Lately, the United States, its European allies and Australia have successfully internationalised the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang by their Chinese masters — though the subjugation of this meek race by a despotic government has been going on for ages. The West, fearing China’s economic and military domination, is now making a belated issue out of it to further their own foreign policy objective of containing the rising nation.
In July 2021, America’s Senate, overlooking its own wholesale slaughter of native Indians, passed a law prohibiting the import of all goods made in Xinjiang, unless it can be proved they were not manufactured by forced Uighur labour. In April, Britain’s Parliament called on the government to take action to end what lawmakers described as “genocide” in Xinjiang. Earlier, in March, Australia’s Parliament, ignoring its own liquidation of native Aborigines, debated a motion to condemn China for “serious and systematic breaches” of Uighur rights. The West, with centuries of experience in conducting genocide, are now crying themselves hoarse in making the international community resolve China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslims as “genocide”. Sadly, they are moved by political and commercial interests, not humanitarian reasons. Nonetheless, that does not absolve China of its harsh and cruel treatment of the Uighurs.
Uighurs Feel Trapped
In 1994, while leading the Central Asia Expedition, we drove through Xinjiang for three weeks visiting the old Silk Road townships lying on the northern and southern fringes of the treacherous Taklamakan Desert — Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan, Bachu, Korla, Aksu, Turfan, Urumqi, Hami and Dunhuang and several villages in-between — and came back convinced that Uighurs feel they are arbitrarily and unwillingly attached to China and are eager to cut loose.
We entered the Muslim and Uighur-dominated province of Xinjiang from Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass in the Tien Shan mountains. At the border post, a 27-year-old Uighur, Mohammed Ali, sought my acquaintance. He worked for the Bank of China and alternated every month between Torugart and Kashgar, his hometown. He could speak some Urdu that he practised on the busloads of Pakistanis that arrived daily from Gilgit, 450 km away.
Proudly proclaiming that he was a Mohammedan Turki and not a Chinese, he complained that the Chinese were harassing the Muslims; he said it was Friday and he was not allowed to read the namaaz, for the Chinese do not encourage Muslims to say their prayers in the mosque. Jamiat Islam activists from Pakistan, trying to foment political dissension in Xinjiang, had recently been caught by the Chinese authorities. For six months, the Chinese had closed traffic coming from Pakistan through the Khunjerab Pass.
Don't Call Them 'Chinese'
Strategically located, Kashgar, the largest oasis city in Chinese Asia lying at the foot of the Pamir Mountains, once commanded access to the high glacial passes of the Silk Road routes into Central Asia, India and Persia. The Id Kah mosque is the heart of Kashgar. I stood outside its yellow walls absorbing the smells and sounds of the surrounding bazaar.
Small shops sold skull caps, scarves, animal hides, knives, wood carvings, silk and jewellery. Tireless smokers of cannabis and opium, with decades of dirt accumulated on their dark bodies, sat ghost-like on pavements.
Hungry, prideless beggars in tattered rags scouted unsuccessfully for kind souls. The tinkle of bicycle bells and the rattle of donkey carts provided music to my ears. Entering a gate engraved with quotations from the Koran, I walked through a grove of trees to a green-pillared prayer hall wholly devoid of worshippers. However, I was assured by my Chinese escorts that Muslims were making good use of the mosque. They also sought to uphold China’s secular credentials by highlighting the financial contribution made by their government to this 560-year-old mosque. Yet, one of the rudest things you can call a Uighur is “Chinese”.
Xinjiang's Independence and Kashmir
Uighurs have historically dominated the Xinjiang region. According to the Chinese, there were six million Uighurs in Xinjiang. The Uighurs give a wilder figure. Anticipating a future demand for a referendum on determining the status of Xinjiang, China, through its resettlement policy, was elbow-bashing the Uighurs by relocating wholesale the Han Chinese from the over-populated eastern regions. At Aksu, on the northern fringe of Taklamakan Desert, I saw humble localities of Uighurs being reduced to rubble to make way for new and modern housing colonies with a predominantly Han population.
There were already five million Hans in Xinjiang, and in a couple of years, they were expected to overtake the Uighurs, reducing them to a minority in their own country. If ever an unlikely referendum does take place, the Han majority will vote overwhelmingly for China and the dragon’s stranglehold over Xinjiang will be complete and internationally accepted.
I was deeply concerned about the hammering the Uighurs were getting in their own land and wondered if they would ever realise their dream of an independent homeland. A Chinese professor questioned my concern.
“Why are you so bothered about Xinjiang’s independence? If it were to become free of China, would it not have a domino effect on neighbouring Kashmir? Would the cause of the Kashmiri secessionists not get a boost?”A Chinese professor
Oil and 'Zulum'
On the way to Korla, the desert was bristling with giant oil tankers and lorries transporting machinery and equipment, digging holes in the ground and reaping black gold.
Beneath Taklamakan’s sea of sand is a vast sea of oil. In the early 1980s, with American assistance, huge reserves of oil and gas were discovered. With an estimated 94 billion barrels of oil, Taklamakan contains three times the proven reserves of the US.
Silently watching the Chinese take away their oil, Uighurs realise that many of them could also have been Rockefellers and Gettys. The Uighur leadership tossed and turned in their beds, scheming secret stampedes into the deserts with their mules and camels and taking possession of the oil fields. As they lay in darkness diligently weaving silken dreams, their mud shacks turned into marble palaces, their smelly woollen gowns become splendid “shatoosh” and their train of donkeys changed into a caravan of Rolls Royce. But morning brought gloom and suffering. The thought of the missed opportunity made them stressed. Sitting on a sea of oil, they will remain destitute.
After being stuffed with food by some friendly Uighurs at the Night Bazar in Korla, I hauled myself on a donkey cart for a ride back to the hotel.
“Pakistan?” inquired the ageing, black-robed driver.
“Hindoostan,” said I, setting the record straight.
“Khush? Khush?” he asked, wanting to know if I was happy.
“Khoob khush!” (very happy), I responded, improvising on Uighur philology.
“Khitai - zulum! Khitai - zulum!” The Chinese are unjust and oppressive, he meant. To make sure I understood what he had said, he began whipping his poor donkey. I assured him that I had missed nothing in his statement and he should show “reham”, or compassion, to his donkey. He showed me the scars on his hands that had, presumably, been inflicted by the Chinese and began to disrobe to exhibit the ones on his back. I gently pressed his shoulder, indicating there was no need for me to see his mutilation and reassured him that Allah was “mehrban”, merciful. He left me at the hotel gate, refusing to accept the cart fare and went away murmuring “Zulum, Zulum”. It was not a murmur of complaint or protest but of dumb resignation.
With Chingiz Khan's Descendant
Just before the sunset, we drove into Turfan, the astonishing oasis in the middle of the desert wastes of the Turfan-Hami Basin, depressed 260 feet below sea level, the second-lowest continental point on the planet after the Dead Sea. As I walked the city streets lined with grape trellises, a young man of intent looks came up to me and asked me in chaste Urdu if I was a “Pakistani brother”. I replied that I was his brother alright, but of Indian variety. “That’s even better,” he said, extending his hand. “I am Pasha, a Tartari, 26th in line of Chingiz Khan.”
“What? You are a real descendant of Chingiz?”
“That’s right! The blood of the Great Khan runs in my veins,” said Pasha, proudly twirling his moustache. “I spent five years in Lahore, learning Urdu. I also speak English and Pushto and work as an interpreter in Turfan.” Walking proudly and with an air of superiority, Pasha led me to the Night Bazar. Passersby “salaam-ed’ (greeted) him and he would accept their greetings with a slight bow or the flick of his two fingers.
Pasha kept me entertained, delivering dialogues from the Hindi movie Mukaddar ka Sikandar, singing Hindi songs and reciting Urdu poetry. Every now and then, someone would walk up to him with his problems. An old man complained about his son being picked up by the police and not returned, another sought his intervention with the authorities for expediting a travel permit to Kashgar. A teenager wanted him to check whether the dollar bills he had bought in the black market were counterfeit or not. Pasha seemed to be the light and mirror of Tartar chivalry, a knight in shining armour who redressed all wrongs, defended the weak, protected the helpless.
China Will Follow the Tibet Template
“We are being exploited by the Chinese. They are taking away our oil. And we have more gold than oil. Huge deposits of gold have been discovered. But this fact is not being declared by the Chinese. Only if the Uighurs unite, can our future be brighter. But that will never happen. We run each other down, tattle on each other. Did you hear the news about the violence? BBC reported the other day that there were bomb blasts in Kashgar and Yarkand. Seven trucks of arms and ammunition were caught coming from Pakistan. Xinjiang can become independent by the turn of the 20th century. But it will not be. Uighurs are too busy playing cards while the Chinese migrate from the East to work here as labourers. Look at those two Hans there. When they came, they were as thin as a pole. Now they look like the map of Russia!” said Pasha.
It is unlikely that Xinjiang will separate from China because of internal or external pressures.
As it did in Tibet, China will pump money into building infrastructure, developing agriculture, industries and tourism, and providing basic services like schools and medical dispensaries in villages, while repressing political dissension with an iron hand.
With money in their pockets, the younger generation of Uighurs will be too busy enjoying their material wealth and investing in faraway Shanghai’s stock market to think about fanning the dying flames of separatism. In time, the US, and the countries out to please it, will abandon the Uighurs and discover some other issue to needle China with.
(Akhil Bakshi is the author of the book 'Silk Road on Wheels: Travels in Central Asia, Chinese Turkestan and Tibet'. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)