitchen, occasionally joined by their plump-cheeked older brother.
Putting the kids out front echoed the Chinese depiction of ethnic minorities, regularly represented—as in the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies—as children. It created a familiar, comfortable world for the majority Han clientele, especially since the kids, unlike their parents, spoke fluent Mandarin. When the back door opened, I sometimes got a glimpse of another world; a cluster of Uighur men and one woman smoking, cooking, and joking in their own language, entirely isolated from the diners.
After we had gotten on familiar terms—I let them play on my laptop—I asked the girls when they started working as waitresses. “In July,” they said. It wasn’t surprising that the restaurant might have wanted a friendlier face at that point. That was the time that a Uighur mob had tried to murder one of my friends.
I had met “Bruce” Li by chance on the Beijing subway in 2007. I was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a Swedish flag, and he greeted me with “God kvell,” then switched to English after my confused “Huh?” A scrawny, smiley Southerner, he had just finished his Master’s degree in linguistics and spoke four foreign languages even though he had never been overseas. We became friends; his careful, sympathetic interest in the world, books, and other cultures was a pleasure. He was leaving Beijing that fall for a Ph.D. at Xinjiang University in the provincial capital of Urumqi.
Language, like so much else, is contentious in Xinjiang, where many Uighur grow up learning, at best, rudimentary Mandarin (Putonghua), China’s official language. For most Chinese citizens, mastery of Mandarin is a priority. Local “dialects” are discouraged in the media and in education, and heavy accents turn many employers off.
Yet the language policy of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) was surprisingly flexible from the start when it came to the ethnic minorities, giving minority tongues equal status as official languages in their own region, establishing minority-language schools, and encouraging Han cadres sent to the border regions to learn the local languages. Chinese bank notes throughout the country are written in five different scripts, including Uighur.
Among the Uighur, however, the policy has created two distinct groups: theminkaohan, minorities educated in Mandarin, and the minkaomin, educated in their own language. Minkaomin education is not taken seriously by non-Uighur employers, and not speaking Mandarin shuts minkaomin graduates out of jobs. In turn, they often resent minkaohanstudents as opportunistic and unfaithful to their own heritage. Li was interested in what language, Mandarin or Uighur, minkaohan used when they met each other, especially with a third-party present.
Beyond his work, he developed a passion for the landscape and the culture. We talked over e-mail, and he wrote me lyrical descriptions of driving to dunes and mountains, of being hosted at Uighur banquets, and of the flight of birds in clear skies. While most students at the university stuck with their own, he deliberately lived outside the school in a Uighur area, with three Uighur roommates.
He became trusted enough that “people were always showing me maps of East Turkestan and saying ‘Look, this is our country.’” Maps are another bitter topic in Xinjiang, since they are almost always published exclusively in Chinese, despite the region’s bilingualism, and the name “East Turkestan” is a rallying point for Uighur nationalism.
Use of the term without qualification—as in “the so-called East Turkestan”—is highly risky. By displaying the maps, mostly copies of pre-P.R.C. Western or Russian documents, Li’s friends were re-asserting their national identity even as they invited him into their circle. It was a simple message: our country was here before your people were.
On July 5, 2009, Li was shopping with other students in the Grand Bazaar, one of the city’s main tourist attractions. A Polish girl with him received a phone call from a Uighur friend, who told her there was trouble brewing in the city centre. They went to see the protest, which had taken an ugly turn. There were shouts, banners, and no sign of the police. As they watched, people began overturning cars, and they decided to split up and head home rather than risk serious trouble.
Li was on the bus by himself, balancing a watermelon on his lap, when a crowd of young Uighur men, many of them waving knives, blocked the vehicle’s way. He raised his phone to take pictures and his seatmate, an older Han man, grabbed it from his hand, hissing, “Don’t aggravate them!” The mob began rocking the bus from side to side, the passengers, mostly Han, screaming. The bus toppled. Several men dragged the driver out, and, as Li told me a few months later over dinner in Beijing, “cut off his head.” (“Jesus fucking Christ!” I said loudly, startling the people at the next table.)
Li forced the escape window at the back open, and ran, still holding his watermelon. Some of the Uighur ran after him, holding knives. He threw the watermelon at them and kept running into the alleys. Eventually he found a group of other non-Uighur and took refuge in a hotel, where the staff sent them up to the nineteenth floor, shut down the elevators, and barricaded the staircases.
He could hear shouts from below, chants of “Kill the Han, smash the Hui [another Islamic minority], drive the Mongols out.” I heard similar versions of the chant later from other witnesses. Although sometimes the order of other groups was switched up, or the verb changed (“Cut the Kazakhs!”), the first clause was always the same. He stopped looking out of the window once the gunfire started, sporadic bursts in the night after the People’s Armed Police, China’s paramilitary force, entered the city.
The next day, police escorted him back to the university, where the students would be locked in, guards outside, for another week. On the way, he saw dozens of bodies strewn about the streets. “There were children,” he told me, shivering, “and a pregnant woman, with her stomach cut up. You know how I used to want to be a foreign correspondent? I don’t know how they can stand it, to go to places and see things like that. They must have very hard hearts.”
On the first night after the riot, he and the other non-Uighur students seriously expected to be attacked again. They barricaded the dorm and carried sticks and knives. “One of my Uighur friends gave me his knife,” he said drily. In the next few days, they watched with black amusement reports on Chinese television about how ethnic unity had been restored to Urumqi, and the mutual love between Han and Uighur could not be destroyed by terrorism. “They were boasting about how the bus system had been reopened—but the people on it were all plainclothes policemen.”
Li’s life inside the Uighur community was shattered. Now, whenever he was the only Han around, the fear came back. He avoided his former roommates, and when he saw them again, “they were with a group of other young Uighur, people I didn’t know. They were talking very fast, so that I couldn't understand them, and staring at me.” His paranoia was shared.
A city already largely segregated by race solidified its boundaries; large portions became, in the perception of both Uighur and Han, no-go areas for those of the wrong ethnicity. It eased a little in the two years until he left, but only a little.
Warning: graphic content
Surveillance video captures the violence near a hospital in Urumqi, Xinjiang on July 5, 2009.
“Only Foreigners Can Be Imperialists”
Despite everything, Li still made an effort to sympathise with and understand Uighur positions. It was an approach made in part possible by his reading in Global Linguistics, a field concerned with power, domination, and endangered cultures. He had a vocabulary to understand the situation that most Han lacked.
The Urumqi riots in 2009 were the worst inter-communal violence in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. At least 194 people were killed. Most of them were Han, although there were also Uighur deaths—rioters, small shopkeepers targeted by the mob, and others caught in retaliatory Han violence. Retaliation was restrained by the swift arrival of the paramilitary forces and other state authorities, who made serious and laudable efforts to prevent revenge killings, even as they made fair game of any young Uighur man foolish enough to stay on the street that night. Police talked down, and occasionally tear-gassed, large Han crowds, vans blared messages to return home and stay off the streets, and official material strongly stressed ethnic reconciliation and the “terrorist” rather than “Uighur” nature of the attacks.
But many Xinjiang residents had accounts of violence elsewhere in those days, inspired by the pogrom in the capital. The bulk of these stories were accounts by Uighur of Han revenge attacks when “several” or “a dozen” people were killed and the local authorities conspired to cover it up. By the time they reached me, though, these stories were second or third-hand: “My brother says that he heard in his town three young men were beaten to death by the Chinese.”
In official Chinese media, the riots were filtered through only one lens: terrorism. It was an approach adopted after the September 11, 2001 attacks to piggyback the U.S. war on terror, though it found little sympathy overseas, save with the Russians attempting the same thing with Chechnya.
Chinese State media blamed the riots on “Muslim terrorists” bewitching the young with their seductive words. Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uighur leader in the States, and her World Uyghur Congress (WUC.) were accused of being behind the attack, as, it seems, they are of everything that goes wrong in Xinjiang. In reality, the WUC.’s involvement was limited to some faxes informing them of the protest as it happened, followed by slightly delusional press releases in which the WUC. accused the police of starting the violence by firing on unarmed Uighur.
Some distinction was made between the “terrorists” and the ordinary Uighur who were happy, faithful, and loyal to both State and Party. Chinese media emphasised Uighur victims and the “innocent” or “civilian” nature of those attacked.
For me, the resonance was with both ethnic massacres and anti-colonial violence; Bosnia, India, and, most particularly, Algeria’s cycle of atrocity and reaction at the end of France’s colonial rule in the 1950s.
In Algeria, as in Xinjiang, the authorities ostensibly promoted ethnic harmony while systematically discriminating against locals and favouring an increasingly embittered population of settlers. The French may not have pretended that Algeria had always been France, as the Chinese do Xinjiang, but unlike their other African possessions it was a French department, and Algerian schoolchildren began their history lessons with “Our ancestors, the Gauls …” Fuelled by humiliation and dispossession, Algerians committed atrocities against the French, especially the settler population, and were the target of atrocity in return.
But pointing out such parallels is not only taboo in China, but almost literally unthinkable. “Imperialism” and “colonialism” are things that happened to China, not that it does. A Russian friend, doing a thesis at Peking University on Qing and Russian competition for Siberia in the nineteenth century, wrote of “Chinese imperialism” in one of his papers. “Only foreigners can be imperialists,” his teacher sternly told him.
As its name, which literally means “New Frontier,” suggests, Xinjiang was barely and rarely under Chinese control for most of the empire’s history; it was not until the Qing conquests of 1745 that it fell under imperial administration, and even then it was left largely to its own devices.
Other minorities, like the Mongols and the Hui, scythed their way into China's history books, whether as rulers, raiders, or rebels. Whatever other identities they have, their history is tied up with China’s as much as Ireland’s is with England. The Uighur were, and are, marginal. It is one of the reasons why the recent attempts to grandfather in a continuous Chinese presence are both absurd and deeply resented.
The People’s Liberation Army’s “triumphant march” across Xinjiang in 1949, defeating Uighur and Kazakh “rebels,” introduced the Han to Western China for good. Older Han who spent time in Xinjiang in the 1950s through the 1970s are often nostalgic for what they see as a time of joint prosperity. “We got on very well,” remarked Ren, a Beijinger in his early eighties sent by the government to work and settle in Karamay, in Xinjiang, in the 1950s. “We learned some of the language, we had lots of Uighur friends, we used to go and eat in each other's houses ... I think the problems now are just caused by a few people.”
Today, Uighur-Han ethnic relations are the most bitter in China. On the Uighur side, the reasons are obvious; as they see it, the Han are occupiers, invaders, and despoilers. Uighur conversation, particularly among men, is full of casually derogatory references to the Chinese. The state and the locals in Xinjiang literally keep different time—State institutions, and most Han, go by Beijing time, universal across the country, but Uighur keep time by the geographical reality of their time zone, a difference of two hours, while local businesses oscillate between the two. In practice, Uighur switch easily between “Xinjiang time” and “Beijing time” and confusion is rare. But many Han, segregated in communities under Beijing’s watch, stick only to one clock, preferring a government-approved rhythm of the day over a more natural one. Uighur asked the time by unthinking Han will give Beijing hours if they want to help, but local time if they feel mischievous.
The bitterness grew sharply in the 1980s, following China’s economic liberalisation. The chief cause was the influx of Han to Xinjiang, going from a fraction of the population to numbers equal to the Uighur. (Xinjiang demographics are as contested as everything else, unsurprisingly.)
As mining and oil development opened up Xinjiang’s wealth, Han arrived to take, in the Uighurs’ view, the lion’s share. “We should be as rich as Saudi Arabia,” one Uighur day laborer told me as we shared beers on a construction site in Beijing this summer. And as Han poured in, Uighur poured out. Like everybody else in China, the Uighur move for work. With the Han arrival, too, jobs for Uighur became scarcer, and the diaspora spilled across the country.
Today within Xinjiang, official policy toward the Uighur can be surprisingly sensitive, but the application is cack-handed. A halal option is provided, at least in theory, in the canteens of every State institution in China, but university staff force Xinjiang students to eat during the daytime during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Uighur, like other ethnic minorities, are allowed two or three children rather than one, but family planning officials patrol villages peeking into bins for evidence of menstruation.
The meshrep, a traditional male Uighur gathering, is on UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” items for China, but “illicit” meshrep are banned and groups of young men often broken up by the police.
Han officials are encouraged by official directives to learn Uighur, but, despite the availability of excellent Uighur-Chinese textbooks, it is rare for any of them to make it past the level of “Hello.” In official interactions, the burden is on the locals to make themselves understood, though Uighur officials often serve as intermediaries for monolingual compatriots. There is a thriving Uighur publishing industry, but dozens of Uighur writers, historians, and poets have been jailed for their work. Officials are given lectures on respecting Islamic values, but police toss Qurans to the floor during raids on “illegal” madrassas.
Among the Han, the popular dislike for Uighur is more complicated. Some of it is simple resentment against minorities. Uighur and Tibetans are seen as ungrateful recipients of national largesse, especially since huge sums of money have been poured into China’s “backward” and “uncivilised” Western regions. From a grassroots Han perspective, the minorities get all the breaks: more generous social welfare, the leeway to have more than one child, lower score requirements to get into college, reserved spots in local government.
Much of this is a matter of perception: Xinjiang’s welfare benefits are the same as for other provinces, but because unemployment among the Uighur is so high, Uighur are far more likely to be living off the dole, sometimes combined with gray income.
Han often identify Uighur with Islam, which they can see as being both backwards and foreign. The refusal of Uighur to eat pork, which is ubiquitous in Chinese food—even in vegetable and tofu dishes—is a source of considerable curiosity and amusement; Uighur dining out with Han socially often face pressure to chow down on the forbidden meat.
On Chinese State and social media, there was bitterness, and some gloating, over the supposed discrepancy between official U.S. treatment of and public reaction to the bombers of the Boston Marathon on April 15 and the general American attitude toward the Xinjiang killings eight days later. My Chinese friend Qian Li, studying in London, posted “Whenever a local kills in the U.S., that’s sad; whenever a Muslim kills, that’s evil; whenever a Muslim kills in China, that’s the evil Communists!”
And many Han believe that the police ignore Uighur crimes, unwilling to get involved in prospective ethnic conflicts that might bring unwelcome attention from superior officials. “If a Uighur is arrested, he just slashes himself with his blade, and then the police don’t want to touch him because if he’s hurt, they have to take him to hospital and pay,” I was told by an earnest young woman keen that I should understand what a difficult situation the police were in.
The Uighur benefit, to some degree, from their difference: Han witnesses are strikingly unlikely to be able to identify them by any characteristic other than their ethnicity. Yet judging by Uighur accounts of police brutality, the relationship is cyclical; while police, as Wu says, often ignore minor Uighur offences for fear of extra hassle from their superiors, they resent having to do so. When they have an excuse to actually make an arrest, it goes worse for the Uighur as a result.
Coming out of the Tuanjiehu subway station in Beijing this June, my friend noticed a heavy police presence. I went down and asked one of the local three-wheeler drivers what the cause was. “There were a couple of Uighur hawkers here the other day,” one of the drivers said, “So the police wanted to drive them away before so many of them showed up that there was a problem.”
Even the blade story may have roots in reality. Dave Lyons, a former Xinjiang resident, recounted to me being told by a Uighur police officer in Xiamen that police stations commonly had Uighur officers whose role was to deal with gangs of Uighur child beggars, and to stop the kids from slashing themselves when caught to try to force the police to take them to hospital rather than jail.
The sheer distinctiveness of the Uighur, immediately recognizable by their Turkic features, works against them. It is true that there are Uighur protection rackets. But in my experience, non-local Chinese crime is based upon regional affiliation networks: Henan gangs, Hunan gangs, Hebei gangs, Hubei gangs—criminals, like other migrant workers, stick to their own, whether they come from the same village, the same province, or the same ethnicity.
The Uighur knife is a constant worry. I’ve talked to a couple of dozen Han about the Uighur over the last three years, and every one of them stressed that they carry knives every day; true, to some extent, though far more as a tool than as a weapon.
Knives appear in every story of Uighur violence; the spring killings were sparked, according to the media reports, by the discovery of a pile of knives in a house, while the social workers were held hostages with “1.2 meter long knives.”
Knives or not, the routine presence of Uighur is often read by Han as threatening. The Chinese like their minorities to be beautiful women or cute children. If they are men, they should be old, or at the least dressed in a “traditional” costume, and preferably dancing.
This is typically about as representative of modern minority life as Morris dancing is of English culture, and about as dignified. The best example of this is Beijing’s Minzu Gongyuan (Ethnic Minorities Park), outside of which used to be an all-too-accurate sign in English, which read “Racist Park.” A trip through the park is like a deranged live-action version of Disneyland’s It’s a Small World ride, an all-singing, all-dancing performance from every minority, with the majority of the performers women.
There is another minority strongly identified with masculinity within Chinese culture: the Mongols. But there is a level of comfort with Mongol masculinity that does not exist with the Uighur. It fits into the image that China’s dongbeiren (Northeasterners) have of themselves: hard-drinking, hard-fighting, real men, often proud of Mongol or Manchu heritage, either real or imagined.
Wang Lijun, the former Police Chief of Chongqing whose flight to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu last February sparked the scandal that brought down his mentor Bo Xilai, is supposedly half-Mongolian, and was purportedly named “Unen Baatar” (True Hero) by his father. Chinese media, back before Wang’s disgrace, lauded him for his “iron-blooded” policing techniques and praised him for inheriting “the heroic styles of his famous ancestor Genghis Khan.” But Wang has been accused of being “one hundred percent Han” and deliberately switching his identity to profit from minority-directed tokenism. Such allegations of opportunistic ethnicity aren’t rare in Inner Mongolia, but are almost non-existent in Xinjiang.
“Han at the Bottom”
One of the most striking differences between the Uighur and other Chinese minorities is the lack of inter-marriage. Han-minority marriages are common, and many of my Chinese friends I thought were straightforwardly Han have turned out to be half-Hui or half-Miao. In Guangxi, Yunnan, and Guizhou, all areas with heavy minority populations, between ten and fifteen percent of households are bi-ethnic, mostly Han-minority marriages. In Xinjiang, the rate is two percent, and most of those are marriages between Uighur and other minorities.
I sparked an argument among a group of Uighur, mostly Beijing residents, by bringing up the idea of the marriage hierarchy; which other ethnicity was it best to marry into? Uzbeks and Kazakhs ranked high, and Americans and other foreigners pretty well, though there was a strong case made by one man for the Hui. (“Very good Muslims,” he said, “Better than the Uzbeks, anyway.”) There was a universal consensus, however, that the Han were at the bottom, and by a pretty vast distance. “If my sister married a Han,” one of the group, working as a computer programmer in Beijing at a Chinese firm and translating from Uighur for me, said, “I wouldn't talk to her again.”
Among the Han I talked to, there was a widespread misconception that marrying Uighur women is illegal, literally. This is seen as yet another concession to the Uighur, and resented. It was true at one point, long ago; inter-marriage in Xinjiang was forbidden until 1979, in an attempt to avoid offending Uighur sensibilities. Even after the ban was lifted, though, mixed marriages remained vanishingly rare. The veil, sometimes worn by Uighur women, adds fuel to the fire of Han antagonism; they can have our women, but we can’t see theirs.
I met one of the rare Han-Uighur children, daughter of a Uighur mother and a Han father. Amy, twenty-eight, preferred her English name to her Chinese one, and had never had a Uighur name that she knew of. She worked in “hospitality and entertainment for special clients” in the Middle East, though we met when she was visiting Shanghai. She was tiny and head-turningly beautiful, like an Arabian princess on the cover of a pulp magazine, with the high cheekbones and dark eyes of her mother mixed with her father’s skin tone.
“I was brought up by my father’s parents,” she told me. “They used to call me and my sister ‘our pretty little Uighur.’ They meant it lovingly, but it was another way of knowing I was different. I only saw my mother’s family twice, when I was very small, and I only spoke Chinese growing up. But I couldn’t forget who I was. When I hear Uighur songs, even though I don’t understand them, they make me cry. But I don’t feel I have anything in common with Uighur. When I see the men, I think they look disgusting.”
With the fear of Uighur masculinity goes a fear of Uighur sexuality. This is most acute in Xinjiang itself. Bolo is a common Uighur word for children of both sexes, also used in compounds to describe men, meaning anything from “a good lad” to “a real mensch.” But as anthropologist Jay Dautcher points out, the Han in Xinjiang have adapted the term into Mandarin as bolangzi, “bo-wolf,” as a description of young Uighur men, with strong connotations of sexual aggressiveness. (Selang, “colour wolf,” means anything from a predator to a playboy.) As on most fraught ethnic borderlands, both communities warn their young women about the other’s young men.
The spark for the attack was a rumour that six Uighur had gang-raped two Han girls. But there had been no rape. One of the Han girls, a nineteen-year-old from the countryside, had walked into a Uighur male dormitory by mistake. According to a Xinhua report published three days after the riot, she “screamed when I saw those Uygur young men in the room.” She said she had no idea why she was so frightened, but “I just felt they were unfriendly so I turned and ran. One of them stomped his feet like he was coming after me, but I didn’t realise he was just joking.”
Many of the other atrocities recounted, from babies thrown out of windows to violated corpses, seem more dubious, though not impossible. Too often they reminded me of the alleged crimes of the Germans in Belgium in 1914, or the Iraqis in Kuwait in 1991. Atrocity stories repeat themselves, but then, so do atrocities. As with so much else in Xinjiang, it remains indistinct.