Postcard from Xinjiang

It was the first day of the Chinese new year in Urumqi, not that many Uighurs particularly cared. It's not their holiday (although there was a Uighur language spring festival gala). But it was also a Friday, which meant the biggest weekly public prayer at the Grand Bazaar. The Bazaar itself, the world's largest, was closed. Outside it, hundreds of Muslims laid out their mats, kneeled and prostrated themselves to the yodelling refrain of "Allah Akbar" coming from the speaker system.

Across the street, a clump of security guards watched them, looking bored. From their appearance they were all Uighur, or at least all part Uighur. They wore fur hats, and warmed their hands in their pockets. Urumqi was almost -20ºC, and it had snowed recently. Behind the guards, in an armoured van parked opposite the Bazaar, were soldiers. One of them was doubled over the driving wheel, sleeping.

I was in town to spend the lunar new year with a Han Chinese family, and had slipped away that afternoon, January 31st, to get more of a feel for the Uighur side of the coin. The security guards, no surprises, were uncommunicative. The peddlers selling sticky nut cakes and other Xinjiang specialities didn't want to talk to a foreigner either – or just didn't want to talk to me. I took a furtive picture, above. Behind me to my left, a young Uighur guy was hanging back, watching the prayers from over the road.

I went up to him, and asked why he wasn’t joining in. He said he hadn’t washed himself, and without performing the proper ablutions he couldn't participate. He is 17, from the town of Dushanzi 250km to Urumqi's northwest, and was in Urumqi on holiday during winter break with a school friend. I'll just call him Max, to err on the safe side.

The prayers ended, the crowd picked up their mats and dispersed, and his friend joined us from among the throng. With nothing better to do, the three of us went into a fast food style café opposite the Bazaar. Over coffee (for them, sweet milk tea for me), we chatted. The friend – who had skin as pale as mine, and an even bigger nose – left early, but Max was the more interesting of the two anyway. He has darker skin, a lean face, a coffee stain moustache on his upper lip, and a birthmark on his left temple shaped like a clover.

The first thing we talked about was football. Max loves football, and is pretty good at it he said. I believe him – to risk a generalisation, so are most Uighurs. I remember playing football in 40ºC heat in Turpan three summers back, and embarrassing my nation. He is looking forward to the World Cup, and has strong feelings about the Chinese team. If only they had some Uighurs playing for them, he said, they wouldn't have lost so badly to Thailand (a 1:5 fiasco last June).

I asked him if he felt the Han Chinese in Xinjiang had prejudices against the Uighurs. His list – that Uighurs were thought of as dirty, violent, thieves – was familiar. I’d heard all those opinions first hand from the older members of the family I was visiting. Max said that Uighurs in turn thought the Han had too extravagent tastes (tai guofen), and weren’t respectful. On new year’s eve, the night before, he wasn’t happy about all the fireworks that were set off, because it was noisy and created air pollution.

In Urumqi, Uighurs and Han occupy two different worlds. The Uighur districts are around the Bazaar and the larger area around Ya'nan lu. The Han are, in effect, everywhere else (according to Wikipedia, the city's population is 75% Han). Uighurs go to Uighur restaurants and shops; Han Chinese to their own. You wouldn't see many Han with Uighur friends, and vice versa – they would possibly be loath even to ask directions of them. This is even more pronounced after the riots of July 5th 2009, which gave Han residents in Xinjiang a new found wariness of the Uighur population as potentially dangerous.

The problem, for the Uighurs, is that they don't perceive the two worlds as equal. The region is supposedly bilingual, and street signs are in both Chinese and Uighur, but Max said he felt Chinese was clearly the main langauge. In school, his humanities subjects are in Uighur but sciences are in Chinese. And it's the Han Chinese whom he sees as getting rich off Xinjiang's land. Although interestingly, he's a fan of Xi Jinping's anti-corruption efforts, as it cuts down on greedy officials doing just that.

Then there's the perceived religious oppression. Schoolchildren aren't allowed to participate in public prayer, Max said (he and his friend wore casual clothes), whereas custom dictates boys should start at 11, girls at 13. And in further out places, like his hometown of Dushanzi, he claimed a Uighur woman wearing a burka can be stopped on the street, or not allowed onto a bus. That might well be exaggeration, but the feeling of injustice behind a claim like that is always real.

Max hadn't heard of the recently arrested scholar Illham Tohti, but without prompting he mentioned the Uighurs who crashed a jeep into Tiananmen square last October. "Why would someone destroy themselves and their family," he said, "if they didn't have a reason to feel hopeless?"

The Han perception tends to brush off this argument, branding the Uighurs who commit such violence as religious extremists, terrorists, and splittists. There's something to that – innocents were killed in the Tiananmen attacks, and much of the violence of July 5th 2009 was directionlessly ethnic. Even Max said he suspected the recent clashes in Aksu might have been the desperate violence of people with AIDS, who had nothing to lose and wanted to bring others down with them. As it is too with Tibet, the real tragedy is that without credible reporting, we will never know the full story.

The fact that Uighurs are closely watched by the state, however, is undeniable. Urumqi airport has prominent explosive checks before you can even enter the building. Traffic cameras take far more photographs of drivers than in any other Chinese city I've been to. And there were those security guards at the weekly prayer. In Max's words, "To have my own people watch my own customs in my own country ... it makes me feel like I'm doing something wrong."

He can't talk about this openly, he told me – or certainly not about anything sensitive like July 5th. "I can't express my thoughts," he said, "I can only keep my silence." He also claimed that QQ, Weibo and Weixin are monitored, and that if you repost something religious on them you can be accused of splittism. One of his school friends, he said, had been taken into the police station for that. Again, that's impossible to verify but the sense of being a second class citizen in your own country is evident.

That sense is more keenly felt still by Uighurs in Chinese cities outside of Xinjiang, where prejudice means that jobs are hard to come by. The prospects for a young Uighur, according to Max, are to remain in Xinjiang or to try to emigrate. He asked me how strict visa policy was in England, a question I've had from Tibetans too. His own goal is to study medicine at university, and then move to Turkey.

Before we left, Max asked me to pose for a picture with him, so he could show his friends. We added each other on Weixin, the messaging app. The background for his profile is a field of sunlit clouds with "Allah Is The Greatest" typed over them in cursive. His posts are mostly of cars and electronic products he wants, or of the football team he plays on. We shook hands and parted ways, and probably won't meet again.

He had paid for my milk tea.

Note: This was one conversation in a café, so the equivalent of talking to your taxi driver and hardly a throughly reported picture of Xinjiang. I was most interested in Uighur-Han ethnic issues, so that's what most of my questions were about. We could just have easily have talked about girls and cars for an hour. Another caveat is that, in my experience, Uighurs and Tibetans often "play up" to what they think Westerners want to hear – but that wasn't the case here, I feel. In fact, though initially wary, once we developed trust he seemed relieved to be able to speak his mind.

Also – I've left my own opinions out of this, I'm just recording what one person said one day. I have, however, attempted to be relatively comprehensive in presenting both sides of the story, and I qualify opinions on both sides which I feel could be biased.

And finally – This is the 100th full narrative post on the Anthill. (We've also had 44 "Chinese Tuesdays" posts, hence us celebrating our centenary back in October.) It's also not the first postcard from Xinjiang I've sent. I wrote a shorter one here from a trip to Kashgar in June 2010, on my old blog Six, from my days up at Beida and Tsinghua.