Ancient tensions resonate in China’s Xinjiang province

The region accounts for just 2% of the country’s population, but its divisions run deep

A Uygur boy carries a tray of  bread on his head. Ancient ethnic divisions resonate strongly in Xinjiang province, and more than 100 people have died in the past year in violence caused by growing tensions between the two biggest ethnic groups in the area, the Turkic-speaking Uighurs and the Han Chinese. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

A Uygur boy carries a tray of bread on his head. Ancient ethnic divisions resonate strongly in Xinjiang province, and more than 100 people have died in the past year in violence caused by growing tensions between the two biggest ethnic groups in the area, the Turkic-speaking Uighurs and the Han Chinese. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 09:49

It’s a strange sight. The man with greying red hair, high cheekbones, a long nose and ginger beard is in a display case in a museum in Urumqi, the capital of the turbulent northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.

This ancient European, known as Cherchen Man, who once stood nearly two metres tall, was dug up from the province’s Taklamakan desert where he had lain for about 3,000 years, preserved by the dry desert air.

He was buried in a glorious red twill tunic and tartan leggings and could be of the same stock that brought the Celts to Ireland.

For years the mummies were kept out of the public eye for fear of undermining the foundations of the official history, which is aimed at reinforcing the idea that Xinjiang is inalienably part of China.

But ancient ethnic divisions resonate strongly in Xinjiang, and more than 100 people have died in the past year in violence caused by growing tensions between the two biggest ethnic groups in the area, the Turkic-speaking Uighurs and the Han Chinese.

Prof Victor Mair, a sinologist at Pennsylvania University, believes early Europeans headed in different directions, some travelling west to become the Celts in Ireland, Spain and elsewhere, others taking a northern route to become the Germanic tribes. Then another offshoot heading east and ending up in Xinjiang.

The 3,000-year-old Loulan Beauty is a dead ringer for a modern-day Swede, while the handsome Yingpan Man, a 2,000-year-old Caucasian mummy discovered in 1995, wears a gold foil death mask – an ancient Greek tradition – covering his blond-bearded face, with a soft smile and a dandy’s moustache. He wore elaborate golden embroidered red and maroon wool garments with images of fighting Greeks or Romans.

Central Asia

There are 10 million Turkic-speaking Uighurs in Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia, and in recent years relations between them and Han Chinese migrants coming into the province have become increasingly difficult.

The province is rich in natural resources, including the oil and gas China needs for its economy. The roads of the province are full of tankers and heavy goods vehicles building the infrastructure to move the materials out of Xinjiang.

The main beneficiaries of the province’s industrial development have been the Han Chinese, which has prompted resentment among Uighurs, who account for 46 per cent of the population of Xinjiang, while Han Chinese now dominate the north of the region.

As well as Uighurs and Han, there are Hui Muslims, Kazhaks, Uzbeks, Pakistanis and Russians, all bearing witness to migration patterns over the years. Generally the ethnic groups co-exist peacefully, but separatist tensions have escalated in this past year.

In October, an SUV with three people drove into a group of tourists on crowded Tiananmen Square, killing five. In March, 29 people were killed and 140 injured when eight knife-wielding assailants from Xinjiang attacked people at the station in Yunnan province, in China’s southwest. Police shot dead four of the attackers.

The Kunming attack raised fear of similar ones nationwide. Weeks later, in May, five suicide bombers killed 39 people at an open-air vegetable market in Urumqi.

‘Violent terror’

That attack prompted a “year-long campaign against terrorism”, in which China has taken down more than 40 groups it calls “violent terror gangs” and arrested more than 400 people in Xinjiang.

Yesterday, courts in the province jailed 32 people on charges of spreading extremist content online and organising terror groups. Three of them were given life sentences, while the others were jailed for terms of between four and 15 years.

The Xinjiang courts convicted the defendants on charges of using their mobile phones and social media for extremist content. “The cases generally involved using mobile phones and the internet to store, download, and transmit religious extremist violent terror video and audio files to organise, lead or participate in terrorist organisations,” according to the Tianshan website.

The 32 people were also found guilty of organising and leading terror groups, constructing explosive devices, and “fanning ethnic hatred and prejudice”. The 11 cases were tried in cities around Xinjiang, including the capital Urumqi, Aksu, Turpan and Hotan.

Xinjiang accounts for 16 per cent of China’s land area, but only 2 per cent of the population, but that 2 per cent is astonishingly diverse. Xinjiang’s history is full of tales of violence between different ethnic groups.

The Manchus took control in 1755, but current rule by China is dated back to 1870, when Qing dynasty generals crushed a Muslim rebellion led by Yakub Beg, who proclaimed an independent Turkestan in 1865. Beg was an agent for Britain, which at the time was keen to counter Russia’s influence in the region and protect India, part of the strategic manoeuvring called the Great Game.

Beheaded at dinner

One grisly tale of the violence of the early part of the last century tells of a Chinese warlord, Yang Zengxin, who invited his enemies to dinner in 1916 and had each one beheaded over the course of the meal.

A Soviet-backed East Turkestan Republic was set up in 1944, but this was in effect handed over to the Chinese by Russian leader Josef Stalin.

A plane carrying the East Turkestan representatives on their way to Beijing in August 1949 for negotiations conveniently crashed, killing all the occupants paving the way for Xinjiang’s formal incorporation into China.

Finding a peaceful way for Xinjiang’s ethnic groups to live together remains a challenge, just as it was in the days when Cherchen Man lived.

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