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Xinjiang: China's Other Tibet
[Opinion] As Tibet burns, we focus on China's largest province and its call for independence
Charles Michel Duke (cmduke)     Print Article 
Published 2008-03-19 11:01 (KST)   
Beautiful and Untapped - Xinjiang's Taklamarkan Desert
©2008 Charles Michel Duke
A land with an ancient culture that is remarkably different from its current masters. A desolate country, but with a striking beauty unseen anywhere else in this world. A place filled with spirituality, where people still make a living from the land and retain their ancient customs. This place is Xinjiang, China's largest province and home to a multitude of people. Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Han and Hui Chinese. However, the region's most populace inhabitants are the Uyghurs, a Turkic people with a long and proud history.

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Xinjiang, located in China's northwest takes up a sixth of China's land area and is geopolitically significant for the nation, bordering eight other countries. In ancient times the Silk Road threaded its way through this desert region and even today, trade plays an important part in the provincial economy. Xinjiang also has large deposits of oil and other minerals that, until recent times, have been difficult to extract due to the hostile climate and terrain.

In Tibet, Buddhism is the dominant force, in Xinjiang it is Islam. It is a form of Islam that is practiced differently from other Muslim dominated parts of the world. The Uyghur people are foremost a matriarchal society with a long tradition in Buddhism that changed with the spread of Islam in the 9th century. Today, the Uyghurs are still a trading people, taking advantage of their location within Asia. Their culture and cuisine blends the Sub-Continent, the Far East and Persia reflecting their historical and modern day associations throughout the region.

Xinjiang, like Tibet has faced oppression especially with regards to religious practice even after the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. And like Tibet, in recent years the local populace has accused the central government of trying to wipe out their culture through "Hanification" (the settling of ethnic Chinese from the east and south of China). In fact, many of the frustrations of the Uyghurs, like the Tibetans recently, have been directed not just at the Chinese state but also at the new comers to these areas.

Xinjiang
©2008 Wikimedia
Unlike Tibet, the conflict within Xinjiang has not received the same coverage as the struggle in Tibet. Xinjiang is Tibet's less glamorous cousin, but shares with it a struggle for over 50 years to at least reach equality within China. Unlike Tibet, there are none of the glamorous Western celebrities or "Freedom" Campaigns attached to the cause of "Uyghurstan." Being off the tourist trail, the coverage of Chinese tactics within Xinjiang often goes unnoticed. There is a far more militant fight for freedom occurring in Xinjiang that have included bombings as well as violent riots against the Chinese authorities, always brutally suppressed away from prying Western eyes.

Even in the smallest villages, Islam plays a significant role.
©2008 Charles Michel Duke
Despite China's rapid development, Xinjiang has seen little of the economic miracle.
©2008 Charles Michel Duke
While the riots in Tibet have received widespread media attention, partly due to the proliferation of digital media amongst tourists, Xinjiang has not received the same attention. In fact, the same riots could be happening right now and no one would know, such is the blanket on freedoms within the province. Whatever is meted out in Tibet, the response will be far worse in Xinjiang, simply as the sympathy vote is not there. Like Tibet, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang have seen their culture eroded and their children "re-educated." Their architecture replaced in the name of "progress" and even their own economic base has been eroded away

To the Chinese, Xinjiang is far more threatening than Tibet or even Taiwan. The struggle for an Uyghurstan is far more violent than other subversions within modern-day China and it is this militancy which the Chinese fears most. Without Xinjiang, China loses its vast mineral wealth, still untapped. It also loses its political influence within Asia and on the world stage. But most importantly, Xinjiang is the fuse which could collapse the PRC. One of the reasons the current government is so keen in not letting go of Xinjiang is the cascade effect that could take place throughout the country.

For the time being however, Xinjiang will not become "Uyghurstan." The PRC's grip on power is just too strong, and the Uyghurs, although disciplined lack the resources and publicity for their cause. Also, many of the Uyghur groups are labelled as terrorist both within China and in the US, increasing their stigma and making Chinese rule seem more legitimate. The tragedy of Xinjiang lies not in its political sway, but the complete silence with regards to the oppression of the people. While many round the world will follow the events in Tibet with interest, the plight of the neighbouring Uyghurs will unfortunately remain silent for years to come.

Even today, there is still no substitute for good old fashioned propoganda.
©2008 Charles Michel Duke
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Charles Michel Duke

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