By Patricia Lee Sharpe
April 30: News flash! Three dead, dozens injured, outside a RR station in Urumqi, capital of China’s “autonomous” Xinjiang region.
Ok, who did it? Muslim extremists? Uighur separatists? Muslim extremists who happen to be Uighurs? Uighur separatists who happen also to identify as Muslims? No one has claimed responsibility, but it could have been any or all of the above. China’s attempt to absorb a reluctant Uighur minority into an undifferentiated “Chinese” mass and then, that policy having been ill-received, the decision to flood Xinjiang with Han Chinese have together provided more than enough reason for nationalists or theocrats to raise havoc. Uighur aspirations may be next to hopeless, but anger and resentment are hard to bottle up completely. Unhappy people take risks. They strike out.
I could have written this without going to China, but I wanted to see the situation in Xinjiang for myself.
Checking Out the Periphery
So, in mid-April, during my first and only visit to China, I spent a few days in Kashgar and Urumqi, two important cities in Xinjiang. In fact, even as I planned my tour of that country’s non-Han periphery, I’d wondered if I would be able to pull it off. For one thing, given my proposed itinerary, which also included Tibet, would Chinese officialdom issue the requisite visas and permits? Second, would violent protest force itinerary detours once I was in China? Would I, perhaps, end up eating scenery from the deck of a slow boat on the Yangse?
As it turned out, I completed my atypical itinerary, seeing and learning as much as I could, given the enormously frustrating fact that I can’t read or speak any version of Chinese. But I had excellent one-on-one tour guides, each rooted locally, each well-educated and articulate in English, each (to my surprise) quite independent-minded. Mere “minders” they were not, though each had also memorized an encyclopedic collection of facts and figures and was ready to reel off a “bigger, better, faster” spiel for the sites that were the “official” goals each day, including latitude, longitude, annual climate range and how many tons of concrete were needed for project X!
Actually these spiels made me smile, thinking of how Americans used to sound, back in the days when we were bragging about the unrivaled marvels of American engineering (Skyscrapers! Wow!) and the blessings of a fairly unblemished American democracy. Still, verbal data dumps can be very tiresome. Fortunately, when I observed, courteously, that I’d already assimilated the basic dates and stats, the spiel would give way to conversation. Best of all, my questions, probing but not rude, got answered pretty candidly. (How did I know? Too complex to answer.)
Interestingly enough, wherever I went in China, I encountered a lack of curiosity about the U.S. Although industrial (and other) espionage continues, I got the impression that, for many if not most ordinary educated Chinese, the era of learning from others is over. China is rich now (see all the skyscrapers, the highways, the railways—so many, built so fast!) and soon, despite the embittering humiliations of the 19th century, China will be reclaiming her rightful dominant position in the world.
Such arrogance! And how redolant of the American ego in the 20th century!
This striking absence of curiosity about things non-Chinese notwithstanding, I encountered far more English-speakers during my China trip than I had expected. English, it seems, is the vehicle by which China has chosen to communicate with the rest of the world, a policy which greatly facilitated my navigation of the many glassy-glossy new (pride-inspiring) airports I flew in and out of. When I commented to one of my guides that English seemed to be China’s de facto second language, she was a bit startled, even offended, as if there were something insulting in my observation, but it’s true.
And here, to return to my primary topic of Xinjiang, is an interesting tidbit re language: in Kashgar schools, the Uighur kids have to study Uighur and Chinese, while the Chinese kids are expected to study Chinese and English. This means that the local kids aren’t prepared to join the global community and the Han imports don’t have to adapt to the local culture. More evidence of the extent to which the locals and their language get little respect or encouragement from their Han overlords. Since the bombing noted above, Chinese President Xi has suggested that Beijing might import more talent from the minorities. Belated cooptation?
Meanwhile, Beijing has made a policy of asserting that the regime treasures the culture of all its minorities. Evidence of this? Mostly, so far as I could see, in museum dioramas featuring mannequins dressed in antiquated ethnic costumes, like those in the museum in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where the remarkable Caucasian mummies excavated from the surrounding desert are also displayed.
The Wrecking Ball
As for the living culture in ancient Kashgar, what’s left on the street level? Very little, although some quaint remnants of history-laden Uighur neighborhoods may be preserved for the delectation of tourists. (Think of artsy “old towns” in modernizing American cities.) Meanwhile, most of the “native” quarter gets systematically razed, and the unhappy but powerless inhabitants are scattered about in non-glitzy, new apartment buildings that look like warrens for the unwanted. After all, a restive minority may be more easily controlled if it is both diluted and decentralized. (Read more here. This piece on Kashgar appeared before I left for China. Having now walked those streets myself, I’ll vouch for it.)
Oh yes, I almost forgot: to make up for the literal block-busting in Kashgar, the authorities have erected enormous billboards depicting a sleek futuristic city in the making. Open spaces are adorned with propaganda posters featuring lilies, dignified sages, smiling children and poems that promote peace and harmony. How did I know? My guides did a lot of translating and explaining that had nothing to do with pointing out exotic woods in imperial pavillions.
On foot or driving through the countryside, I was asking: What does this sign say? Who lives in this building? What’s the cost of a new apartment here? What are they growing? What’s going on in this compound? Where’s that smoke coming from? And questions like this: Where did your grandparents live and what did they do? People everywhere love to talk about their families. One of my guides praised Maoism for breaking open the class structure, thus allowing him and others of peasant stock to get an eduction. Another told how his professional family had been ruined. Two sides of the same coin. No one was happy about the defacing and destruction of monuments and artifacts during the great cultural revolution.
The Signs Say It
Although Kashgar locals have no effective control over the transformation of their ancient city and the Han imports get the best jobs, run the big retail operations and can afford the nicest new apartments, a certain veneer of local autonomy is maintained. This includes, in Xinjiang, a two language policy. Commercial signs—on shops, for instance—must use the Uighur language as well as Chinese characters. And they do, after a fashion. With few exceptions, the Chinese characters are huge enough to be read at a distance; the Arabic script of Uighur is so tiny it comes across as a long, illegible squiggle. I haven’t had time to process my pix, but check out this photo from the story about the incident mentioned above.
Back to matter of questions. I had to field one in Kashgar that astonished me. It came to light that I had spent a good amount of time in India, so the question was: What did I know about the Kushan empire?
Kanishka, at Last
Well, this: the Kushan empire lasted nearly 300 years, straddling the B.C/Common Era divide; it was powerful and huge, taking in most of today’s northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, a good bit of Uzbekistan, the region around KASHGAR and much of the Silk Route. The Kushans spoke and wrote an Indo-European language; and their most famous leader, Kanishka, converting to Buddhism, ruled accordingly. Above all, the Kushans were NOT HAN.
My acquaintance took great pleasure in this information. Given the fact that there were strangers within earshot, I felt it was better not to ask him why.