The Uyghers: China's Muted Voices / by Katherine Cecil

There is an area north of Guiyang’s central Nanming that is markedly different from the rest of the city. The colours are brighter; blues, yellows and oranges splatter the buildings. It smells exotic; the spices are particularized. Unusual sounds can be heard -- the hum is different -- the energy too. There is no alcohol in this place, and no Taoist gods guarding doorways. A large archway, silhouetted by a green dome marks the areas entrance; minarets are the highest feature. 

The people who live and work here also look different -- radically so -- they have golden brown skin, almond eyes and western noses. The men wear taqiyah caps and loose canvas intricately embroidered shirts; the women wear headscarves, and coloured jilbab’s down to their ankles. The group’s dialect is different too. Most do not speak mandarin, and those that do have a strong accent. Linguistically they sound Middle Eastern; to be precise they are speaking Karluk, a branch of Turkic. This group is Muslim; geographically their home is Xinjiang Autonomous Region. These are the Uyghers. 

The Uygher district of Guiyang does not feel like China, In fact you would be forgiven for thinking that you were in Kazakhstan, Central Asia, or even Turkey. It’s like stepping into a bubble, and for the foreign alien it’s a comforting place. As a westerner in China it’s hard to fade into the background, the Hans make up 91.688% of the ethnic population -- so if you look different it shows. I stand out, and so do the Uyghurs (which unites us on a very basic level). However, the Hans recognise and act upon our aesthetics in markedly different ways. I am treated with a curious respect -- westerners are considered rare but unpredictable -- like pandas. Uyghurs, I am sad to say are disregarded as uneducated, weak, in short … lesser. 

I have a colleague; he is a British native with a degree in mathematics from a good university. He is an excellent teacher, almost fluent in Mandarin; he possesses a photographic memory, which makes him a dab-hand at cards. He's also of Pakistani decent. Aesthetically my friend does not fulfil the stereotypical Chinese ideal of a westerner, and is often mistaken to be a Uygher. These mistakes are usually articulated in Chinese, which of course my friend understands -- they are rarely positive. On the occasions that my friend has made himself know as a westerner, the reaction has been one of excessive embarrassment and apologies. The insulters were humiliated by their mistake, not by their racism. 

The stark truth is if we were to drop a Google map pin in the centre of China, we would be very far from the 21st century mega cities that we in the west closely associate with the country. We would be in a desolate space, probably far from any major town. The further west we tread within Asia’s super power, the poorer the people become. The average villager in China earns just 1000 Yuan a year (the equivalent of £101) and no matter what the Chinese media states the country remains developing, possessing the second largest number of poor in the world after India. The likelihood of poverty increases inside ethnic communities, with a staggering 49.5 million unable to access safe drinking water. I’m referencing official statistics, but when I consider the closed nature of China, along with my own time in the country, I can’t help but suspect these figures to be substantially higher. 

There is also a secondary problem (beyond China’s extreme secrecy) and that’s NGO media attention. When we think of ‘problem areas’ in China, we think of Tibet and Mongolia. We don’t consider the Miaos, the Dongs, the Uyghurs or any of the other 50 groups active within the country. The charities that protect them can’t afford to have a voice, the money raised goes straight back into the communities, and by frustrating result the charities themselves lack profile. It’s a catch 22. Plus, an added problem is that China does not want a negative reputation in terms of human rights, as such, NGO’s active within the country are effectively screaming at the great firewall. 

For many at home, first contact with ‘the other’ Chinese minorities has risen in a negative form. On March 1st 2014 a group of eight men and women embarked on a stabbing frenzy at a train station in Kunming, the capital of the south western province of Yunnan. 33 (including 4 perpetrators) were left dead and a mammoth 140 were injured. The Chinese government described the incident as a terrorist attack, lashing out at western media for not comparing the knifing to that of 9/11 and 7/7. The blame has been placed on the Uighurs, a group of which in October 2013 drove a car riddled with explosives into a crowded Tiananmen Square.

As quickly as the Chinese authorities lashed out at the west, the incident was brushed to one side, with local media stating that the unharmed culprits had been discovered, arrested, and tried within the week. No details of the trial we’re published, and with Amnesty Internationals recent death penalty report in mind, it’s hard not to jump to grizzly conclusions. 

The underlying tension that exists between Xinjiang and Beijing is -- predictably -- the result of oil. The area possesses the largest natural gas and coal reserves in the country, and by result is a key factor to China’s economic and financial growth. However, a significant feature of the Chinese business structures is guanxi, by result industries from the east transport their own external employers as opposed to hiring local Uyghurs. The implication is a measurable monetary rift between ethnic groups, consequently exenterating tension and resentment. The Uyghers of whom share more cultural connections with their Islamic neighbouring countries are economically impotent within there own province, and due to acute racism from the rest of China are powerless to search for work elsewhere. They have been made captives in their own region. 

Of course, none of this justifies the Kunming knife attack. When projecting a global cry for help, violent protests have a tendency to do more harm than good. However is does shed light on why this attack happened, and highlights the desperation of a group of people that ‘simply’ want the same rights as their fellow Chinese citizens. The Uyghurs are not terrorists -- they are the unseen faces of China -- people who have been forced to act in terrorising ways as a direct result of poverty, hunger and ostracism. 

This must be kept in the forefront of the western governments mind if they are to treat China as a political and economic ally. As the Tiananmen Square Massacre turns 25 it seems prevalent that the problem of human rights be addressed head on, especially if we are to seriously acknowledge the country as a global superpower, or the results will be terrifying. 

Download Amnesty Internationals Death Penalty Spreadsheet. 

Source Amnesty International