Uighurs rattle China


POSTED: Sunday, July 12, 2009

China always lives on the political edge with its 50-plus minorities, but the Muslim Uighurs of the far northwest traditionally have been the most restive of the colonized people before the absorption of Tibet. There is a long history in Xinjiang of going against the grain of imported culture. Even the Russians who came there at the start of WWII to establish an air base found the people to be extremely hostile. Before that, there were desert warlords.

And since the mid 1800s, the dominant Uighur people have been trying - sometimes peacefully and occasionally violently - to get independence. The Han Chinese always slapped that down and figuratively “;drowned”; the locals in a sea of outsiders. What Beijing did in the 1900s is offer great salaries, housing and free transportation to any Han (the dominant ethnic group) who would move to Xinjiang to live and work. It wasn't long before Han made up a huge chunk of the 15 million people in the province.

Moreover, Han were put in charge of all major government posts. Uighurs and the many other ethnicities there were given subordinate posts. The minorities were eventually allowed to have newspapers and magazines in their own languages, but Han authorities

carefully oversaw the content and eventually, the media became self censoring. Beijing did allow the mosques to remain but carefully monitored the mullahs speech.

Very interesting in all this is there are still many ethnic Russians living in the province in Tacheng, Altay, Yining and Urumqi. They speak the Slav branch of the Indo-European language family and use the Russian written language. Their dress and customs are similar to those of native Russians. They stay out of the political fray.

Also staying out of it are the various rural tribespeople such as the Kazahks. They are a sizeable population but seem to focus on agricultural issues. They know they would be swamped by Uighurs if there were independence.

One other important issue: Schoolchildren in Xinjiang are taught in their ethnic language and also learn Mandarin Chinese. But the Han children there have moved way ahead of them academically because they are learning English and other foreign languages. So they are the ones likely to get the best jobs, government or private.

This unrest won't go away. And it could easily spread to other so-called “;autonomous regions”; (a bit of a laugh) and destabilize the Chinese government.

And just to the south is Tibet.

Bob Jones has done four documentaries in China. He was the first American TV journalist allowed to travel and report in Xinjiang Province and that report won the George Foster Peabody Award. He is a MidWeek columnist.