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”.

Beg ruled Xinjiang from 1866 to 1876, before the region was reconquered in 1877 by Chinese troops and integrated formally into the empire. After the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the area was ruled by competing local warlords.

In February 1997, several demonstrators were shot and in the ensuing riots, nine people died and hundreds were injured in what became known as the Ghulja Massacre.

Thousands of activists were rounded up and mosques and religious schools were shut.

In May the government, in a powerful display of force, sentenced 55 people for terrorism, separatism and murder in front of 7,000 people at the Yining Stadium, which you pass en route from the airport.

The event made a big impression on the local populace, even though the audience was carefully selected. “The trial in the stadium was a big event but it was mostly attended by students and by people from special work units,” said one young local man.

Kunming attacks

This year has seen a number of attacks by separatists. Twenty-nine people were killed and 140 injured when eight knife-wielding assailants attacked at the main train station in the southwestern city of Kunming in March. Police shot four of the attackers dead.

The Kunming attack sent shockwaves across the country and raised fears of similar terror attacks nationwide. Weeks later, in May, a suicide bombing killed 39 people at a market in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

Xinjiang is China’s biggest province, accounting for 16 per cent of the country’s land area.

The Chinese government insists it is bringing progress to a backward region and boosting it economically. Four years ago the government established a 200sq km Special Economic Zone in Yili, at the border with Kazakhstan, aimed at transforming the nearby land port of Khorgas into a centre of trade with the Central Asia country.

The area contains a large industrial products trade fair, modelled on the Yiwu trade zone in eastern China, and other monster-sized buildings near the border crossing. But much of the function of the zone is confusing, and there are regular security checks by soldiers with machine guns, and staring contests with police officers.

While gambling is forbidden in China, visitors to the zone can apparently visit a casino, which seems to be in border limbo, but this too is complicated. You need to buy 3,000 yuan (€353) in chips to get in.

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