One man’s terrorist is another man’s neighbour

We’re headed back to China’s Xinjiang province, land of incredibly tight censorship. Before we do, this post tells the story of a conversation we had about the conflict there.

We were in classic lost traveler pose: big packs on, hunched over our guidebook. She wore a polka dot bandana that looked more gypsy than Muslim. She’d spotted us, she later said, because of how quizzically we were looking at the Chinese army tank at the bus station entrance, and heavily armed guards around it. “We use to,” she said.

In simple English with a hint of Bond villain accent she offered us directions and then, when she found her brother, a ride to our hostel in Urumqi.

Brother got on the phone for directions and spoke fluent Mandarin. So I asked sister what her first language was. “Uighur,” she said. That was enough to unleash a roller coaster conversation about the plight of their people, their disdain for Chinese government, and their sympathy with those who take radical action against it.

At one point sister apologised for the polemic. We urged her to continue. At another, the two conferred amongst each other. It was dangerous to talk about these issues with strangers, they said. We promised they weren’t Chinese spies, so they went on. We never learned their names (so sister and brother will have to do) but we got an amazing insight into the realities of the Xinjiang conflict.

Their story wasn’t fundamentally about Islam or identity. It was about everyday oppression and lack of economic opportunity. Sister’s limited vocabulary left her with repetition as her only tool for emphasis so we heard this a lot: “I speak Chinese, Uighur, English, use computer. All. Him Chinese he get job not me.” Go into any bank, they said, and you will find only Chinese working, and only in Mandarin. Uighurs who only have their mother tongue can’t access services – a loan, a savings account – that they need to get ahead. Outside the bazaars, and the restaurants selling shishkebab and naan, most Uighurs we saw were street cleaners, the womens’ bright orange overalls capped off with a face ask and a head scarf.

Uighurs are feared outside of Xinjiang. They can’t move to the big cities to work in iPhone factories like other rural Chinese. And they’re rarely issued passports so they can’t travel overseas for work, even though they’d probably find a much more comfortable culture in nearby Tajikistan, Krgyzstan or Kazakhstan. “We do not have free,” brother said.

Social services are a problem too. Chinese doctors can no more communicate with Uighur patients than Chinese bank tellers with Uighur customers. Brother talked about being called into the hospital to translate for friends. Uighur children must now be educated in Mandarin from kindergarten. “How,” asked sister, “can you expect our children to learn another language when they do not speak their own?”

The complaints that brother and sister offered weren’t about Chinese people. They were irked by the no holds bar capitalism that Chinese migrants had brought to Urumqi (“Chinese people very like fox”) but they were clear that their complaints rested with the government, not its citizens: “Uighur people good. Many Chinese people good. But the government is bad. We hate the government.”

The economic oppression is so real and the hate is so strong, they said, that some Uighur “can no longer bare it”. They take matters into their own hands.

In October 2013 a group of Uighurs drove an SUV into Tiananmen Square and set it on fire. Five people were killed and 34 seriously injured. The driver was a neighbor to brother and sister.

He was a good man, they said. To their mind the story of his life led to a logical conclusion that we would call terrorism. The driver’s son and younger brother had been imprisoned in Xinjiang, sister said, for circulating copies of the Koran. They died in prison, probably at the hands of guards. Their father wanted an explanation. He bounced around China’s bureaucracy like a ball in a pinball machine knocking on one door and then another, including in a trip to Beijing. He got no answers. He was desperate. He died in the SUV he set alight.

Sister wasn’t advocating violence per se, but sympathised with it in the face of personal tragedy. “I don’t know, maybe I would do the same,” she confessed.

The Tiananmen Square fire was not an isolated incident. Uighur terrorists killed 33 people at Kunming train station with knives, and injured 143 more in March this year. Personal tragedy might explain why some Uighurs are radicalized, but the violence is probably better understood as a separatist movement. Many of the ten million Uighurs want out of China and a new state called East Tajikistan.

Brother and sister say reports of violence are exaggerated and some are made up. Ordinary crimes are trumped as terrorist attacks. And the state violence against Uighurs – like the Chinese murder of an Imam – is never reported. They find themselves yelling at the television. Chinese censorship may have effectively made the nation forget the 1989 violence in Tiananmen Square, but it can’t make Uighurs forget their conflict, because they’re still living it.

The Chinese have done a good job keeping the Xinjiang conflict out of international media, especially as compared with Tibet, where the issues are broadly similar. Search “Tibet conflict” on and you’ll get twenty pages of results. Search “Xinjiang conflict” and you’ll get eight single results with The Idiots Guide to World Conflicts in fourth spot. Sure Tibet has a government in exile, a revered leader, and a movie where kids play soccer in flowing orange robes. I also wonder if it’s easier to get on board with China’s charaterisation of Uighur Muslims as terrorists than of Tibetan Buddhists. The truth is, both are setting themselves on fire.

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