Matthew Teague’s December 2009 National Geographic article, “The Other Tibet,” should be considered must-reading for anyone interested in understanding modern China. In my November 5, 2009 podcast, “Reflections on Social Media, School Change, 21st Century Learning Skills, and China” I addressed some of the recent challenges the Chinese government has faced in maintaining tight control over its citizens’ abilities to organize as well as protest in Xinjiang, known formally as the “Uyghur Autonomous Region.”
This is the western-most providence in China which has an area of over 600,000 square miles, and as of November 5th still had Internet access cut off to the ENTIRE providence as a result of the protests, riots, and violence in Urumqi in July. Read Cui Jia’s Nov 5th article “The missing link” from the English China Daily News for additional background. This December 2009 National Geographic article provides MUCH more background about these events, their precedents, and the ways in which the September 11th attacks on the United States prompted the Chinese government to begin a unified spin campaign portraying Uyghur groups (pronounced “WEE-gur” and sometimes spelled “Uygur”) as “international terrorists” in solidarity with those opposed by the United States in its “global [and apparently perpetual] war on terror.”
I hope my reference of these topics and issues in my blog will not result in my domain being blocked in China. According to the National Geographic article, publicly mentioning Rebiya Kadeer‘s name in Xinjiang can invite governmental reprisals, including imprisonment. In this post, I am NOT explicitly advocating support for East Turkestan, the World Uyghur Congress, or other groups advocating for political change in Xinjiang. What I AM doing is highlighting this recent article in National Geographic, and asserting that the issues it raises are critical for those interested in understanding modern China.
The following 69 second YouTube video, “The Other Tibet: China’s Uygur People,” is available from the National Geographic Society’s official YouTube channel and is a “teaser trailer” for this article, “The Other Tibet.” All the photographs used in the print edition of the article are included in the video. I don’t know how long NG has been publishing article video trailers like this, but I think it’s innovative as well as effective. Take a look.
Of course, National Geographic author Matthew Teague’s use of maps in this article is exemplary. This one shows the relative locations of major cities in Xinjiang including Urumqi, Karamay, Dushanzi, Kashi (Kashgar,) Kuqa, and Shache. As a resource-rich region, Xinjiang reminds me of both Wyoming and Alaska in the United States. The strategic importance of those states to the United States is quite similar to they way the Chinese government perceives Xinjiang.
The 5000 year old silk road, the 2500 mile West-East gas pipeline (completed in 2004), railroads, and highways now connecting Xinjiang with the rest of China are reflected on this map. What is not shown, but is discussed in the article in detail, is the impact of the Chinese government’s incentive policies encouraging Han Chinese to move west to Xinjiang since 1949. The Uyghur People of Xinjiang are Turkic and predominantly Islamic. Consider the following graph I created and published this evening using data from this article and Google Spreadsheets.
You’ll recall the Chinese revolution (the final stage of military conflict in the 1946–1950 Chinese Civil War) ended in 1949.
Now consider the following paragraph from this National Geographic article:
The big business in Xinjiang is oil, but all that oil is controlled from Beijing by state-owned energy companies. Many of the good jobs in Xinjiang are government jobs, and employees can advance more readily if they join the Communist Party, which requires renouncing their religion. And most Uygurs won’t do that. The result is an ironic and combustible symmetry: As Han settlers pour in, Uygurs, unable to find work in their fantastically wealthy and spacious homeland, migrate east to work in privately owned factories in crowded coastal cities.
Does the above graph, paired with these sentences, begin to paint a picture of why there is widespread and deep-seated discontent in Xinjiang? Take some time and read the full article. It is very important that we, in the West, do not view Muslims as a monolithic group and naively regard the Uygur people as terrorist allies of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, etc. The history here is much more complicated than that.
There are big reasons why Internet access is still blocked in ALL of Xinjiang. Nine people were executed earlier this month in China because of their alleged involvement in the Urumqui riots. Adrienne Mong reported today from Beijing that international calls are still blocked to and from the province. Relatively speaking, I predict we have just begun to hear news from Xinjiang here in the West. The Chinese government appears to be making all efforts to prevent further news from the area from leaking out via mainstream media or citizen journalist channels. Given what happened a few months ago with the 2009 Iranian election protests and social media, it’s an open question whether or not the Chinese government can stop all news from leaking out of this area or prevent all individuals from organizing using digital technologies.
This 2 minute, 15 second interview with NG article author Matthew Teague gives more insight into how severe and complete the information restrictions in Xinjiang still are today. Unfortunately as a Bing Video you may have to install an updated version of Silverlight to view this, but even if you do it’s worth it to watch the accompanying B-roll footage and hear Matthew describe his recent experiences in Xinjiang writing this article.
Stay tuned, you can bet we’re going to hear more from “The Other Tibet” in the months to come.
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