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Uighurs struggle in a world reshaped by Chinese influx

In China's far west, the Muslim ethnic group finds itself relegated to menial jobs. Chinese officials also restrict religious practice and use of their language in schools.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2008

Muslims: Chinese Uighurs leave a mosque in Kashgar, in Xinjiang Province. The Chinese do not let Uighurs attend mosque until age 18.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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Kucha, China

King Daoud Mehsut of Kucha, 12th in his royal line and the last man still alive in China to have sat on a monarch's throne, is a man of noble bearing and proud visage.

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The old man's fate, however, is dispiriting. Once a leader of his Uighur people – the Muslim ethnic group that predominates in this far western province of Xinjiang – King Daoud is now wheeled out by two young Chinese female assistants presenting him as a tourist attraction to visitors prepared to buy a 200 RMB ($28.60) ticket. "I get a cut," he says simply.

King Daoud's humiliation, say some Uighurs (prounced WEE-gur), is a sign of what is in store for their culture as a whole in the face of the Chinese government's relentless drive to settle more and more ethnic Han Chinese in traditionally Uighur territory, rich in oil and minerals.

"We feel like foreigners in our own land," complains one Uighur teacher in the provincial capital of Urumqi, who offers only a nickname, Batur, for fear of angering the authorities. "We are like the Indians in America." Or Tibetans in Tibet. "Most Uighurs sympathize with the Tibetans," says Batur. "We feel we are all under the same sort of rule."

Though Xinjiang's 8 million Uighurs have shown only a few signs of the sort of unrest that shook Tibet recently, the Chinese government is just as nervous about "splittism" here among the country's fifth-largest ethnic minority, afraid that beneath the surface calm, resentment is bubbling.

The authorities claim to have foiled three Uighur terrorist plots in recent months – one aimed at bringing down a passenger plane and the other two at this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing – though they have given scant details to support the reports.

That concern, many Uighurs charge, translates into harsh government control of their lives, restrictions on the use of their language in schools and on their Muslim religious practice, and a colonial-style economy that keeps most local people in menial jobs while Han Chinese immigrants run businesses and the local administration.

Since the Communist government took over Xinjiang in 1949 from a warlord allied with the Nationalist Army, the proportion of Han Chinese (China's dominant ethnic group) in the province has shot up from 6.7 percent to 40.6 percent, according to official figures. The Han population now almost matches the Uighur population, after a six decades-long campaign by Beijing to settle Han in the remote region.

"The government wants the Uighurs to be their slaves, they want our race to vanish," says a clothes trader in the bazaar in Urumqi who calls himself Qutub. "They are destroying the demographic balance by bringing in Chinese people," he adds. "They are drying out our roots."

Though Han and Uighur people share the land, they have little in common, little to do with each other, and little desire to change that state of affairs.

Uighurs are resentful at the way Han Chinese monopolize the best jobs and the top political posts, even though Xinjiang is theoretically an autonomous province. Han residents routinely complain that Uighurs are dirty, lazy, and dishonest.

On China's frontier: Uighurs

Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are the largest Turkic ethnic group in China's vast far-western Xinjiang region.

The Red Army first moved into Xinjiang in the late 1940s, and China began occupying the region in 1955.

Uighurs speak a Turkic dialect and write in Arabic script. Uighurs, who have Caucasian features, once made up 90 percent of the region's population, but Han Chinese immigration has seriously eroded that.

Sporadic protests have broken out in the region, with violent separatist attacks throughout the 1980s and in 1997.

Ethnic nationalism and religious solidarity have renewed ties among Muslims across the former Soviet Union and Middle East, prompting Beijing's sensitivity to separatist influences from central Asia.

Chinese authorities recently blamed Uighur separatists for a series of terrorist conspiracies, which they denied.

Source: Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, Reuters. Compiled by Peter Smith