Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.12.11

From Ferguson and NYC to Urumqi

JBpress on December 5, 2014

It is always fascinating to visit Urumqi, the center of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China. The visit this week, my first in a decade, was made on my way to Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic. What I saw in the Uyguri capital was an irreversible degree of "Hanization," i.e. the Han Chinese gradually coming to outnumber the Uygurs in the name of "modernizing the region".

Upon my arrival at a hotel in Urumqi, CNN started reporting every hour on the "New York chokehold case" in which a NYPD officer was not indicted for the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed African American. After a grand jury cleared the white police officer, nationwide protests, mostly non-violent, erupted against injustice and racial discrimination in the United States.

Angry demonstrators protested in New York, Denver, Detroit and Minneapolis. They urged the need for better police training, body cameras and a better grand jury process to restore faith in the legal system. Their fury had already been ignited by last week's grand jury decision to clear a white officer in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

These tragic events from the United States are almost dwarfed by the reality in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. President Barack Obama reportedly stated that one of the chief issues at stake is, "making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally." He is absolutely right both in America and Xinjiang.

In Urumqi, however, nobody seems to be interested in the news from Ferguson or New York, although the Uygurs are placed under much harsher and more discriminating circumstances. I heard an Uygur joke that, "In America, if two black men have a quarrel, they are called criminals and get arrested but, here in Xinjiang, if two Uygurs have a fight, we are called terrorists."

If you fly to Bishkek from Urumqi in the afternoon, you will arrive at the Kyrgyz capital almost at the same time of the day. Why is this? The flight time is only two hours. Nothing is wrong with the time in Bishkek, only 1,000 kilometers to the west. It is because the time in Urumqi is the same as in Beijing, 2,500 kilometers to the east. Here in Xinjiang, the sun rises after 8:00 am in Winter. Offices and shops open at 10:30 and evening rush hours start at 19:30 pm.

Han dominance is everywhere. Ten years ago, at the center of the city, the names of shops and restaurants were written in the Uyguri language with big Arabic letters, with a smaller translation in Chinese characters. Now, most of those ads and signs are written in big Chinese characters with very small or almost no Uyguri in Arabic letters.

In a huge newly-built museum of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, there are virtually no detailed displays of the history, culture, religion or life of the Uygur nation. The reason for this has never been explained. The renovation of the museum was not the reason, because there were no such Uygur-related displays in the same museum even ten years ago.

Some young Uygurs are reportedly fighting with the "Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq. However, ordinary Uygur Muslims seem to be uninterested in such radical teachings of Islam. They just want to live their own life as they have been living for the past few thousand years in the area, whether under the rule of Mongolians, Khitais or Chinese.

Their frustration is more economic than political. Not all the Uygurs are anti-Chinese nor do they hate Beijing. They just want to be treated equally and fairly. If the Han Chinese wish to come and develop natural resources in the Uygur land, the Uygurs even welcome it as long as the Han Chinese officials or businessmen treat the locals equally and fairly.

The reality, however, is that this is not the case. The situation in the Uygur region is far worse than in Ferguson, Missouri or New York City. Uygurs are not blacks. As they can clearly see on CNN, Han Chinese must know that they cannot control minorities only by force. What is necessary in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is to let Uygurs have their own real autonomy and to restore Uygur faith in the Chinese legal system, assuming there is any faith to restore.

Sensible Han Chinese leaders in the region may learn the lesson from the recent Michael Brown or Eric Garner cases in the United States that, in order to maintain good relations with minorities, legal enforcement must be equal and fair in their true senses. Even in America, the system is not perfect. The more China "Hanizes" the Uygur region, the more Beijing suffers in the long run.