My Western Realm, Your Eastern Homeland
By Wang Lixiong
Reviewed by Bruce Humes (2014)
The 2009 Ürümqi riots damaged the reputation of Xinjiang’s Uyghur in the eyes of many Chinese, but the “2014 Kunming Attack” in March this year has surely left a more blood-curdling and indelible image of the “Uyghur-as-Terrorist” imprinted upon the national psyche. Officially, with 197 killed (including both Han and Uyghur), the earlier inter-ethnic violence in Ürümqi events was more deadly. But the lightning attack by assailants wielding long-bladed knives who randomly stabbed and slashed passengers in Kunming Railway Station, leaving 29 travellers dead and well over one hundred injured, was a decidedly one-sided, cold-blooded affair.
Xinhua News Agency quickly announced that the slaughter was carried out by Xinjiang separatists. Whether that claim is based on hard facts is irrelevant; within China, it is widely assumed to be true.
What “ethnic” policies does the central government pursue in Xinjiang, and how have they evolved since 1949? Why have Han-Uyghur relations become so volatile? Can a “Middle Way” be found, and what would it look like?
Openly posing these basic questions in today’s China — much less debating them — is fraught with danger, especially if you are Uyghur. The recent arrest of Beijing Minzu University economics professor Ilham Tohti, an outspoken but moderate Uyghur intellectual since charged with “inciting separatism,” shows where discussing issues relating to ethnic minorities can lead.
Several years back when it was a tad less sensitive — for a Han, at least — to address these topics, writer and rights activist Wang Lixiong published his 473-page My Western Realm, Your Eastern Homeland (note: my translation of the title, 我的西域，你的东土). “Western Realm” conjures up images of the Silk Road, the Taklamakan Desert and Turkic tribes, all part of the Chinese empire. “Eastern Homeland,” however, is a taboo term in today’s PRC, a homophone for the abbreviation of the short-lived, pre-1949 East Turkestan Republic, whose legacy still gives Beijing splittist migraines. Both of these terms refer, of course, to what is known in the PRC as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Though first published in Taiwan in 2007, the Chinese authorities have banned the work, which both confers it with a certain legitimacy, and suggests that it is not yet out of date.
The author originally intended to pen a book on Xinjiang that would serve as a sister volume to his controversial Sky Burial: The Fate of Tibet. No expert in this field, he set out for Xinjiang to do onsite research, and to get his hands on background material and statistics that he believed were key to understanding the Xinjiang question. Unwisely, he employed his guanxi to obtain reports from government archives and for this, he was arrested, jailed and intensely interrogated; he won freedom only by promising he would work as an informant for China’s intelligence services.
Luckily for us, in jail during interrogation he established a strong bond with Mukhtar, a highly educated and devoted Uyghur activist who turned out to be his ticket into Uyghurdom. After Wang was released from jail, he visited Xinjiang four times during 2003-6, each time meeting Mukhtar, engaging him in long discussions — and debates — as well as traveling on his own, and gathering impressions direct from a host of interlocutors, Han, Uyghur and others as well.
The book closes with a long series of letters to Mukhtar penned in 2007, in which Wang attempts to persuade him of the need for a “Middle Way,” i.e., a compromise that could avoid inter-ethnic conflict yet satisfy many of the grievances of the Uyghur people that Mukhtar has enumerated so compellingly.
Whatever you may think of Wang’s views on the ethnic politics of Xinjiang — hopelessly naïve some would say, and in the light of the violent incidents noted above, rendered irrelevant by events on the ground — the book offers historical insight and first-hand reportage in several areas. This is particularly valuable because Xinjiang is huge, occupying one-sixth of China’s territory, and he covered a lot of it in his vehicle.
His portrait of the role of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (兵团 bīngtuán), is particularly edifying. Founded in 1954 by order of Mao Zedong to develop frontier regions and consolidate border defense, it built farms, towns and cities, and provided land and work for disbanded military units. But the bingtuan has not only not disbanded, in the 21st century it arguably operates as a patriotic army of Han settlers holding down the fort in this Turkic-speaking, Muslim-dominated “Wild West,” a virtual state-within-a-state with iron-willed backers in Beijing.
Wang reports how the bingtuan even sets up roadblocks to stop peasants from taking their goods to market; instead, they are forced to sell them at low prices to the bingtuan. While much of China now constitutes a semi-market economy, the exploitive bingtuan — almost exclusively peopled by Han — effectively keeps a large chunk of the Xinjiang economy stuck back in the centrally planned economy of the 1950s.
Via Wang’s discussions with Mukhtar, we learn about three distinct classifications of “dissatisfied” Uyghur: those angered by the ethnic discrimination they face in the job market; devout Muslims who reject being governed by infidels; and outright nationalists who want Uyghur to rule Uyghur. This is a considerably more nuanced portrait of the populace than anything one will find in the Chinese press.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the book is simply the hundreds of Xinjiang “vignettes”— records of brief conversations and unposed photos — that appear throughout the text that rambles at times. Wang is an unpretentious man with a common touch, and time and time again he captures Han, Uyghur, Kazakh and others speaking candidly.
Talking about the decision to knock down most of Kashgar’s Old Town, the remains of a 2,000-year-old oasis city, a former policeman reveals the authorities’ practical but unpublicized motivation for demolition: facilitating the policing of its wholly Uyghur inhabitants. The Old Town is a maze where residents’ whereabouts and activities cannot be systematically supervised.
It’s not illegal to be a practicing Muslim in Xinjiang, at least, not exactly. But another of Wang’s quiet discoveries helps put the difficulties in perspective. Here is my translation of a sign posted in Uyghur and Chinese at the entrance to a middle school in the countryside near Subashi, a “lost” city in the Taklamakan Desert near Kucha, noted during the author’s visit there in 2006:
The 23 Illegal Religious Activities (2)
(非法宗教活动 23 表现)
- Forcing others to believe in religion
- Forcing others to fast
- Operating a madrassa on one’s own
- Holding a traditional marriage ceremony
- Condoning prayer by students
- Using tradition to interfere in modern daily life
- Organizing a hadjoutside of the official channel
- Exacting a traditional tithe from believers
- Establishing a religious venue without permission
- Hosting religious activities without a government certificate
- Religious activities involving several districts
- Printing and distributing materials for promotion of religion
- Accepting foreign donations for religious end-uses
- Going abroad to participate in religious activities
- Proselytizing without permission
- Criticizing patriotic religious devotees
- Infiltration by foreign religions
- Instigating disputes between different sects
- Promoting a cult
- Circulating statements that dispute official policy
- Congregating to march or demonstrate
- Establishing anti-revolutionary bodies
- Other activities that harm social order.
- 我的西域，你的东土 (My Western Realm, Your Eastern Homeland) by 王力雄 (Wang Lixiong). Published by Locus Publishing of Taiwan (大块文化). 2013 edition.
- My translation of an excerpt from page 232, 我的西域，你的东土 (My Western Realm, Your Eastern Homeland).