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Xinjiang: On the new frontier

By Joe Havely for CNN

Uighur women sell yoghurt at a market in Kashgar.

Population: 19 million, of which about 50 percent Uighur (down from 90 percent in 1949)

Area: With just over 1 percent of China's population, Xinjiang occupies one sixth of its area


(CNN) -- "I can't talk about that," he said, his mood suddenly changing. "Bad things. If I talk about bad things, then there will be trouble. I hope you understand."

The sense of nervousness was obvious. For the native Muslim Uighur population in the city of Kashgar, talking about "bad things" to foreign visitors can be dangerous.

Geographically closer to Moscow than to Beijing, Kashgar first came to fame as a desert oasis stop for camel trains traveling the old Silk Road between Europe and China.

Marco Polo reputedly stopped off here on his epic journey to the Chinese imperial court. Much as it was then, the city is still one of the most important trading centers in Central Asia.

But today the old Kashgar is disappearing fast.

Uighurs in Kashgar and across the vast province of Xinjiang say they are being squeezed culturally and economically by a steady influx of migrants from China's overcrowded east.

It is part, they say, of a deliberate effort by the Beijing government to dilute and repress their society -- a program that involves tight controls on their religion, widespread surveillance, detention and executions.

The adobe Uighur homes that once encircled Kashgar's central mosque and other parts of the city are being demolished and replaced by shopping centers that few of the native Uighur people can afford to shop in, let alone rent retail space.

Human rights groups refer to the situation as China's "other Tibet". Openly talking about "bad things", they say, can land you in jail -- or worse.

In the same way that Buddhism is seen as the greatest challenge to Chinese rule in Tibet and therefore tightly regulated, so too is Islam in Xinjiang.

"Uighur Islam is under wholesale assault from the Chinese state," says Nicholas Becquelin, a specialist on Xinjiang at Human Rights in China (HRIC), based in Hong Kong. "Because Islam is a vehicle to separate Uighur identity it is viewed as a threat."

In the name of anti-separatism and, more recently, China's own self-styled war on terrorism, rights groups say thousands of Uighurs have been jailed, and unknown numbers executed.

Official figures are hard to come by, but says Becquelin, even those that are available paint a bleak picture.

"In 2001, 9 percent of the prison population in Xinjiang were being held under state security charges," he says. "For the whole of China, the official figure is just 0.005 percent."

"Bad things", of course, are not the face of Kashgar or Xinjiang that the Chinese government wants visitors to see.

Technicolor tourist posters show smiling locals in ethnic costumes, standing amid lush green pastures and soaring snow-capped mountain peaks.

Except, more often that not, the faces of these "locals" aren't Uighur, Kyrgyz, Kazakh or any of the other Central Asian ethnic groups -- they are Han Chinese, until recently a tiny minority here in the far west of the country.

At more than three times the size of France, Xinjiang is China's largest province. It is also rich in oil, gas and other natural resources in demand by China's booming economy.

That makes Xinjiang a valuable asset to the Chinese state.

The name Xinjiang translates as 'new frontier' -- and in many ways the province is seen by the Chinese government in the same way California and the Wild West was viewed in the early days of the United States.

Wu Xiaobin, deputy director general of the Xinjiang Foreign Trade and Economy Department, says that as well as being "China's energy storehouse," Xinjiang is also the country's new gateway to the emerging economies and oil resources of Central Asia.

As a result, government-backed programs and new rail lines have brought thousands of internal migrants to resettle and develop Xinjiang's resources.

From Beijing's perspective and that of the migrants, they are bringing money and progress to an underdeveloped region.

Certainly, as Wu argues, education standards have increased, as have literacy levels -- but critics say it is literacy in Mandarin Chinese, rather than the Turkic-based Uighur language that is on the rise.

The province's economy has also begun to flourish - but again few Uighurs say they see much benefit.

Billions of dollars have been spent on new highways, rail lines and airports, but critics say the only aim is to exploit Xinjiang's resources and feed China's manufacturing centers further east.

Ethnic Uighurs say the only way to progress is to assimilate with Han Chinese culture, despite its contradictions with their own beliefs.

"We don't like them," says one Kashgar taxi driver. "They eat pork and that's forbidden in Islam. But they don't like us either."

It's a sentiment that only fuels this clash of cultures.

On the surface China's policies toward Xinjiang are overtly accommodating to the native Uighur population.

The provincial governor is a Uighur, the road and street signs give precedence to the Arabic script of the Uighur language, and the province is officially known as the "Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region."

But in reality, say critics like HRIC's Nick Becquelin, there is a covert and deliberate "architecture of surveillance, control and repression."

At the same time the central government in Beijing justifies its actions by pointing to the constant threat of terrorist attacks from religious extremists seeking to create an independent state known as East Turkestan.

The evidence for that is scant, says Becquelin.

"There have been no attacks since 1998, and the government publicly acknowledges that," he says. "So by erasing the distinctions between dissent, separatism, extremism and terrorism, they're undermining their own arguments."

In fact, he argues, under the banner of tackling the terrorist threat, Beijing's policies are only fueling Uighur resentment.

Meanwhile across Xinjiang, he says, the tools of development are entirely in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, which is overwhelmingly Han Chinese.

"For most Uighurs that means a stark choice: You either become Chinese or you become marginalized."

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