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Relations between Uighurs and Han Chinese not all bad

Bo Gu / NBC News

A young Uighur girl inside her veil shop in Urumqi.

By Bo Gu, NBC News

URUMQI, Xinjiang, China – For a country of 1.3 billion – it should come as no surprise that China has at least 56 different officially recognized ethnic groups. But the largest ethnic group, the Han Chinese, are not just the majority – they dominate by a large margin and make up 91.5 percent of the population or approximately 1.2 billion people.  

And as the Han Chinese footprint spreads across the country, some groups like the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic Muslim minority of about 8 million who live predominantly in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, are feeling increasingly marginalized. (See a great New York Times Interactive map of ethnic minorities in China).

Walk down the street in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and you might mistake it for any other Chinese provincial capital. With its ugly cement boxy buildings, wide roads with maniac taxi drivers, cheap stores selling fake Nike products and DVDs, and construction sites everywhere – it looks like any other Chinese city. That is if you took away the Uighur women in their bright traditional veils and the Turkic-looking language on shops and road signs.

But it was also the site of violent clashes between Han Chinese and Uighurs in July 2009 that left almost 200 dead, the vast majority of whom them Han Chinese.

Similar clashes between Han Chinese and Uighurs happened at the end of July in Kashgar, a city at the far western tip of Xinjiang. At least eleven people were killed and dozens more injured. 
The Chinese government blamed “separatist forces,” and claimed the troublemakers received training in Pakistan. But as usual, news coverage of the incidents was tightly controlled by the government. 

Is Han influence all bad?
Despite the recent clashes and the assumption that the Uighurs don’t care for the Chinese incursion into their territory, it is worth asking if the Han’s presence in the area is all bad.

Beijing, via the Xinjiang Development and Reform Committee, invested $12.3 billion dollars in key projects in the Xinjiang region during the first half of 2011 alone – a 44 percent jump from the same period last year, according to the China Business Times.

Bo Gu / NBC News

Three young Uighur girls play poker together in Kashgar's old residential area, now a tourist attraction.

The cash-infused projects include hydropower stations in Hotan, a high voltage power grid between the Turpan and Bayingol regions, a thermoelectric plant in Usu, many new highway links connecting cities, and thousands of civil construction projects like kindergartens and residential buildings.

For the past six decades, the Chinese government has been applying the same strategy to Xinjiang as it has to Tibet – putting a lot of money and people in the region.

China’s sixth national census conducted in late 2010 shows that 40.1 percent of Xinjiang’s population is ethnic Han – compare that to 1953, when the Han population was merely 6.8 percent.

Since the 1950s, Xinjiang’s GDP has been steadily growing at an annual rate of 8 percent. In 2008, contribution to economic growth by industrial enterprises was 52.3 percent, 274 times more than what it was in 1952, according to a report titled, “Xinjiang’s Development and Progress,” released by the State Council in September 2009.

Hundreds of dams have been built and millions of miles of roads have been paved. Airports are everywhere, greatly enabling people’s speed of travel. Tourism has blossomed, and the illiteracy rate has dropped.

A Silk Road culture pushed to the brink

During the period from 1950 to 2008, direct investment from the central government in Xinjiang added up to $60 billion. Since 2000, when the government launched its grand strategy to “develop the West,” financial aid to Xinjiang has grown at a rate of 24.4 percent annually. In 2008 alone, the central government’s financial aid to the province reached $11 billion.  
It is probably hard to say whether Xinjiang would be better off without the Han authorities. What really scares all the ethnicities is that they fear the recent attacks in Kashgar won’t be the last. 

Many Han migrants in Xinjiang (and in Tibet) don’t understand why the violence happens, especially against them. “We’ve invested so much to help you, why do you revenge by killing us?” is a question often asked.

But not every Uighur is ungrateful. Many of them are very open to Han culture.

With many questions on my mind, I interviewed Elham a 24-year old Uighur man living in northern Xinjiang who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity. While he represents just one viewpoint on inter-ethnic relations in the area, his responses are interesting. Here is an excerpt of our dialogue. 

Q: I know that you went to a Han school when you were young. Why did you choose to go to a Han school instead of a Uighur school? Don’t you think it’s a pity that you didn’t learn your own language?

Elham: It was my decision, because I wanted to learn Chinese, because I thought it would be useful. A lot of useful literature was written in Chinese only. There were only three or four Uighur kids in my class. The Uighur language was not taught in my school. I only started to learn how to write in Uighur a few years ago. Now I’m kind of struggling…but I don’t think it’s a pity.

Q: What was it like when you went to school with all the Han children? Did you get along?
Yeah, we all got along. When you are kids you don’t really know the difference between different ethnicities. We would go to the Han kids’ families to play, and they would come to ours. When we had our holiday like Corban Festival they would come and celebrate with us. (Corban Festival is the Uighur term for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha or “Festival of Sacrifice” that commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to God, but instead was able to sacrifice a ram).

Bo Gu / NBC News

A Uighur man tends to his shoe stall inside Kashgar's Grand Bazaar.

Q: Is it still like that?
I feel like since graduation things became a bit different. I think this has something to do with family education. I sometimes hear Han parents tell their kids to stay away from Uighur kids. This is unbelievable. They tell their kids that they are better than Uighurs. I didn’t feel like that when I was younger. I remember when I was a kid I used to go to a food market to buy food for my mom. Sometimes I didn’t have enough cash on me. I would just ask the Han food vendor to come to my home and get the money, and then my mom would welcome him and treat him with fruit, just like how she treated her friends. There wasn’t any distance.

Q: Do you have Han friends? Would you marry a Han girl? Is interracial marriage common?
Oh yes, a lot. My girlfriend [another Uighur] and I are engaged, and all my Han friends say they can’t wait to come to my wedding! No, I won’t marry a Han girl, this is about tradition. I don’t think many Han men marry Uighur girls, either. You see maybe three or four interracial marriages out of 1,000 couples.

Q: What does your parents’ generation think of the Hans? Do they feel like their territory is invaded? Do you feel like younger people like you are more open to ethnic differences?
Quite the opposite. I think my parents’ generation is more open to the Han, while in our generation, the distance is growing. In Xinjiang, the Han people used to share a lot of habits with the Uighurs, like they didn’t eat pork, either.

Like when I was a child, when my mom made naan (a type of Uighur bread baked with butter), we would always invite our Han neighbors to share with us, and when they made their Han-style steamed bread, they would share with us, too. It seems like when the society is more developed, our relationship is somehow not as good as before. During my parents’ generation, it was like everyone was everyone’s friend, but it’s not like that anymore.

Bo Gu / NBC News

A Uighur food vendor hands out food to children outside Kashgar's Grand Bazaar.

Q: I heard in Xinjiang, that Uighurs have a better chance to find jobs if they speak Mandarin, is that true? If so, do you think it’s unfair?
It depends. If it’s in north Xinjiang, Uighurs have to learn Mandarin, while in south Xinjiang, the Han have to learn Uighur. Yeah, I think in north Xinjiang if you speak Mandarin, you have a better chance to find a good job, but I don’t think it’s unfair. It’s a great thing to master another language. Like when I learn the history of Xinjiang, I love it that I’m able to read the history books in both languages, so I can compare and I know better. It’s a good thing.

Q: Is it true that college students and government staff are not allowed to engage in any religious activities like Ramadan. Are Uighurs against that idea?
Well, the law says as a citizen you have the right to be religious or not. This is what Chinese law says. But then they ask you not to be religious. It’s like they support your religion, and at the same time they do not support it. But this is our tradition.

Q: What do you and your friends think about the Uighurs who blew up buses and killed Han Chinese people over the past few years? 
We hate them. We are completely against what they do. They go abroad and claim Xinjiang should be independent, but they don’t do anything. It jeopardizes our safety here.

Q: Do you think the Han have brought convenience and a modern life style to the Uighurs? Like the infrastructure they built here?
Yes, of course. It’s like fresh blood. They brought new things and helped the development, like modern technology and business opportunities.

Q: Do you think both Han and Uighur people should make more efforts to understand each other better? Who should do more?Yes, absolutely. But I don’t know how. I hope more people come to Xinjiang to travel.

Q: We’ve learned about the demolition and reconstruction of the old town in Kashgar. Some people think it’s wiping away the Uighur people’s lives and culture. What do you think?
Well, everyone wants a better life. If you go to those old towns, they have very limited space and a family of five to six people shares a very small house, and you have to go up to the roof to use the toilet at night with a flashlight. I wouldn’t want to live like that. Who doesn’t want a better life and new house? I don’t know what they think but I would not be against the demolitions.


Related link:A Silk Road culture pushed to the brink