There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 25 August 2008

Postscript to The Chinese Silk Road

Xinjiang provided us with a host of wonderful memories, but we would rather forget the ever-present and overbearing security. We could not drive down a road, check into a hotel, get on a train or enter an airport without somebody wanting to know who we were and what we were doing or feeling a need to search our luggage. The Chinese have a problem in Xinjiang; there was a grenade and knife attack in Kashgar days before we arrived and a small bombing in Korla the same week. Tibet had burst into flames  some months earlier [update: and since, in some cases quite literally, see Hue for comments and similarities] and, with the eyes of the world fixed on the Beijing Olympics, China was desperate to ensure that neither of their rebellious provinces made the wrong sort of headlines

And, indeed, there were no incidents, so to that extent they were successful, but successful was not how it felt.

Far from making us feel safer, we found the security threatening. At every check point there was an armed man with a little training and slightly less education. That makes him dangerous. It also makes him a target for those the government call ‘terrorists’. I have no desire to be killed in the cross fire of someone else’s war.

Generally, the security was irritating and ineffectual. I wondered at the roadblock in Kashgar that everybody knew how to avoid. I mocked the village copper who shouldered the responsibility of examining my Mongolian visa. I resented the arbitrary alterations to airline baggage rules; the confiscation of our belongings was only an inconvenience, but I cannot understand how 100 ml of aftershave threatened anybody’s safety. I marvelled at the number of times guards stopped us and made the driver open the boot and then, on seeing our suitcases, waved us straight through. I have no wish to bomb anybody, but if I did, I would probably put the bomb in a suitcase. Perhaps we did not fit the profile of a bomber, in which case why stop us at all?

I concluded that the authorities’ activities did little to provide security, but did much to wind up the locals and remind them who is in charge. By the time we left, I was almost ready to join the Uigher separatists.

And inevitably the riots did come, not in Kashgar or Hotan or any of the other Uigher cities around the rim of the Taklamakan, but in Han-dominated Urumqi. The spark was the perceived police inactivity in the case of two Uigher migrant workers beaten to death by a mob in southern China. Several deaths in fighting between Han and Uigher residents were followed by a heavy-handed police crackdown. Last month the courts sentenced six people to death for their part in the rioting. Precise figures are unavailable, but Amnesty International estimates that China carried out some eighteen hundred executions last year, two thirds of the world total. Not a record to be proud of.

Uigher capital, Han city

I do not imagine that Hu Jintao has waited breathlessly to read each new episode in this story, but it is in the public domain and anybody might see it so, I will not say where or how I met the person who asked, very quietly, ‘is it true that in the west you are allowed to criticise your government?’ ‘It is,’ I replied rather sanctimoniously, ‘a right we hold dear.’

Dwellings being demolished before being covered by the rising waters behind the
Three Gorges Dam
The Chinese Communist Party, which is communist in name only, has made a tacit deal with the Chinese people. ‘We’ll keep making you richer, and you won’t bother yourself with government.’ For most of the people most of the time, it works - you can stand in the street and almost feel the economy growing. But it does not work for everybody; it does not work for those flooded out of their homes by the Three Gorges Dam, it does not work for those summarily evicted to make way for Olympic building projects, and it does not work for the Tibetans and the Uighers. As prosperity grows, the ordinary Chinese will inevitably demand involvement in the decisions that affect their lives. The results of such tension between the people and a ruling party that accepts no criticism are unpredictable.

And are these 'homes' in the desert intended to replace them?
Uighers are Chinese only in the sense of their nationality. They do not look Chinese, they do not speak, read or write Chinese and they do not eat Chinese. It is an interesting thought that had Sir George McCartney, the long time British consul in Kashgar, been less diligent about keeping Russian hands off this area, then it could well have become part of the Soviet Union and would now be the independent state of Uigherstan. The British are often resented and occasionally admired for all sorts of things done – or not done – during the colonial era. Not even the most ardent Uigher nationalist has yet blamed us for this unforeseen consequence of British policy.

Uighers do not look Chinese....

Movements that pit small nations against larger oppressors always have a romantic attraction, but one I find resistible. Blaming foreigners, whether an internal minority or an external power, for all your troubles, at best distracts from acting to remedy the real problems, and at worst leads to the excesses of Nazi Germany and Rwanda. More progress is made when people work together. Given the state of the other ‘Stans’ and the growing Chinese prosperity, which may be reaching Xinjiang slowly, but is getting there, it should not be beyond the wit of the Chinese to make the Uighers want to remain part of their country.

The ‘Uigher Autonomous Region’ should be autonomous in more than merely name, and local people should be responsible for local decisions. The Chinese should stop being surprised when Uighers are ungrateful for the wholesale ‘Hanification’ of their towns and cities. They do appreciate the clean modern apartments with electricity and running water, but they resent the wholesale bulldozing of their heritage that has accompanied it – and more of old Kashgar has been flattened since we were there. And if local democracy would work in Xinjiang, then perhaps it could be rolled out across the whole of China.

Well, Hu Jintao, I doubt that you are reading this, but if you are, that is what I would do about your Xinjiang problem. Now Tibet is a rather more difficult but if I were you……. (continued on page 999)

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