Xinjiang is the Uyghur Autonomous Region that makes up most of Northwestern China. It’s received a lot of attention over the years, as tension continues to spur violent protests and ethnic clashes. Just a few days ago, on March 7, four new casualties were added to the death toll when violence broke out in the city of Korla outside a video game arcade.
The region is of special importance to me as I was fortunate enough to see much of it over the summer of 2011. I did a three week backpacking trip, traveling from my Peace Corps site in Gansu Province through Xinjiang – Urumqi to Kashgar, and then along the southern corridor – taking the route less traveled by back through Qinghai. (Read more about my travels through Xinjiang here).
The Uyghurs are a culturally fascinating people, with Muslim roots, and who speak a Turkic dialect. They don’t share any cultural ties with China, yet the Chinese claim to have always ruled Xinjiang (and continue to use this as their justification for including the territory in their national jurisdiction.) The Uyghurs have more ethnically and culturally in common with Central Asians, and in many cases, strongly resent their Chinese compatriots.
China has taken steps to diminish their cultural autonomy over the years, weakening the strength of Uyghur language by discontinuing any degrees of higher education in the language (so any Uyghur wishing to become college educated must do so in Mandarin), and most recently, infiltrating the region with Han Chinese. Advertising campaigns can be noted all throughout Eastern hubs, such as large billboards in Shanghai advertising the beautiful sand dunes of Xinjiang, in their efforts of encouraging mass migration of Han Chinese.
Some speculators have even pondered whether or not Xinjiang will emulate Tibet in terms of government restrictions and limitations in accessing the area (Tibet currently requires a special permit for non-Chinese citizens to enter, and special permission for citizens as well).
Why can’t we all just get along?☼