the rebellious uighurs of china -- 11/04/15

Today's selection -- from The Ends of the Earth by Robert Kaplan. China is having increasing troubles with revolts and riots among the ethnic minorities at the periphery of the country. The Muslim Uighurs, whose language is related to Turkish, are one such minority. Many are located in Kashgar, in the far western province of Xinjiang:

The Uighurs started migrating to Kashgar from Mongolia in the ninth century A.D., long after the Chinese had been ejected from Central Asia by Arabs, who themselves had withdrawn not long afterward. The army of Genghis Khan captured Kashgar in the early thirteenth century. Later, Tamerlane (who, in 1370, claimed descent from Genghis) ruled here. Not until 1755 did the Chinese return. A Uighur rebellion broke out four years later and was savagely crushed by Manchu troops. Uighur-Chinese relations have been tense ever since. ...

An 8th-century Uyghur Khagan

"In the 1990s, Turkic Moslem Uighurs accounted for 90 percent of Kashgar's population of three hundred thousand. 'The Uighurs,' writes Fergus Bordewich in Cathay, 'look toward Mecca (and perhaps secretly to Ankara) for their identity, not to Beijing, and they regard the Chinese as interlopers; as recently as 1935, they [the Uighurs] massacred the city's [Kashgar's] entire population at a stroke.' ...

"Not since sub-Saharan Africa had I seen so many packs of young men and boys with nothing useful to do, playing in the rough and swaggering manner propitious to crime and violence, given the right circumstances. These were authentic street urchins with hardened, miserly faces -- faces that had been robbed by harsh circumstances of their childhood innocence. It is difficult to be optimistic about a place where ten-year-olds smoke cigarettes.

"The Chinese one-child policy -- a repressive means of population control -- had already collapsed in the minority areas. Overcrowding, unemployment, and awful sanitation were endemic. In the absence of other comforts, a Moslem religious resurgence was widespread. So was the apparent lack of a burgeoning middle class or other signs of economic growth, unlike elsewhere in China. Without a middle class, I wondered, how could there be a meaningful nationalism to underpin a state after the Chinese left?

"Leaving the market, I came upon the Chinese part of town: a cantonment that reminded me of the Russians in Tashkent and the British in Indian cities during the Raj. Chinese soldiers walked arm in arm with wives or girlfriends, dressed in out-of-date Western fashions that looked positively postmodern compared to what I had seen in the Uighur marketplace. A massive statue of Mao loomed from behind a building. Rather than the father of Asian communism, here he symbolized the conqueror from a more organized and technologically advanced civilization. How much longer would the Chinese last here? I asked myself. And what, if anything, would replace them? No doubt, the Chinese could control the international borders of Sinkiang and maintain a semblance of order here for the foreseeable future -- but only if there were a strong central government in China itself, one that did not let China decompose into weakly linked regions.

"I took these concerns to Abdul, a Uighur in his early twenties who had been educated in Beijing and spoke English well. Like so many youths whose educations had been paid for by a repressive regime trying to co-opt them -- the students in the shah's Iran, for example -- Abdul had turned against his Chinese benefactors. He wore a pressed white shirt, gray slacks, and brown shoes. His slick black hair had been neatly cut and combed. By the standards of Kashgar, he seemed to be part of an elite. Abdul's complexion was pale. His eyelids bore only vague traces of his Oriental origin. Abdul, like many in Kashgar, could easily have passed for an Anatolian Turk. What I remember best about him, though, is his cynical laugh. A slight cough, really, followed by a cruel flash in his dark eyes. 'I'm the assistant manager of a factory. Of course, a Chinese guy is my boss.' Laugh.

The ethnic Uighur population used to be the majority in China's Xinjiang region

"Abdul was one of four children. 'This is a big province and we are a small people compared to the Chinese. We need to make many more children.'

" 'But will there be jobs for these kids when they grow up?' I asked. 'Many of them already look like delinquents.'

" 'That is the fault of the Chinese,' Abdul countered. 'There is no investment in the Uighur areas of Sinkiang, only in the Chinese areas. You tourists and journalists believe Chinese lies. Sinkiang is the richest province, but the Uighurs get none of this wealth. The Chinese steal everything. Instead of Western businessmen in Kashgar, we see only these backpackers, who have nothing to spend. There is development all around us, but only high unemployment here. It must lead to something.' I presumed he meant a revolt."


Robert D. Kaplan


The Ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia, a Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy


Vintage Books a Division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 1996 by Robert D. Kaplan


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