As I was preparing to go to Xinjiang I heard one warning again and again from my Chinese friends. “Be careful, it’s dangerous out there.”
My answer? “I’m not worried. It’s not me they hate.”
You see, Xinjiang people are very different from Chinese people. Perhaps you’ve noticed from my pictures but both ethnically and culturally Xinjaing people are more aligned with turkish/stan countries. They are bigger, have a more western-style body, and have a totally different language and culture than the rest of China.
Officially the people of Xinjiang (called Uighers–pronounced we-gurs) are one of the 55 ethnic minorities the government loves to tout and promote. But things aren’t so peaceful and it is a region known for unrest.
Not that the local people are just being snickity. They have some real grievances. Uighurs are mostly Muslim. Women wear colorful hijab and dresses that cover their arms and legs. Muslim men also traditionally wear white prayer caps, but in Xinjiang they wear colorful hats called “dopa’s” which is a special dress of the Uighur people.
So, how to oppress a religious group of people? Why take away their religion of course. During Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday where people refrain from eating during daylight hours, the government forced people to eat, and ordered restaurants to stay open. Students, teachers, government officials and anyone working for the government was made to orally promise to eat, and in some cases asked to sign a contract saying they would eat. If a Muslim restaurant closed they were told they would be forced to close forever. Students would be kicked out of school and workers would be fired.
Another favorite trick of China is to invade with the greatest ammo it has: population. When Xinjiang rejoined the China “fold” in 1949 the Han Chinese population was less than 10%. Now it is almost half. Predictably, the higher paying jobs are going to the Han Chinese, leaving more menial labor style jobs for the locals. This has also not gone over well.
There has been tensions for decades and it’s not getting better. The biggest incident in recent years was the rioting of 2009. The Uihers started with protests that soon turned violent against the Han Chinese. Police were called in from other parts of China and two days later, hundreds were dead and thousands were injured (both Han and Uigher). The internet was completely blocked in this region for 6-month.
And the region has never recovered. There are constant attacks from Uighers to Han Chinese. The bulk being in Xinjiang, but some have gone further including a famous incident in Kunming in 2014 where a group of eight people stabbed and killed civilians killing 29 and injuring more than a hundred. No one officially took credit for the attack, but within hours the government-run newspaper said Xinjiang separatists were responsible for the attack. Several of the attackers were killed during the incident and the remaining perpetrators were caught and executed soon after. There are some that said China was too hasty in blaming Xinjiang people. Needless to say, there are bad feelings on both sides.
And things aren’t getting better, especially in the capital city of Urumqi. Even before I entered Xinjiang I noticed a substantial increase in security. As I went further west in Gansu province towards Xinjiang security was tightened. Train stations were suddenly surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire. ID and luggage checks were more frequent and intense. Train station workers were wearing bullet proof vests over their blue uniforms.
I took a bus to Urumqi and we had to stop on the highway for a security check. We had to get off the bus, have our stuff and ID’s scanned, then the bus had to go through another security screening before we were allowed to board. Buses, the local city ones, had security and were surrounded by a chain fence. Every large store in Urumqi had a guard with riot gear standing by. Armored vehicles were parked in all sorts of places, with fully clad soldiers standing at attention, their fingers on the trigger of semi-automatic guns. On the street there would be random “cages” which housed three-four silent soldiers, standing at attention, scanning the street. To enter the People’s Park, you had to go through airport-style security (watched over by several fully-armed soldiers) and standing at various points were more armed soldiers, standing stock still in a trifecta position, one looking forward, one to the right and one to left ready for an attack from any direction.
Airport security was obviously stepped up but not just to get into the airport. When one of my planes landed at the Urumqi airport (from Kashgar, another part of Xinjiang) a group of a dozen, fully clad soldiers with guns, met us at the top of the exit ramp and demanded to see ID before letting you get off the exit ramp. The exit ramp on the a plane!
Needless to say, none of this made me feel very safe. I’ll admit these soldiers did look quite trained and serious, but it wouldn’t take much for a benign situation to escalate quickly. And with all those guns and soldiers with their fingers on the triggers there has to be more than a few accidents.
And it was clearly a racist system. For instance, in almost all the security checks, I was waved through without any hassle. At one point the guard took my passport then asked (in Chinese) “What country are you from?” I wanted to point out he had my passport in his hands so he could find out for himself, but I just mumbled “America” before he handed me my passport and waved me through. He didn’t even open it.
And when I was getting off the plane, and I saw all the guards, I had no idea what was going on. I just took out my ticket and held it up, and the guard just waved me on while I noticed everyone else was getting their ID’s checked.
Even my untrained eye noticed a big difference in how ID’s were checked. Han Chinese were asked for their ID’s which were briefly looked at, or scanned, and they were told to continue. Uigher’s ID’s were looked at in more detail, their faces scrutinized for much longer before they were scanned and allowed to continue. And once, while on a tourist bus full of Han Chinese tourists, we were waved through a highway security check. I looked at the station as we passed and saw the buses that were stopped were full of local people. I know American tend to root for the underdog, but even I was feeling a bit outraged at the blatant difference of the treatment of Han people versus the Uighurs.
Almost all of the guards were Han Chinese. The only place I saw Uighur police was in Kashgar, in the far west of the country (next to the Pakistan border). They had the uniforms and the police golf-carts to drive around on, but they would sit and chat at their posts with locals. They didn’t have any guns. When I did see a police with a gun, it was a Han Chinese. I don’t know if this is indicative of the force as a whole, but I didn’t see a Uighur police with a gun my entire trip.
And this attitude has bled through to the entire population of China, which is why I was so regularly cautioned by well-meaning Chinese friends. While in Xinjiang I lost my kindle. I stupidly left it on a bench one afternoon. When I wrote “I lost my Kindle!” on my WeChat the biggest response was to tell me to be careful because “those people are dangerous and wild.” My Chinese friends had assumed it was stolen.
I don’t want you to get the wrong impression though. The people were incredibly friendly and despite all this police presence I didn’t see any violence or feel threatened. I tried to speak English as much as I could out of respect (I heard they don’t like to speak Chinese) but often I had to just because English isn’t widely known out there. Though I found many of the locals, like taxi drivers, also couldn’t speak Chinese beyond the basics. (Mandarin is the language taught in school though, so the educated students can speak it fluently.)
Usually when foreigners think of China, Tibet gets all the support. The problems of Xinjiang are not well-known in the west. Perhaps it is because they are Muslim (and westerners aren’t exactly sympathetic to Muslims) and there is no kind leader like the Dalai Lama to get behind. But it seems to me the problems in Xinjiang are just as real, and much more dangerous and need to be figured out soon.
P.S. This is just my opinion based on what I have seen and heard in my time in China, not based on politics or history of the region. If you want to argue politics I’ll stop you now by saying you win. I don’t know a ton about this region and the long history it has with China. I’m just expressing my opinion at what I saw and how I felt. If you want more of a knowledgeable source, you can read this primer by the BBC.