Issue 8, Volume 18
Xinjiang is a place which has gained notoriety across media headlines in the past couple of months, permeating even the selective discourse of our own law school bubble. A place unknown to most this time last year, has now become a reference point for modern day cultural genocide.
Most media publications about Xinjiang, on either end of the political spectrum, follow a fairly methodical and absolutist approach. The left paints a picture of a dark Nazi-esque dystopia; the right parades harmony day posters filled with dancing and plastered smiles. On all accounts, these depictions are voyeuristic. Most of them ignore, if not actively detracting from, critical engagement with the real emotional narratives which underpin the analysis of complex socio-political issues in the region. Almost all of them are unrepresentative of this place I once called home.
After 23 years of encountering countless such narratives, I have come to the realisation that minority experiences and stories, whilst personal, must also always be political - especially if they are to gain momentum in the media.
There is power to this truth, as such stories can be used to ignite institutional or systemic change.
However, an agenda of writing to appeal to policy rather than empathy, can be dehumanising for those whose lives become dependent on public discourse. Neither the characters nor the audience are afforded space to consider the complexity of emotions and experiences that exist outside of a political agenda, or to acknowledge the discomfort of sometimes having no answer or resolve.
I write to share my experiences of the Xinjiang I have lived and known, a place whose torment is more complicated than what is portrayed. A place which contains multitudes and depths beyond the political dichotomy. Between moments of joy and light, I have also seen periods of intense darkness.
As a disclaimer, I definitely do not monopolise the experience of living and being in Xinjiang, and because I am not Uyghur, nothing I write is coming from or a comment on the Uyghur perspective. This is also not intended to be an academic or research paper. If there is history I skim over that you’re curious about, feel free to do the work/research. And if you intend to use my words to incite a debate about human rights in the comments as a proxy for an ego boost, don’t. This piece is not for you.
My grandparents (who are all Han Chinese) arrived in Xinjiang in the 1950s, as part of what was called the ‘Down to the Countryside Movement’ (下放) of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. They were just a few of the millions of urban youth, collected (conscripted) from regions all across China and sent to villages on farms and in mountains, to learn from the model proletariat. This of course was part of Mao’s anti-bourgeoisie anti-intellectualist operation, a pillar of Communist ideology. One of those regions was Xinjiang.
Xinjiang has about the same population as Australia, once split around 70/30 between Uyghurs and Han, now almost 50/50. The Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim group and recognised as one of the largest groups within China’s 56 ethnic minorities. At the time my mum told me this fact, there were more mosques in Xinjiang than all of Europe combined.
My parents were both born in Xinjiang in the early 1960s. My mum grew up in the capita, Urumqi, and my dad in the small impoverished (modernised reframing of ‘ancient’) city of Kashgar. Extreme poverty was pervasive in this predominantly Uyghur city. My dad was raised by a Uyghur nanny/helper, through which he picked up some Uyghur language and culture. Despite having lost it now, he is still often picked as being from there, due to his distinctively dark eyebrows and a smidge of a Xinjiang accent when he speaks Mandarin.
My dad met my mum whilst studying geography at Xinjiang National University. The terrain of the infamous Turpan region - snowy mountains, basins, and the geopolitical importance of the region (see The Silk Road), made it a fitting setting for a geography major. Meanwhile my mum studied English and Russian, growing language assets as China slowly began to trade and exchange with Western countries.
They had few Uyghur friends growing up, although this started to change in university, when the CCP introduced strong affirmative action programs, to facilitate students from under-represented ethnic minority groups in higher education. There was, of course, a need to reverse the years of anti-intellectualism, which not surprisingly, heavily affected many minority groups.
I never got to meet many of these friends, who they understandably lost touch with after coming to Australia in the early 1990s. Perhaps because I met so few, I have just one particularly strong memory about an acquaintance of my dad’s. I remember having dinner with him and his family at a fancy Uyghur restaurant, a couple years before he obtained his position as President of Xinjiang University (an esteemed position to be held by anyone, but particularly from the Uyghur community). He and my dad were friendly, but reserved towards one another. Only known to me as Uncle at the time, I thanked him for paying the bill at dinner and never saw him again.
It was a strange feeling to hear rumours of what happened to people years after. The details I did eavesdrop were vague, but even as a child I understood not to probe.
It wasn’t until literally writing this now, did I realise he was my dad’s immediate classmate. Geography, class of ’83. I just wish I had thought to learn his name at the time.
I was not born in China, but I was raised by my grandparents (mum's side) in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, for the formative years of my childhood. I went to ‘pre’-preschool in Urumqi for a year and when people make ESL jokes (English Second Language) about others, I point out that Mandarin is technically my first language. I have some vague memories of this time, such as my grandad piggybacking me through the snow to and from school, culturally appropriating Uyghur attire whilst playing dress up with my cousins and having to recite complex Chinese idioms and poetry.
After starting primary school in Australia, my visits back to China happened every second year, consistently. [It wasn’t difficult for me to form fond memories of my time there, especially when it came to food. The handmade noodles, flatbread cooked in clay pits, whole roast lamb on a spit and pilaf you eat with your hands. And of course the fruit. Half the folk songs about Xinjiang are about its fruit. The other half are about the beauty of Uyghur women.]
During this time (early 2000s), Han Chinese were still the minority in the region (70/30 split) and Uyghur culture was ingrained in the everyday lives of everyone there. There was normalcy in the way people enjoyed and immersed themselves in Uyghur culture that’s difficult to describe and picture.
But like most stories, money and power complicate things.
In the 2000s, Xinjiang began to grow as a tourist hotspot, particularly for domestic Chinese travellers who relished in performative ethnic cultures. Tourism began to fuel economic development in the region and in some ways, the preservation of aspects of Uyghur culture became reliant on this performativism. Then, as China began to rise out of poverty and trauma, educated Han Chinese migrated towards opportunities in developing places like Xinjiang, displacing Uyghur people in the job market. Your classic tale of gentrification. As development continued economically and politically, Xinjiang’s resource rich land and strategic geopolitical position (see Silk Road Economic Belt) was thrust into the spotlight. With all these factors building up, tensions between the West and the Middle East was the tipping point of this complicated power struggle of an erection waiting to combust.
And combust it did. Separatist riots occurred between 2009-2010, the most publicised being the 7’5’ riots – reference to July 5th 2009 when it occurred. Information about the riots is widely disputed, but nevertheless, it triggered a series of anti-terrorism measures and sentiment in the region.
The mid 2000s onwards, aka high school, was a blur to me. We stopped going back to China as a family as often. Instead, we called my grandparents in Xinjiang regularly, using an international phone card and a ridiculously long phone number.
There are only two distinct memories I have in relation to Xinjiang of this time. One is a sensory imprint I have of the pollution in Urumqi, from one year we went back in winter. The air was so thick with black smoke it was difficult to see and breathe. In the Bazaar, everyone was burning coal outside to stay warm in negative temperatures.
The second memory bore little significance to me at the time, but perhaps the reason I remember it is because it felt uncomfortable at the time. It was snowing quite heavily and we were waiting outside of the restaurant for a taxi. I was not known to be a patient kid and couldn’t understand why my uncle kept hailing taxis but then when they pulled over, we refused to take them. At one point he had yelled out at the 3rd or 4th cab as they drove away something about getting in a taxi with a Uyghur driver. At the time I wasn’t old nor intuitive (or perhaps brave) enough to question what was happening, but knowing what I know now, I had been a witness and bystander to an act of Islamophobia.
From around 2009 onwards, we completely stopped visiting Xinjiang. The only explanation I received was that it was ‘unsafe’. My grandparents started to spend only half their time there, winters in Xinjiang and summers in another province.
During this time, Xinjiang experienced drastic changes. Changes I did not know of until I went back in 2018, the first time in over 10+ years.
My grandad passed away last year, but in 2018 he was still fighting in a hospital in Urumqi. I knew I needed to see him one way or another, but the process of getting into and travelling within Xinjiang was no easy feat.
Visiting family is a valid reason for entry, which you must state when applying for your visa permit into the country, but otherwise foreign entry is heavily restricted in this region (despite domestic tourism still flourishing). (Fun border security fact, although my parents have been Australian citizens for almost 30 years, their birth place is still written as Xinjiang on their passports, and we get double checked at the airport every time.)
I travelled to Xinjiang with my (now ex) partner at the time, both of us holding Australian passports. I was curious about how people would receive us there, a mixed race couple, with myself clearly East Asian in appearance but speaking English and him being of mixed race (Indian Australian). His tan skin, dark features and facial hair, with obvious similarities to the Uyghurs in the region, made us an obvious subject of suspicion. Whether that scrutiny was for sexist or security reasons is something I still contemplate.
My aunty and uncle booked our accommodation, as unless you’re traveling with a tour group, only those with Chinese national passports can book hotels in Xinjiang. Their small apartment or my grandparents place would not have been appropriate to accommodate us.
From the moment we were boarding our flight from here to Sydney, we were already on peoples’ radar, being questioned multiple times about why we were going there and our occupations. It’s not surprising that Chinese locals have become suspicious of foreigners entering into the region for reasons other than mere tourism. I only met one other foreign traveller from England, a solo backpacker who was traveling the Silk Road route alone, during our trip.
Two stopovers and around twenty hours later, we were welcomed by my relatives at Urumqi airport.
Checking into the hotel itself was our first real encounter with how pervasive the security measures were within the city. There were metal detectors at the entry to the hotel, bag checks and ID checks/verification. A variation of this process continued throughout our entire trip, at every single entry and exit point of every single building (hospital, grocery shop, restaurants etc.). Security guards would ask the same familiar questions, check our phones for suspicious photos or information and take photos of our passport next to our faces. I was told this was for our own protection, in case anything ‘happened’ to us whilst traveling. It was more likely however that these guards had people higher up to answer to, and needed to follow certain protocols in order to protect their own credibility and job.
As annoying as these checks were, we were acquiescing and readily understanding about the reality of the situation. We were able to sympathise on a level, having observed how lacking in resources and training many of these guards were. Most were equipped with ‘weapons’ such as wooden bats, batons and plastic shields. Their uniforms were loose fitting and helmets janky. The metal detectors they stood by often did not appear to be working. The majority of them were young Uyghur men and they policed in numbers, often excessive to the situation. It was clear that the appearance of force held greater importance than the application of it. The chilling thought of having to police and oppress members of your own community was something I had to actively push aside. Certain moral absolutists may argue that our compliance only supported and encouraged these draconian surveillance measures, but that’s something to be unpacked elsewhere.
Public transport was not entirely accessible to us, and where locals did take it, there were strict rules. For instance, no liquids, drinks or even water bottles were permitted on buses. I was told that one of the explosions caused during the riots was caused by a bomb hidden in the form of a drink bottle. The times we drove around in private vehicles, particularly to visit the tourist sites, our car was pulled over for routine inspections. We were all required to exit the vehicle, do the routine ID checks whilst the front and back boot were popped open. It was sadly amusing to see my relatives, who are Han Chinese and had clearly never been subjected to such rigorous inspection in their everyday lives, mutter and complain about the excessiveness of these checks – whilst the Uyghur drivers before and behind us in line stood with their hands behind their heads instinctively, waiting to be patted down while their cars were checked.
The peering eyes and constant surveillance made it difficult to appreciate just how beautiful Xinjiang still was as a place. Beyond the visible number of mosques ‘under construction’ and red plastered propaganda on every corner of every wall, the city was still vibrant and beating. The media doesn’t tell you this. But Urumqi is much more modern now, with young professionals both Han and Uyghur populating the city center. The smell of street food and local market produce in the Bazaar was potent and the musical voices of families and lovers could still be heard. The breathtaking mountain landscapes and vast stretches of pure desert still exist, unbothered by their surroundings. People still go about their daily lives.
And it is this very contrast that makes everything so unsettling.
In my experiences, I have found the distinctions between Western anti-terrorism policies and China’s anti-terrorism equally fascinating and terrifying. Whereas places like the US focus on alienating and segregating Muslim groups as key tactics to evoke fear and division, for a place like China, where power comes from numbers, the opposite is desired. Total assimilation and erasure of the ‘other’ identity is key. Cultural genocide is rampant because it is the key to achieving complete obedience. It is not the eradication of Uyghurs they seek, it is the existence of them within a Communist ideology. Where both these systems of oppression are sinister and stem from a sense of supremacy, they are in stark contrast of one another.
I cannot confirm nor speak to whether such covert operations as forced labour, or the sterilisation of women, etc, are indeed happening. If they were, they would not be something you could see. The CCP’s control over operations and the media make it almost impossible to distinguish fact from fiction, but fairly, the same comments can now be made against some Western societies. (Fun fact, there is ONE central news broadcast from the network CCTV, which airs across all 100+ channels that exist for each province in China, every night at 8pm. Only after that will each province have their own news broadcasts. It never occurred to me how odd that was until quite recently).
What I do know however, is that the overt actions and systems in place alone, are enough to confirm the erosion of Uyghur cultural identity and the existence of cultural genocide in Xinjiang.
Although accepting this may be difficult, the real tricky part is the discussion which comes after. There is legitimate critique and condemnation towards the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang to be had. But because the truth war in which this discussion is framed, is plagued by a backdrop of blatant racism and sinophobia, something that Western politics is not wary to, it is not an easy feat.
As I mentioned at the start, this piece does not intend to provide answers or reach some enlightening conclusion about what the right, good, moral thing to do is. I just hope it provoked you to FEEL as you think about these issues.
I never spoke to my dad about how he felt about Tiyip. I’ve often wondered when he’s said (in passing) how he didn’t think Tiyip was ‘capable of doing something like that’, whether it is he holds such disbelief that his friend would do what he was accused of because it was so out of his nature it could not possibly be true. Or, whether he is disappointed because of his belief that Tiyip really did do those things. I can only imagine the conflict in his emotions.
When I walked down the street of Urumqi with my feeble 80 year old grandma on my arm, I never unpacked what she meant when she said ‘Yes, it’s extremely safe now. There is no crime’, in response to my comment about how the visibly heavy security presence on the streets were so different to how I remember it from my early childhood.
Xinjiang is a place filled with people that exist in defiance of simplicity. So should our critiques of it.
In memory of my grandad 韩永和.
Delinna Ding is a third-year JD student.