City struggling to keep local Uighurs in check

Yining: a hotspot of opposition to Beijing rule

Uigur residents sit in front of a shop in Xinjiang province, China. The Turkic-speaking Muslim majority and Chinese-speaking Han live side by side in this strategically important region rich with oil, gas and minerals, but separatists have been fighting for an independent homeland for the past 150 years. Photograph: Getty Images

Uigur residents sit in front of a shop in Xinjiang province, China. The Turkic-speaking Muslim majority and Chinese-speaking Han live side by side in this strategically important region rich with oil, gas and minerals, but separatists have been fighting for an independent homeland for the past 150 years. Photograph: Getty Images

Fri, Jul 11, 2014, 01:00

Local residents, both Uighur and Han Chinese, are enjoying the late evening sunlight in Yining in northern Xinjiang, near the Kazakhstan border, playing badminton and staging an impromptu dog show, when the bucolic calm is broken by the sound of sirens.

Yining has been a hotspot of Uighur opposition to Beijing rule in the restive northwestern province and there is a heavy police presence here, as evidenced by the convoy of scores of police vehicles that barrels down the main street, lights flashing.

The city is an ancient commercial centre and Silk Road trading point, with orchards and vineyards. It is a centre for trade and is rich in resources – iron, coal and uranium are mined nearby.

Xinjiang’s 10 million-plus Turkic-speaking Uighurs are a Turkic Muslim ethnic group that shares close linguistic and cultural links to central Asia, and is quite distinct from China’s majority Han.

Building sites and security checkpoints pepper the city of half a million, and the only customers at the kebab stands are Han Chinese, because the local Muslims are all observing Ramadan fasts. This is despite government efforts to stop them.

Local Muslims here are opposed to efforts to stop people, including civil servants, observing the Ramadan fast, and there are ads in the local newspapers warning of the health dangers of fasting.

The fiercely secular Communist Party keeps a firm grip on religion in China, requiring the faithful to worship at state-organised mosques and churches. “It’s difficult not to observe the rules restricting the observance of Ramadan if you work for the government. In lots of these places you have a canteen and if you don’t eat for a few days, they notice it.

“Some leaders might test you by offering you a piece of fruit. And since the attacks this year they have become very strict,” said one local young man, who did not wish to be identified.

Many Uighurs feel overwhelmed by the influx of Han settlers and feel they have no way to voice their grievances about how they are officially treated.

Yining, known to local Uighurs as Ghulja, has always been difficult to rule. The city was the capital of a Soviet-backed East Turkestan Republic, which was set up in the three western districts of Yili, Tacheng and Ashan in 1944.

Mogol hordes

This was the region through which Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes passed en route to wage war on China.

It was a strategically vital spot in the late 19th century, when the Tajik Muslim warlord Yakub Beg, who led the kingdom of Kashgaria and controlled most of Xinjiang, played the Russians, the British and the Chinese off against each other during the battle for influence in the region known as “The Great Game”.

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