Friday, October 03, 2008

A View of Tensions in Xinjiang

The New York Times recently released an article that calls into question the veracity of China's claims of a "terrorist" attack by Muslim Uighurs that killed 16 officers in the northwestern province of Xinjiang on the eve of the big Olympic party.

The Chinese government said at the time that Uighur terrorists drove a truck into a formation of officers as they were out for their early morning run. The two assailants, the reports said, then hurled explosives and attacked officers with knives. I'll let you read the article if interested in the details, but the gist of it is that three eyewitnesses watching from a hotel window told the Times a strikingly different account of the events that unfolded.

I'm not saying that the Uighurs had nothing to do with the attack, but the new accounts leave just enough room for doubt. The Chinese government has proven in its dealings with the Dalai Lama that it's not prolific at PR battles, but I think the authorities are astute enough to know that if they link the words "Islam" and "terrorism," they can get support from Americans who don't understand the nuances of the situation.

But Xinjiang is a tense place full of nuances and bubbling over with ethnic tensions . I know from experience. I was there two years ago, near the border with Kazakhstan. I was kicked out of one town for failing to register with the police while staying with a Mongol family. After that, two friends and I were sent on a road trip that bounced us between four or five different cities. Along the way, we were questioned by officers in every single city.

Because it's such a sensitive area - closer to Kabul, Afghanistan, than Beijing - the authorities are skittish about foreigners roaming around Xinjiang. Only select hotels are allowed to house "overseas guests." These are delineated by gold plaques that usually hang behind the front desk - "Fixed Hotel for Overseas Guests," they say.

I had an interesting experience the first time I tried to check into a hotel in the province, in a city where Uighur independence movements were active during the 1940s. The hotel attendant asked if we were from Kazakhstan. When we said no, we were Americans, they told us to find other lodging arrangements. At that point I knew we were in for a wild ride.

During one of our many interrogations, we were asked - politely, mind you - whether we could speak Russian or if any of us served in the U.S. armed forces. Thankfully, we could all truthfully say no.

I say all this not act like a cool secret agent. We were just backpacking. But our experiences underscore the sensitivity in the region and why Beijing might be apt to exaggerate a terror threat to legitimize its crackdowns on dissidents.

Every Uighur we met was nice and helpful. Many of them are sick of the Han Chinese immigrating into their homeland and starting new developments. You can't really blame the common Chinese folks, who are just looking for economic opportunity and feel like they're helping the region. But some Uighurs don't feel like they should be subjected by force to the Chinese brand of prosperity.

The city of Jinghe is a perfect example. A crossroads town between the provincial capital of Urumqi and the large city of Yining, we stopped there for lunch to break up a long bus ride. The entire center of town was dug up to make way for runaway development, and new storefronts had sprouted up everywhere.

We didn't interview Uighurs, but on the way into town we saw cemeteries with the Islamic crescent moons topping the grave markers. To the outsider's eye, it seemed that this had been Uighur country just a few years before.

Caption: Brad and I don the touristy attire of Mongol kings.

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