By Simon Gilbert
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China’s Forgotten People

This article is over 6 years, 4 months old
Issue 405

This book begins with a dramatic account of the horrific murder of 29 passengers at China’s Kunming station in March last year. Nick Holdstock uses the remainder of the book to give context to this and a number of other violent incidents blamed on the Uyghur people.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim people, the largest ethnic group in the Xinjiang autonomous region of north west China. Holdstock gives a potted history of the Uyghurs: the 18th century conquest of the region by the Qing dynasty (Xinjiang means “new territory”), rebellion in the mid-19th century and partial independence as “East Turkestan” in the 20th. After the Communist victory in 1949, Chinese control over Xinjiang was quickly re-established.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the plight of the Uyghur people. The fruits of a booming economy have largely passed the Uyghurs by. Growth is centred on the predominantly Han Chinese cities of north Xinjiang, while most Uyghurs live in the rural areas of the south. The widening gap between rural and urban incomes seen across China plays out here as an ethnic divide.

Promises of religious freedom have not been upheld either. Many mosques have been demolished, sometimes on the pretext that they may influence children – echoes of the “prevent” strategy here. State employed Muslims are actively discouraged from practising their religion.

Shortly after 9/11 the Chinese government identified its campaign against “separatists” as part of the global “war on terror”. Any protests or violent acts were blamed on foreign backed Islamic terrorist organisations, without any real evidence. Similar actions in other parts of China are usually blamed on “criminal elements”.

However, a rise in violent incidents in recent years suggests that repression is producing the very problem the government set out to confront. As Holdstock suggests, it is hardly surprising if some Uyghurs have given up on peaceful protest when faced with “a Chinese state that often seems indifferent to their concerns, yet subjects them to progressively more draconian systems of policing and control”.

The link with the “war on terror” has allowed the Chinese government to largely avoid international criticism for its repression in Xinjiang, in a way that it hasn’t over similar policies in Tibet. Indeed, as the book makes clear, Western media outlets have often parroted Chinese propaganda.

Holdstock provides a very useful introduction to the “forgotten people” of his title and their problems, sharply critical of Chinese government policy in the region while avoiding the more lurid claims of expatriate Uyghur nationalists. He also helps us understand the frustrations that drive a handful of people to commit an atrocity like that in Kunming.

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