The Plight of the Uyghurs

Some of this was borrowed from Dave the Wave,
While most people know a little about the conflict between China and Tibet, there is a lesser-known, but equally oppressed, group of people in China: The Uyghurs of Xinjiang. The Uyghurs (pronounced wee-gher) are  a Turkic ethnic minority that make up about half of the population of Xinjiang, China’s largest and most western province.

The People’s Republic of China is a country of nearly one and a half billion people, and around 93% of the population is made up of Han Chinese. The remaining seven percent is divided up among 55 ethnic minorities; this includes the Uyghurs, who themselves only make up roughly one-tenth of one percent of the total population of China.

The Han are descendants of the Han Dynasty, which lasted from about 206 BC-AD 220. It is because of the considerable influence that the dynasty exerted over what is considered “Chinese” culture that the Chinese people are known as Han Chinese.

Traditionally, the Uyghurs have been semi-nomadic. They trace their origins to Altay, a fairly mountainous region that today encompasses parts of central-southern Russia, western Mongolia, extreme northeast Kazakhstan, and the north of Xinjiang; it is from this region that the Altaic languages are believed to have arisen—such languages include Korean, Finnish, Hungarian, and, of course, Uyghur.

The Uyghurs are not related to the Chinese in any way: not in language, culture, religion, looks, personality, food, business acumen, hospitality, or train of thought. In fact, Uyghurs are more closely related to Europeans, Caucasians, Koreans, and Mongolians than they are to the Han. Many a Uyghur have blue or green eyes, red or light brown hair, and body types that are less stereotypical Asian and more like that of Europeans or Middle Easterners—prominent noses, shapely body features, and a proclivity for body hair.

The Uyghurs have a history that is approximately four millennia old. They have lived in the Xinjiang area for about half of those four millennia. Being at the crossroads of the old Silk Road that served as the connection between the East and West, the Uyghurs developed themselves into a highly civilized culture.

Because of its location, Xinjiang has been the subject of invasion and/or occupation by China and/or Russia for centuries. But for the most part the Uyghurs held their own. By 745 the Uyghur Empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria and lasted from 745 to 840 CE. But the following spring a Kyrgyz tribe invaded from the north with a force of around 80,000 horsemen. They sacked the Uyghur capital, razing it to the ground. The Kyrgyz captured the Uyghur leader and promptly beheaded him. The Kyrgyz went on to destroy other Uyghur cities throughout their empire, burning them to the ground.  The Kyrgyz invasion destroyed the Uyghur Empire, causing a diaspora of Uyghur people across Central Asia. Then in 1876 the Chinese Manchu empire invaded and forcibly, brutally, annexed Xinjiang, killing around a million Uyghurs in the process.

When the People’s Republic of China was formally founded in 1949, the Uyghurs were promised self-autonomy while still being part of the Republic—hence Xinjiang’s present formal name of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The promise was never honored. The reason: the discovery of oil in the northern part of the province in 1955. At the time of oil discovery, the population of Xinjiang was 90 percent Uyghur. But with the discovery of oil, the Chinese government started forcefully mass-populating the region with Han Chinese.

As one might surmise, the Uyghur reaction to the Chinese insipience has not been an amiable one. The Chinese regard the Uyghurs in the same manner they regard most of the rest of the world: culturally inferior, intellectually substandard, and ethnically impure. Uyghurs, on the other hand, regard the Chinese in the same way any other culture would view an occupying people: with suspicion, barely concealed intolerant rage, and mistrust.

Uyghurs have expressed their displeasure to what they see as the Chinese infiltration of their land and culture by mostly peaceful means. Protests, demonstrations, and local gatherings. But there have been at least three incidences of violence, in the form of bus bombings, in the past ten years. Unfortunately, these rare acts of violence have been made by the Chinese authorities to seem as if they are a common occurrence and have only served to tighten the already vise-like grip the they have on the region.
The Uyghur culture is dying. In many of the towns and cities that were once majority Uyghur, traditional buildings, houses, places of worship, and restaurants have been razed to make way for shopping plazas, fast-food joints, high-rise apartment buildings, and karaoke clubs. Monuments to Uyghur heroes have been extirpated and enormous statues of Communist heroes constructed in their place. In fact, the largest statue of Mao Zedong in the entore country lies in central Kashgar. Coincidence?
An overwhelming majority of the best jobs in fields such as banking, oil, engineering, teaching, tourism, and business are now taken by the government-favored, newly-migrated Han. The Chinese are the recipients of more job promotions, there is rampant discrimination, and jobless rates for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang run at least double what it is for the Han, and in some places it’s four or five times the rate of the Han. The Chinese government is pouring the equivalent of hundreds of millions of American dollars into Xinjiang to improve its infrastructure and take advantage of her many resources, yet the Uyghurs, as a whole, see little of it.

The chances for equal education between Uyghurs and Chinese are becoming less and less. There was a time when Uyghurs were allowed to learn their own language in school; in fact, all of their lessons were taught in Uyghur, and they were allowed to learn Uyghur history. These days, if Uyghur parents want their children to learn Uyghur, they have to teach them at home; if they want their children to have a chance to a decent future, they send them to integrated schools, schools for both Chinese and Uyghur children—they feel that there children will have little chance for future success without this. A culture that as highly was as advanced as the Uyghurs were just a century and a half ago is losing not only its identity, but also its high level of education.

I met a Uyghur and he explained to me that all the best paying jobs require Chinese language skills, so many younger people are not bothering to learn Uyghur. The language is dying before our very eyes, or, rather, ears.

The wealth distribution in Xinjiang is decidedly one-sided. Why don’t we see this on 60 Minutes or 20-20? Not much of the world knows about the Uyghur situation because of the Chinese government’s abilities either to keep such things hidden from the world or because of their expert spinning of propaganda. It’s the one thing communists are very good at.
So to show my support of the oppressed Uyghurs I defiantly show here the outlawed Uyghur flag. I stand in solidarity with those fighting the tyranny and injustice of the Chinese government. As JFK might say, ‘Therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, Ich bin ein Uyghur.’ And no worries about jelly donuts.

OK, maybe I better stop before the Chinese authorities track me down and toss me in jail.

One last thought: I sometimes lament the loss of cultures such as the Uyghurs. It seems unjust that values and traditions that existed for centuries should be systematically wiped out. But then again, that has been the pattern throughout history. From the Mongols to the Incas to the Basques to the Nazis, one group of people have tried to wipe others away as if they never existed. As King Edward said in the movie Braveheart before ordering the prima nocta policy, ‘The problem with Scotland is that it is full of Scots.’

More often than not the oppressors succeed. In the movie Rabbit Proof Fence, the Australians attempted to breed out the aboriginal blood in ‘mixed breed’ kids (the ‘lost generation’). Is that wrong or is that just a sort of natural selection? Does might make right?

If the Han Chinese eventually crowd out the Uyghurs and their identity is lost forever, should we be sad or just shrug and say, ‘well, it was their time to go.’ What about the Kurds? the Kashmiri? The Native American indians? Should we mourn the loss of their cultures any more than we (don’t) mourn the loss of the Mayans, Incas or the hundreds, if not thousands of other extinct cultures?

I will leave you to ponder that and await your comments. Let’s move on to the photos.

The capitol of Xinjiang is Urumqi (pronounced urum-chee). I spent a couple days there getting my Kyrgyzstan visa. Here is a view of some drab apartment blocks from my hotel room window.

Urumqi is quite the international city. Proof? Check out this sign in English, Chinese, Uyghur and Russian.

By the way, I incorrectly referred to the Uyghur script in a previous post as Arabic. It is, in fact, very different from Arabic. Many people started speaking to me in a strange language that was definitely not Chinese. I assumed it was Arabic, but when I took out my Arabic phrase book and showed people the Arabic script they had no idea what it said. A few words in Arabic confirmed they are completely different languages, despite looking (and sounding) similar to a layperson. As I mentioned above, Uyghur is one of the Altaic languages, of which Finnish, of all things, is also one.

Some pix of people in a Uyghur market
A cobbler scraping out a living.

Sharpening blades

Many Uyghur women still wear the veil.

A few faces in the market

Selling nuts

After leaving Urumqi I got stuck on a gravel road for four days. Slow going and I damaged my head tube bearing. I may have to replace it. Anyway, here are some photos from those days.

Stinky camels

An interesting twist in the road

I was told these dwellings, called yurts, are inhabited by Kazahk people who raise sheep in the area.

Early morning on the gravel road.

The nicest camping spot in China. It was incredible quiet that night. Not a sound–no wind, bugs, nothing. It was very strange and made me realize how rare it is that we experience dead silence. We are surrounded by noise most of the time.

8 thoughts on “The Plight of the Uyghurs

  1. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. July 18, 2008 / 8:36 pm

    Yurts are becoming increasingly popular in the states. They are easy and inexpensive to build and hold up well in all weather. The Mont Bohemia ski hill here in the Copper Contry has three large ones where the skiers can warm up and have a bite to eat.

    Well, you’ll soon be out of China and heading for other sets of restrictions and rules. Will they be better? Less demanding? You’ll find out and I will be waiting to read about them in your compelling blog.

    The lesson I am geting from this blog is that the world is spinning completely out of my control or influence. But it doesn’t matter anyway because man and the planet is heading for extinction and nothing can be done to stop it. I hate to see suffering as much as anyone — especially of children — but I doubt there is much I can do to abate it in my own community much less other lands.

    For example, I am a supporter of the Shelter Home for Abused Women here. It is my major contribution to this society even though they only want my money. There are about 50 other group that need money too, from the Catholic Chartities to the boy scouts; one has to make choices, difficult choices, to avert suffering and help the homeless and poor.

    And on top of that there is a economic slavery that many people live under; under-educated in many cases, black or other ethic minorities discriminated against, etc etc. It is overwhelming. Don Jr, and I often say that we, he and I, have won life’s lotto. I didn’t ask to win and never bet on it, but was simply damn lucky.

    Take care, Kev, and be safe. Watch out for the authorities.

  2. Martha/Maudie July 19, 2008 / 12:50 am

    Kevin You are the bravest person I know. To be all alone out in the God forsaken country. I wish you cool weather, lots of cold water and good food. The pictures are incredible and your travelog so very interesting. Do keep safe. You dad went to Michigan a week or two ago, know he plans to spend august with Katrina. That will wear him out. Martha

  3. DAD July 24, 2008 / 12:52 am

    On the contrary Martha—–Iam revitalized. As I told Kev before if you are
    not in jail or the hospital you are doing O.K.

  4. Kevin Koski July 24, 2008 / 2:33 am

    I will write more on this later, but yes we in the west are lucky. Here are some staggering statistics:

    – 4.5 billion people in the world live on less than $1,500 per year

    – The wealth of the world’s 475 richest people exceeds the income of the poorest three billion people

    – The richest 10% of adults account for 85% of total global assets.

    – The bottom 50% of the world adult population owns 1% of global wealth.

  5. JoJo November 9, 2008 / 5:13 pm

    In addition to agreeing with my Dad on winning life’s lotto, one of my favorite sayings about where I live is “it ain’t the Taj Mahol, but it sure keeps the rain off my head…”

    Another super, stone quiet place…Isle Royale.

  6. Velva September 27, 2012 / 1:34 am

    bookmarked!!, I lіke your ѕite! Rаmpant Rabbit

  7. kacak bahis February 24, 2018 / 8:30 am

    Thanks for any other informative site. Where else may just I am getting that
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  8. Loyda Torres April 18, 2020 / 2:39 pm

    I came upon your blog after recently watching FRONTLINE
    (China undercover) on the plight of the Uyghurs.

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