If you can’t make it to Xinjiang — ‘New Frontier’ in the Chinese language —while in China, walk down a red-lanterned retro Beijing street past the Mao Livehouse rock club. In a garage-sized bar beside a shop selling Om pendants in a centuries-old alley, you may find four men playing the folk music of Xinjiang with a twist of jazz and tabla.
Entry was free that night but I saw no Chinese, only foreigners. The small crowd didn’t stir while the Uighur men and a foreigner played the music of a place culturally closer to Turkey than China — of which northwest Xinjiang covers one-sixth of strategically located oil-rich land.
It’s a sensitive time to be an Uighur Muslim even over 3,200 km away from Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, a Silk Road outpost-turned-boomtown where the deadliest ethnic riots in China’s recent history erupted as club-and-knife-wielding Uighurs clashed with Han Chinese and the police on July 5. The police shot 12 rioters, arrested over 1,000. Then, armed Han Chinese hit the streets to attempt revenge.
To an Indian, the minority and migrant debate distancing the Hans and ethnic Uighurs of Xinjiang could sound familiar. Xinjiang, also bordering India and Pakistan, is home to over 8 million Uighurs, the region’s largest ethnic group whose short-lived East Turkestan Republic was ‘liberated’ by China in 1949. Uighur means ‘alliance’. This alliance with the Han Chinese is strained in Xinjiang’s 21 million population, where the Han influx grew from 6 per cent in 1949 to 40 per cent today. As the death toll climbed to 197, most Turkic-speaking Uighurs in restaurants and factories across China went silent.
“This is Beijing. They dare not talk to a foreign paper,’’ said the Han Chinese Beijinger at my table in a green-curtained Uighur eatery. A waitress, whose hometown was 40 train hours away, condemned the riots when asked her opinion.
Beijing has flooded the Chinese media with ethnic harmony propaganda and blamed the riots on the overseas separatist World Uighur Congress. It’s a silent ‘harmony’ where Uighurs fear to discuss music miles away from the riots. Since last year, Uighurs of the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement were blamed for several ‘terror’ attacks, making Xinjiang as tense as Tibet. Analysts say officials were raising tensions by equating community attempts for cultural expression with extremism.
The Uighurs resent the migrant Hans who speak better Mandarin and get the best economic opportunities in Xinjiang. Uighurs reportedly cannot pray in public, and government staff and students are not allowed to fast during Ramzan. The Hans retort that the Uighurs can have two children compared to the one-child policy enforced on them. Chinese citizens believe the Communist Party’s media blitz and criticise the foreign media for ‘biased’ reportage.
Like Mumbaikars who rarely notice news about trouble in India’s northeast, Beijingers will soon forget Xinjiang. Unlike India’s northeast, Xinjiang is an expanding multibillion-dollar economy. How that GDP is spread among Xinjiang’s 47 ethnic groups, and whether Beijing really hears their voice, will be decisive in China’s stability.