“We feel like foreigners in our own land,” complains one Uighur teacher in the provincial capital of Urumqi, who offers only a nickname, Batur, for fear of angering the authorities. “We are like the Indians in America.” Or Tibetans in Tibet. “Most Uighurs sympathize with the Tibetans,” says Batur. “We feel we are all under the same sort of rule.”
Though Xinjiang’s 8 million Uighurs have shown only a few signs of the sort of unrest that shook Tibet recently, the Chinese government is just as nervous about “splittism” here among the country’s fifth-largest ethnic minority, afraid that beneath the surface calm, resentment is bubbling.
The authorities claim to have foiled three Uighur terrorist plots in recent months – one aimed at bringing down a passenger plane and the other two at this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing – though they have given scant details to support the reports.
That concern, many Uighurs charge, translates into harsh government control of their lives, restrictions on the use of their language in schools and on their Muslim religious practice, and a colonial-style economy that keeps most local people in menial jobs while Han Chinese immigrants run businesses and the local administration.
For another perspective on this issue, read an interview with a Han student who grew up in Xinjiang, from China Beat:
TW: In your entire life in Xinjiang you never personally encountered any separatists?
Leong: No, never. It’s my sense that these radical ideas are not dominant among ethnic people. Another reason might be because it is very dangerous to discuss these ideas in public. In this sense, it’s consistent with the general political atmosphere in China. Of course, I did encounter racial discrimination and was at times taunted by Uighur students because Hans eat pork and are not Muslims and are viewed as infidels. I was robbed many times by older kids from other ethnic groups when I was growing up. They picked on me because I am Han. But all ethnic groups have bad people. Generally, in the U.S. life is peaceful but we cannot deny that there are crimes and racism here, too. In every society, there are some people who are not satisfied with the status quo, who are discontent with others. For me, the taunts and robberies do not change the larger reality that the different ethnic groups mostly live together peacefully in Xinjiang.