On September 1, 2008, retired CCP cadre Liu Tiancheng published an essay on his personal blog about a trip to the southern part of Xinjiang decades earlier. The essay appeared as a special column in China News Digest (华夏文摘) the next month under the name Tian Cheng. In the essay, the author recalls an official trip in 1991 which came after an incident of ethnic violence between Uyghur militants and government troops—a type of incident that was then far less common than it would come to be, and is now considered a dark turning point towards the ethnic unrest and violent crackdowns that would regularly follow. 2008, the year that Tian Cheng penned the essay, can in retrospect be seen as the foreword to the current sordid volume of the modern history of Xinjiang. With the world’s eyes then firmly fixed on China ahead of the 2008 Olympics, Uyghurs in March took to the streets in protest—coinciding with actions in Tibet that month. Throughout the year, high-profile attacks by Uyghurs were reported and officially blamed on Islamic terrorist or militant groups.
In the decade that followed, unrest would become commonplace in the region, and would be answered by increasingly discriminatory ethnic and religious policies. In 2014, following a deadly attack at the main train station in Urumqi, Xi Jinping labeled Xinjiang the “frontline against terrorism,” and ordered “decisive actions be taken to resolutely suppress the terrorists’ rampant momentum.” Unsurprisingly, the ethnic and religious-focused policies that have since come to the region have contributed to further ethnic strife. With the world at long last paying close attention to a human rights crisis that has included mass extralegal internment, forced labor, systemic rape, and the incessant harassment of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in the region, Xi Jinping himself has defended the government’s work in Xinjiang as “entirely correct.”
The words written by Tian Cheng about his official experience in the south of Xinjiang in 1991 show a keen sensitivity to the nuances and double-sided nature of ethnic conflict, and suggest he wielded his authority as a Han CCP member with an open mind and in moderation—precisely the qualities noted to have become highly suspect under Xi Jinping’s central rule over Xinjiang. The essay, which has been recirculating online over the past year, has been translated in full by CDT:
Recalling a Perilous Trip to Southern Xinjiang
By Tian Cheng
According to media reports, in August  alone there were four surprise attacks on public security officers by Uyghur terrorists, causing shock at home and abroad. The most recent incident happened on August 29. The biggest incident occurred on August 4, resulting in the death of 16 armed police and the injury of 16 more. Besides August 4, which was purportedly about “Xinjiang independence,” the other events seem related to ethnic hatred.
The song “Xinjiang is Good” has left a deep impression on nearly all Chinese people: “Our Xinjiang is a good place, oh; Good pastures north and south of Tianshan; Gobi sands become fertile fields; Mountain snows quench farmland; Golden corn and fragrant rice, oh; Cattle and sheep graze wind-blown meadows; Grapes and melons, sweeter than sweet; Coal, iron, gold, silver hidden everywhere.”
This song was composed in the 1950s and quickly spread all over China. Many people longed to go to Xinjiang after hearing that song. But nowadays, many Han people in Xinjiang want to leave. Some Han in southern Xinjiang even think of it as China’s Palestine.
And what sort of place is southern Xinjiang, after all? Why is ethnic conflict so acute? Why are violent attacks so frequent? I’ve been to southern Xinjiang for work, I’ve had contact with both Han and Uyghur cadres working locally, and I have some feelings about these intense local ethnic and religious conflicts.
In 1991, I organized a national conference in Urumqi. At the conference, the bureau chief from Kashgar urged me to come down for a visit after the conference to support their work. An armed farmers’ rebellion had just been suppressed in 1990 in Baren Township, Akto County, so the atmosphere there was still quite tense. Entry into southern Xinjiang was strictly controlled—plane tickets to locations in southern Xinjiang were basically not available to outsiders. I joked that if I could get a ticket to Kashgar, I would go. To my surprise, the bureau chief secured tickets for myself and the provincial leadership, plus our entourage. He chuckled, “A gentleman’s word is his bond.” So I went on a trip to southern Xinjiang. On the plane, the bureau chief gave me a rundown of the situation there with its complex ethnic conflicts.
There were two ancient cities on the Silk Road: one was the important city of Dunhuang in the Gansu Corridor, the other was Kashgar, a major center in the “Western Regions.” The Kashgar region borders Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kyrgyzstan, with a total area of 110,000 square kilometers. The main ethnic groups there are Uyghur, Han, Tajik, Hui, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Kazakh, Russian, Daur, Mongolian, Xibo, and Manchu. Uyghurs account for about 90% of the total population. Kashgar is the place in Xinjiang most potently steeped in Uyghur customs and culture, especially in the countryside and the Old City of Kashgar, where everywhere you can see towering arched entryways to mosques and striking signs of the crescent moon.
On the first day I heard the bureau work report. The bureau chief was Han and the deputy bureau chief was Uyghur, while the bureau’s cadres were more or less split 50/50. There were more Uyghur cadres in the lower county-level bureaus. In light of southern Xinjiang’s particular characteristics, after the work talk I specifically spoke about the issue of cooperation and unity between Uyghur and Han cadres, emphasizing the importance of Han cadres respecting and supporting the work of ethnic minority cadres.
On the second day, the bureau proposed some R&R. They arranged for us to visit Xinjiang’s largest mosque, Id Kah, the Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine [also known as the Abakh Khoja Mausoleum] and also a large marketplace. I recommended the bureau chief not come along, but rather the Uyghur deputy chief, which would make it a bit more convenient to visit the mosque. Additionally, I suggested that anyone from the provincial government who’d already been to these sites not come along, so we wouldn’t draw attention from too large an escort.
Id Kah Mosque is the center of Muslim activity in Xinjiang. It is 140 meters long from north to south, 120 meters wide east to west. The square, brickwork gate, with its built-in arch, is 12 meters high, mainly light green in color, covered with finely-carved flowers. Bordering the façade are 15 arch-shaped cavities. Inside is a spacious inner plaza connected to the grand hall of worship and the hall of the scriptures. The whole complex is a grand and majestic sight, rich with Islamic characteristics. It was explained that every Sabbath and holiday, thousands upon thousands of Muslims gather to worship in the prayer hall and the squares inside and outside the main gate. The scene is quite spectacular.
When we visited the mosque, the Uyghurs inside and out regarded us with cold indifference. Some young people even sized us up with hostility in their eyes. Although we were accompanied by Uyghurs, we were still seen as outsiders. From their gazes, we could sense the trauma left by last year’s violence.
When we arrived at the Fragrant Concubine’s tomb the atmosphere was a bit more relaxed, and the Uyghur bureau chief was more talkative. He was not so fluent in Chinese, but we had no problem communicating. The tourism industry had not yet taken off, so we had Abakh Khoja to ourselves. Built in 1640, it is the cemetery of Afaq Khoja, leader of the White Mountain faction, and his clan. Typical of old Islamic mausoleums, it resembles a sumptuous palace, standing 40 meters high. Atop the great dome is an exquisite tower. Atop the tower is a gold-plated crescent moon, gleaming in dignified, ceremonial silence.
After two days together, the Uyghur bureau chief seemed to have a good impression of us. He drank with us at dinner, and his spirits were high. After seeing us to our hotel, the Han bureau chief and delegation of cadres went home, but the Uyghur chief still sat in my hotel room. He wasn’t making a move to leave. I felt he wanted to say something, so I had the section chiefs and provincial leaders who’d come with me go back to their rooms to rest.
At first, he just talked about difficulties at work, explaining how ethnic minority cadres were not trusted and had no power. Han cadres didn’t really defer to his leadership, making it hard to do good work. As he opened up and talked more, this tall, 40-something man actually began to cry. It seemed he had a belly full of grievances. I didn’t know what to say at that point, so I just kept repeating the same few things: you’re a Party member, you have to believe in the Party’s ethnic policy, you have to trust that the vast majority of Han cadres are implementing the Party’s ethnic policy. He enumerated many examples of discrimination against Uyghurs. He told me about an incident where a crowd broke into an execution to save a condemned Han man. By this, he meant to prove that Han and Uyghur are not equal.
He referred to the locally infamous  “Gao Xu Incident.” Gao Xu was a deputy company commander in some division of the Xinjiang Military Region. Once, returning from a military supply delivery to Tibet, he and his troops descended from the Karakoram Mountains. On a stretch of road in southern Xinjiang, some of the troops hunted and killed two yaks they thought were wild but were in fact domesticated. A Uyghur road crew worker doing highway maintenance owned the yaks. The Uyghur crewmen stopped work to block the military vehicle and demand compensation. The soldiers believed that intercepting a military vehicle was illegal. Once the truck had rushed through the roadblock, hot-headed Gao Xu opened fire at the Uyghurs giving chase. He strafed them with machine gun fire, killing an innocent youth, Apix Abdullah, infuriating Uyghurs, and plunging the vast land of Xinjiang into turmoil.
After reporting to the Central Military Commission for authorization, a military court sentenced Gao Xu to death, and a deputy chair of the court came to southern Xinjiang personally to supervise the execution. The criminal charges were as follows: Gao Xu and the others shot and killed the yaks illegally. The victim and others blocked the vehicle to claim damages, and while their method was inappropriate, it did not constitute a serious infraction. Gao Xu opened fire. Although this was an error in judgment, it was still classified as indirect intentional homicide. Unexpectedly, more than a thousand Han people stormed the execution ground and took Gao Xu into hiding. Under strong Han pressure, the military court commuted Gao Xu’s sentence to 15 years in prison.
Ten years had by then passed since the incident. What I didn’t expect was how deep a scar was left on the heart of the Uyghur people, how inconsolably angry they were to this day. The bureau chief asked me: “Is it not illegal to take over an execution?” I said, “If the circumstances were as you described them, then of course it was illegal. But, to be honest, on first hearing I still don’t understand.”
“If it was illegal, then why weren’t they prosecuted? When a Han murdered one of our Uyghurs and was sentenced to death, why did Han people dare raid the execution ground? Is that fair?! If the situation were reversed, if it had been Uyghurs stopping an execution, the soldiers would have opened fire, and it would have been labeled a counterrevolutionary riot.”
I had no doubt about this double standard, but I said nothing. I saw he was quite upset, so I just said, “Let’s drop this for today. You drank too much and it’s getting late. Time to go back and rest.” In this way I saw him out.
The next day, I saw the bureau chief again. He seemed to have forgotten about everything he’d said the night before. When he saw me, he didn’t raise the subject at all. I also acted as if nothing had happened, and I didn’t bring it up with anyone.
Before I came to Xinjiang, there were always messages being sent to the central authorities claiming the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) occupied the best land, the most fertile pastures, and the best water sources, vying with locals for advantage and profit. On our third day in Kashgar, we went to a regiment-level farm of the XPCC Third Agricultural Division to understand the state of things. The area’s water resources were reportedly in short supply, and the farm was always in conflict with local farmers over land and water. The Han bureau chief told me how the regiment had done a great service in suppressing the latest violence.
Uyghur cadres didn’t generally come along on inspections of XPCC units. This was left to Han cadres. When the regiment cadres invited us to lunch, everyone chatted without inhibition, because we were all Han, drinking and cheerful. Unprompted, the regiment cadres told us about the process of suppressing the rebellion.
Akto County, where Baren Township is located, is one of the “100 poorest counties” in the nation. The climate is dry, water is scarce, and there is little arable land. Farmers have a very difficult time of it there, and their dissatisfaction is great. They believe the arrival of the Han led to their poverty. Armed insurrectionists seized the opportunity to go from house to house mobilizing Uyghur farmers to oppose the authorities. When the uprising happened, this regiment was the closest to the township, and at that time the garrison couldn’t catch up. The XPCC ordered the regiment to suppress the uprising. Everyone’s spirits were high when they received the order. They all said they were constantly subjected to Uyghur anger, and here, finally, was the chance to pick up arms. The regiment was the first to Baren. The army didn’t arrive until the regiment had their adversary surrounded. Over 10,000 people lived in Baren, all Uyghur, and the rebels had incited 5,000 farmers to besiege the township government. Although the XPCC soldiers had never been in battle, the other side had few gunmen. There was a huge power differential. It was asymmetric warfare, and the battle was an unhindered success.
One of the cadres told me exuberantly, “Now that’s what I call easy pickings. You saw someone and you just fired, man or woman, young or old. There was no room for mercy, because you couldn’t tell who was a thug and who wasn’t. Uyghurs all carry knives. If you hesitated you could be killed. In some cases, we basically lit up a whole village.”
Six Chinese soldiers reportedly lost their lives in the uprising. After the rebellion was crushed, the government mobilized all military forces stationed in southern Xinjiang and five divisions of XPCC soldiers, cutting off Aksu and Kashgar prefectures, Atush County, and Hotan Prefecture. There was a large-scale manhunt for the rebels. According to related statistics, nearly 3,000 people were arrested for “participating in the counterrevolutionary Baren uprising, or for sympathizing, aiding, and harboring counterrevolutionaries.” More than 200 were sentenced to death. In addition to those killed in battle, Uyghurs paid a 50-to-1 life price for their insurrection.
During this casual conversation, I asked about the “Gao Xu Incident.” Everyone suddenly perked up. The regiment cadres excitedly told me about their intervention.
The news that Gao Xu had been sentenced to death had leaked, and people were indignant. “Obstructing a military vehicle is illegal! There was no way to know if the blockade wasn’t hostile! A PLA officer sentenced to death? Based on what!?” And everyone believed certain parties wanted to exploit the situation, to make a big fuss, to exert pressure on the military and the XPCC, to exert pressure on the Han. So the XPC decided to take matters into their own hands.
On the day judgment was pronounced, XPCC soldiers from the farms rushed en masse in their trucks to the execution ground. Because the size of the place was limited, not all of the soldiers could enter. Most waited outside to provide reinforcement. Inside, a few hundred sat to one side, and a few hundred military soldiers sat on the other. Wedged in between them were hundreds of Uyghurs. With such power on either side of them, the Uyghurs dared not move. Soldiers, armed to the teeth, were all over the place, machine guns ready.
As the presiding judge announced, “This court, in accordance with the law, finds Gao Xu guilty of the crime of intentional homicide and sentences him to death, to be carried out immediately…” several hundred XPCC soldiers rushed up and surrounded Gao Xu, and suddenly everything was in chaos. The army soldiers just stood there indifferently and did nothing to stop the troops. The Uyghurs were stunned and didn’t know what to do. The soldiers outside then converged with those inside, crowding around Gao Xu and bringing him out. They pushed him into a truck and took him into hiding. Han, including XPCC soldiers, laid on the pressure: If Gao Xu were put to death, they would be done sacrificing their lives in Xinjiang. The court was compelled to revoke the death sentence. This was perhaps the only seizure of a proletariat-governed execution ground since the country’s founding, and it actually succeeded.
As everyone was talking over each other, I suddenly asked, “If it had been Uyghurs who had snatched Gao Xu, then what?”
“They wouldn’t dare. We outnumbered them by a lot. If they’d tried, the army would have opened fire on them.”
I was speechless. At that moment I recalled the Uyghur bureau chief crying in front of me. His questioning voice came back to me: “If it was illegal, then why weren’t they prosecuted? Why is it that when a Han murders one of our Uyghurs and is sentenced to death, the Han people just raid the execution ground? Is that fair?! If the situation were reversed, if it had been Uyghurs stopping an execution, the soldiers would have opened fire, and it would have been labeled a counterrevolutionary riot.”
It is understood nowadays that when university graduates are assigned to the XPCC and enlist for active duty, they all receive class education, they all watch videos of violence being suppressed. Judging by the hateful gazes I got from young Uyghurs in Id Kah Mosque Square, they must certainly be getting their own secret education. Surely they pass along the story of Gao Xu and of the indiscriminate “slaughter” of Uyghurs. Surely another kind of class education is given to these young people. Perhaps hatred is passed down in this way, from generation to generation. It later came to light that in 1990, a Uyghur judge named Mehmet, who had sentenced 26 insurrectionists to death, was himself stabbed to death in his own home. There were over 40 knife wounds in his body.
The CCP seized power almost 60 years ago, and conflict in ethnic minority areas like Xinjiang and Tibet seems to be getting worse. Once ethnic or religious conflict is involved, it’s hard to have a peaceful or rational dialogue. Over the past 20 years, the central government has adopted the most severe measures in its history in Xinjiang and Tibet, but that hasn’t stopped “Xinjiang independence” activity. On the contrary, it has grown more violent. Its scope has expanded beyond Xinjiang and reached the capital and every part of China in between. [In 2008, the year this essay was penned] a 15-year-old Uyghur girl made herself into a human bomb in Kuqa County, Aksu Prefecture. A 19-year-old woman on a plane tried to use gasoline to kill herself and take others with her in an attempted suicidal terror attack. People all over China have watched ethnic hatred and revenge tactics, formerly confined to places like Iraq and Palestine, progressively develop into one of the most destabilizing elements in Chinese society, spreading panic all over China. Nearly everyone from Xinjiang has become the object of suspicion, to be examined, interrogated, and guarded against. At the Olympics they had to employ hundreds of thousands of military police, and millions of volunteers, to guard against terrorist attacks.
Practice has proven that no matter how severe the means employed, submission can’t be forced. It will just lead to more tragedy. As a kind of religious faith, it cannot be wiped out. Attributing all problems to “Xinjiang independence” and “Tibet independence” will never win over locals, and it will never convince the world. “He who wins the hearts of the people gains the world.” Can the Han, as a non-religious ethnic group, better understand and respect ethnic groups of religious faith? Is it possible for the Han, as the ruling ethnic group of this country, to adopt a strategy other than military force to win people’s hearts? [Chinese]
Translation by Alicia.