KASHGAR and URUMQI, Xinjiang – At the Mother of All Bazaars, the atmosphere still evokes Marco Polo’s Travels. A monumental traffic jam of donkey carts coils around the muddy borders of the Tuman River – trespassed by horses, Bactrian camels, acres of melancholic sheep and elders brandishing sickles and testing horseshoes, saddles and whips. Sandy alleys bear the conspicuous accumulation of carpets from Hotan, mountains of spices, laminated dowry boxes, bits and pieces of dead animals, very much alive chickens and ducks, the famous Yengisar knives, hats in all shapes and colors, pots and pans, fruits, vegetables, riding boots, prehistoric transistor radios, Pakistani silk stockings, any imaginable agricultural tool hand-made from wood or steel, and the usual paraphernalia of items available in any self-respecting Oriental souk. The food is delicious – from bread sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds to lahgman – noodles topped with mutton and vegetables; from jiger (liver) kebab to girde nan – Uighur bagels.
One hundred thousand nomads and villagers converge every week on this anthropological delirium, the Kashgar Sunday market. Solemn barbers with long sharp knives perform in the street. Multitudes gather in front of karaoke-TVs. The cast of characters – with their long, pointed beards, decorated hats, dark cloaks and black boots – are all Uighurs: an ethnic subdivision of the Turks who dominated Mongolia in the 8th and 9th centuries. The language, of course, is Uighur. The music, still on audio cassettes, is gecekondu arabesk, Turkish pop. Most women wear multicolored scarves, but quite a few wear a chador or a thick brown cloth thrown over their heads.
Spiritually, the area points to Mecca. We are more than 4,000 kilometers from Beijing, and two hours behind Beijing time which is supposed to apply to the whole of China. But here, everybody is guided by Xinjiang local time. There’s not a single Han Chinese face in this bazaar.
This is China’s last frontier. From here to the west and south, there’s only desert, steppe and the mountains along the Karakoram Highway, a few Tajik and Kyrgyz nomads living in yurts, and the
Khunjerab Pass – the 4,700-meter-high border with Pakistan, a key node in the legendary Silk Road between the Chinese world and the Indian subcontinent, and between China and the West.
An agglomeration like this one every week in Kashgar is the stuff of nightmares of Beijing’s collective leadership, especially after the Uighur independence movement in Xinjiang was declared enemy No. 1 of the Chinese state – even more dangerous than Tibetan “splittists” and the followers of the Dalai Lama government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India. But from the point of view of any Uuighur, the enemy – internal and external – is Han Chinese. The problem is, the Uighurs are incapable of defining themselves as a nation. When we ask where they come from, they answer, for instance, “I am a kashgarlik“: tough man of the desert. The Uighurs think in terms of their native oasis, not in terms of a state.
Medieval Kashgar, still enmeshed in its successive layers of legend and history, and the last bastion of Uighur culture, does not expect anything from China. The air is heavy with dust from the desert, dust from old carpets, smoky coal fires: the filter gives the impression that we are perpetually in the alternative reality of an old, faded, 19th-century photo of Kashgar. The city lives to the rhythm of rickety donkey carts, fat kebabs, mare’s milk and daily prayers at the suggestive Id Kah Mosque, the largest in western China and one of the largest in Central Asia. This Turcophone people was never refined by the proximity of the Mediterranean or Byzantium. And to add to the tragedy, their culture was smashed by Mao Zedong’s wasteland tactics.
Cultural schizophrenia is the norm. There’s the Uighur old town – kadimi shahr – and the Han Chinese town – yangi shahr. If Id Kah dictates Uighur life, for the Chinese the privileged meeting point is the inevitable People’s Square, with one of the largest Mao statues in China pointing to the eternal glory of the masses. This giant Mao remains the Orwellian symbol of the conqueror belonging to a more organized and technologically more advanced civilization. People’s Square is filled with Chinese soldiers promenading their belles in their ersatz 1970s clothes which, compared with the catwalk in the Uighur market, are frankly post-modern. A melancholic parallel with Lhasa, sacred capital of Tibet, where a ghastly People’s Square was also imposed on the noble facade of the Potala Palace, is inevitable. As in Tibet, in Xinjiang the gap – cultural, linguistic, religious, architectural, even gastronomic – is unbridgeable.
The Chinese established the Silk Road at the end of the 1st century in part to supply a demand from Rome. Silk was de rigueur for the vanity fair of senators and lascivious ladies in the court of Augustus. The Chinese also took the opportunity to export porcelain, lacquerware, gunpowder, plants, and paper; and to import, among other things, wool and glass from Rome, lapis lazuli from Central Asia and wine from Persia. Kashgar – like Samarkand to the west (today part of Uzbekistan) – was a privileged oasis where two Silk Road routes converged.
Uighurs only discovered Islam in the 10th and 11th centuries: not through the Arabs, but via a Turco-Persian dynasty that ruled Bukhara (today also part of Uzbekistan). Genghis Khan captured Kashgar in the 13th century. Tamerlane ruled in the 14th. Europeans only saw it for the first time five centuries later. British explorers at the end of the 19th century – at the height of the Great Game between Russia and the British Empire – used to comment that few inhabited areas in the world are more remote and inaccessible than Xinjiang. This still holds – as Xinjiang is in fact separated from China by the Gobi Desert. Even today, Han Chinese cannot understand why a foreigner would want to go “beyond the pale,” west of the end of the Great Wall.
Xinjiang means, literally, “New Dominions.” The dominator is Beijing. And the dominated are the Uighurs. Before communism took over, the region was known as Eastern Turkestan. Two thousand years ago the Han dynasty, fearing Turkish nomads, already maintained a military garrison in Xinjiang. But Xinjiang was only annexed to China by Manchu invaders in 1759. The strategic objective, from the point of view of Beijing, has always been the same: to isolate this part of Central Asia from the Turks, China’s historical enemies. Turbulence was inevitable: Uighurs have revolted against Han Chinese at least 400 times. Xinjiang was even independent for a few stretches. But Mao finished with any nuances when he imposed mass migration of Han Chinese to “civilize” Eastern Turkestan. In 1949, the dominators were slightly less than 10 percent of the population; now they are at least 50 percent, and rising.
Communication with Uighurs is a nightmare. They refuse to speak Mandarin, the language of the colonizing power. They speak only Uighur, and rightly so: this used to be the court language of the Mongols. It’s one form of civil disobedience still available in a situation where even university graduates complain of having a hard time finding a job because major companies are all Han Chinese and only employ Han Chinese.
It’s almost a miracle to find someone in Kashgar like Ali, an Uighur in his early 30s, educated in Beijing, a manager in a mineral-extracting company and speaking passable English. After a few cups of tea, Ali finally reveals how he articulated an inevitable revolt against his benefactors-oppressors: “You, journalists and tourists, you always believe in Chinese lies. There’s no investment in Xinjiang where there’s a majority of Uighurs. Only where there’s a majority of Han. Xinjiang is the richest province in China. We have a lot of oil, the Taklamakan Desert has more than 80 billion barrels. We have gas, we have uranium. But the Uighurs don’t get anything. The Chinese steal everything. Did you see any Western businessman in Kashgar? Of course not, there are only backpackers, they have no money to spend. All over China they are talking about development. Here we have only unemployment. One day people will say ‘Enough!’ ‘Enough’ is what Beijing qualifies as ‘splittism’ or, worse still, ‘terrorism’.”
The Uighurs’ resistance does not have a Dalai Lama to capture headlines, but they are not intimidated: bombs have been detonated, attacks have been perpetrated, and the underground remains very active in Istanbul and Germany. The Uighur diaspora in Central Asia – a potential source of financing what is widely described as a future “Uighurstan” – numbers at least 400,000. In the early 1990s, Kazakhstan allowed two Uighur liberation groups to be based in Almaty. But China under Jiang Zemin developed a turbocharged diplomatic offensive. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan duly obliged: they cracked down on Uighur offices, arrested Uighurs who criticized Beijing and kept the borders open for trade but not for money, weapons or propaganda helping Uighurs in China.
Urumqi is the capital of the Chinese far west, the last frontier of civilization from the point of view of Beijing, and in itself quite a surreal spectacle. Three thousand kilometers away from Beijing, literally in the middle of nowhere – that is, south the snow-capped Tian Shan Mountains and north of the menacing Taklamakan Desert, the name of which in Uighur means “you can get in but you can’t get out” – we find a metropolis of more than 1 million: a generic city imported from the Chinese east coast, with 90 percent of Han Chinese transplanted by force by communism and the remaining vounteers avidly dreaming of getting rich gloriously quick.
Street signs are in both Mandarin and Arabic script. Urumqi taxi drivers, unlike any in Central Asia, actually use their taxi meters. The currency – the Chinese yuan – is totally stable. The main office of the Bank of China is imperially impeccable. Urumqi has gone digital, while Kashgar is still in ink-on-paper mode. Urumqi tinkles to the sound of colonization: department stores selling all manner of cheap knockoffs, skyscrapers sprouting like mushrooms, cranes, chainsaws, black smoke, hellish pollution coupled with desert winds. Everything runs on – of course – Beijing time: the sun “rises” at 8am. We feel all the awesome power of the central state.
Uighurs are nowhere to be seen in central Urumqi – except as beggars or tacky felt souvenir dolls. Most have been deported to suburbia at the edge of the desert. But mosques are bursting at the seams. Uighurs – desert nomads – are not particularly religious, but Islam has been a powerful way of expressing their distress. As well as speaking only their own language, Uighurs also don’t take taxis with Han Chinese drivers and only eat halal food. The young don’t listen to Chinese pop, but to the pungent guitar sounds of Akbar Kahriman. At Erdaoqao market, hundreds of merchants sell the same items that are found in Kashgar . The area around it is a mini-replica of Kashgar. Unfazed, Han Chinese built their own, sanitized version: the “Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar,” complete with its own mosque, an array of camel statues (plus one genuine article for tourist snapshots), piped music (Natalie Imbruglia or Chinese pop: no Uighur tunes) and a 5,000-square-meter “Joy Square.” There’s not a whole lot of joy around, though. Carved in the faces of elder Uighurs, there’s a feeling of not so much anger as profound sadness – at the disappearance of their culture and at not even being able to pick up the crumbs from the Great Han Materialist Banquet.
To top it all, Beijing has radically cut off aid to the so-called “etnic minorities”: there are 12 in Xinjiang alone, and apart from Uighurs (42 percent of the population) they include Hui (Chinese Muslims), Manchu, Mongolian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek and Tatar. Only Han Chinese could come up with a concept like “minority food street.” Beijing is only interested in promoting “mysterious” Xinjiang for tourism purposes: but it has to be a Xinjiang reduced to theme-park status. If you are a Uighur and you happen, by a miracle, to work for a Chinese company, you cannot go to the mosque. Signs on many mosques, in Arabic, say they are forbidden to teenagers – which is a frankly absurd ruling that has nothing to do with Islamic law. All public demonstrations by Uighurs are forbidden. And if you are an Uighur in Urumqi and you talk about independence, you are arrested on the spot, assures a trader in Yengisar knives. In March 2000 Beijing formally adopted an ambitious plan for “the large-scale development of the West.” The key point of this massive “Go West” campaign is to resettle millions more Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Beijing would not be too displeased if in the long run this official policy exports many of the 7.5 million Uighur and 1.3 million Kazakh “minorities” toward the more unstable pastures of the former Soviet Central Asian republics.
Mao Zedong used to talk about the possibility of a “super-chaos” in China. Arguably the mindset remains the same in Beijing, as the Politburo knows very well that Uighurs and other “ethnic minorities” are less than 6 percent of the total population of 1.3 billion, but they occupy more than half of Chinese territory. Xinjiang is almost as big as Western Europe. Beijing’s greatest fear is the – at least for the moment – remote possibility of new alliances between regional chiefs and business elites capable of redrawing China’s map, as happened many times in the past. Since the implosion of the Soviet Union and the birth of the new Central Asian republics, Xinjiang has had a constant influx of people from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan: both parts of Turkestan started in a way to unify. That’s exactly what Beijing does not want. Beijing wants very well defined – and patrolled – borders (more in Part 2 of this series).
But the fact is that here, amid mighty Central Asian mountain ranges, it’s impossible to talk about defined borders. Xinjiang anyway remains the laboratory of the future of this China riding a tiger at full speed and at the same time trying to control all the “super-chaos” it is capable of creating. With more than 25 percent of the world’s population and the most coercive of birth-control policies, China still has not managed to contain its population explosion. Ten percent of Chinese territory, inhabited by two-thirds of the overall population, and producing 70 percent of the national wealth, is prone to inundation by major rivers. China’s economy needs to grow at least 10 percent every year just to absorb new contingents of job seekers.
According to Minister of Labor and Social Security Zheng Silin, in his latest report to the National People’s Congress, a staggering 150 million Chinese rural workers are unemployed of a total of 485 million; and of 94 million farmers who have recently migrated to big cities, the majority are still unemployed.
Growth at a median 8 percent annually – something the West can only dream about – is still not good enough for China. While some sectors of “market socialism” have degenerated into gangsterism, and human rights, from Beijing’s point of view, means only economic development, hundreds of millions of people are involved in the largest internal mass migration movement in history. Dozens of millions of unemployed threaten social cohesion. In the event the Dragon starts to disintegrate, the implosion will begin on the periphery, at the last frontier, in the wilderness that shot from the 14th century straight into the 21st: Xinjiang.