Over the past two months, the relationship between China's estimated 10 million Uighurs, a
Turkic-speaking people, most of whom follow some form of Sunni Islam,
and the majority Han population has deteriorated after a series of violent
incidents allegedly involving knife-wielding Uighurs in inland China. The
bloodiest incident was the March 1 attack in southern Yunnan
province, where four assailants killed 29 and injured more than 140 at a
crowded train station. Many Han living in large cities, who may have previously regarded Uighurs around them either
as peddlers on streets or singers on television, have now taken a darker
and more fearful view.
Samat is a 32-year-old ethnic Uighur
photographer working for CCTV, China's state-owned television station. He is a native
of Hotan, a predominantly Uighur oasis town in the south of China's Xinjiang
autonomous region that has an urban population of 360,000, according to official data.
Kurbanjan settled in Beijing, which lies more than 2,600 miles to the east of
Hotan. In part to reach out to Han who might want to gain more insight
into what is happening in Xinjiang, he spoke with journalist Zhang Chi in a
lengthy first-person narrative article that was published in the April 30 issue
of Phoenix Weekly, a Hong Kong-based
of Kurbanjan's inter-cultural fluency, the Phoenix
Weekly article has received wide attention from China's mostly Han readers
on social media. Zhang said a friend told her that shortly after her article's
publication in Phoenix Weekly,
President Xi Jinping had referred to it at a meeting, asking Communist Party
cadres in Xinjiang to study the issues raised.
story is fascinating but by no means typical for Uighurs. By his own admission,
he is a rarity in his native Hotan. Not only does he hold a
job at one of China's best known state-owned enterprises (some would say propaganda
machine), he can speak and write nearly flawless Chinese and has good personal
relationships with Han friends and colleagues. While
Kurbanjan does not shy away from discussions of the ethnic discrimination he
and his family have experienced, he is also critical of what he sees as
increasing religious extremism among Uighurs that he says is pulling the region "backwards."
Policy has translated selected passages from the Phoenix Weekly article below, with permission. The original Chinese
version can be found here.
is a very traditional Uighur area in Xinjiang, but our family is a bit
different from others. Of the four children in my generation, three do not
live in Xinjiang. One of my younger brothers runs the family jade shop in
Shenzhen, a metropolis in southern China, and the other also works in Shenzhen at
a wedding photography company as a photo processor. My sister is the only one
living in Hotan; she works as a Mandarin teacher.
southern Xinjiang, it would be nearly impossible to find another family like
I attribute that to my parents, especially my father. He loves talking to
strangers, respects educated people, and is always learning something new. My
father is originally from Artux near Kashgar [a city in Xinjiang], and his business philosophy and
approach to life are quite different from other jade traders.
1984, not long after economic reforms began in China, my father began a jade
trading business and frequently traveled to inland China, and his worldview was
significantly expanded. He often talked to us about his trips, the things he
had seen, and the people he had met. He told us, "You are boys, you have to go
out and see the world." He often told our family and friends that "I will get
all three of my sons out of Hotan." Now, he has indeed achieved that goal. Our
family and our religious views, as a result, are different from other Uighur
families in Hotan.
I was little, my siblings and I could not recite the Quran. During school
breaks in the winter and summer, my mother wanted to send us to Quranic
schools, but our father did not support it. They had many fights over this
issue. My father thought that we were young and could choose for ourselves when
we grew up and had our own understandings of the world. My mother was worried
that if we didn't study the Quran, we would be kuffar, or infidels, in the eyes of other Uighurs and become
outcasts in the local community. My father told her that he alone would shoulder
all the responsibility. When I was little, I didn't know why my father thought
that way, but gradually, especially in the past few years, as Hotan has become
even more conservative and hostile in terms of religious beliefs, I have come
to think of him as a great man.
order to give us a better education, my parents moved several times in Hotan
until they found a neighborhood that had studious children. In Hotan, it was
really hard to learn Chinese (because about 96.4 percent of the population is
Uighur). Until I went to middle school in 1998, I only knew a few Chinese
characters, like "me," "you," "him," and "love." In 10th grade, I had a crush
on a neighbor Uighur girl who was also learning Chinese, and I wrote "I love
you" to her. That was my first time writing Chinese characters.
none of my siblings went to Quranic school, to this day my mother's brothers
and sisters won't even talk to her.
when they run into her occasionally, they say things like, "We need a
translator to talk to your children," implying that her children are quasi-Han,
even though all of us can speak perfect Uighur. My siblings and I are also ostracized
by our relatives. We have more than 30 cousins on my mother's side but none of
them would play with us when we were little. They called us kuffar. This has caused my parents a great
deal of anguish and pain.
fact, my parents are both devout Muslims. They pray five times a day, fast
during Ramadan, and help those around them to the best of their abilities. As I
was born into a Muslim family, faith is in my blood, but only after I grew up did
I understand what my father wanted from us: Only after learning knowledge and
seeing the world could we understand religion, and turn the religious passages
that we had memorized into wisdom.
my mother's greatest wish is to go on the hajj to Mecca. Because Saudi Arabia
gives China a quota on the number of people allowed to go on the hajj, and
Xinjiang, especially Hotan, has too many applicants, she put her name on the
list four years ago. However, now the party cadre in our village told her that
she may never be able to go. [Ed:
Approximately 11,000 to 13,000 Muslims from
China attend the hajj each year, depending on the quota determined by the Saudi
hajj is the most important religious duty in a Muslim's life. My siblings and I
want to do everything in our ability to fulfill my mother's wish. In fact, in
2013 a village cadre had told my mother that it was her turn. She was full of
hope but heard nothing more. My mother only found out later, after other pilgrims
had returned from Mecca, that her spot was given away because she did not pay a
parents did not want to bribe anyone in order to join the hajj because that
would have been sacrilegious. But in Hotan, one cannot get anything done
without bribery, and the need to pay for hajj spots was well known. I was
irritated but still wanted to pay the bribe behind my mother's back. I found a
local official but he made more excuses, saying my mother could not go
because she was over 60 years old, and also because my sister worked as a teacher in a public
did not understand how my married sister's having a teaching job could affect my
mother's spot in the hajj quota, but upon hearing this, my sister even offered
to resign her position. I called the official back; he still said no, because my
sister's husband is also employed as a teacher.
southern Xinjiang, it is hard for Uighurs to find jobs. Many work as police
assistants or teachers because other government or party organizations are
nearly impossible to get into. I once went to a remote village in Hotan prefecture.
There were nine people on the local party propaganda team, and the only Uighur
among them was a driver. I asked them, "You are all Han and do not speak the Uighur
language, how can you do your job and reach out to the villagers?" Their
answer? "It is what it is." These local party cadres are completely out of
touch with the Uighur community. How can there not be any resentment?
the issue of my mother going on the hajj, I think some of these Hotan local officials
are wrong. What they are carrying out is not China's official ethnic policy nor
Xinjiang autonomous region's stated policy. If it stays like this for the
long term, there will be serious problems with the local community. It's
a good thing that my siblings and I are educated and will not go overboard in
few years ago, my youngest brother did not do well in high school and became
our family's biggest headache. In 2007, he dropped out in ninth grade and
started mixing with other young delinquents. My father asked me to get him out
of Hotan. I asked my brother if he wanted to come to Beijing, but he absolutely
refused to leave Hotan.
by the end of 2007, a Han friend of mine from Sichuan opened a photography
company in Hotan and I asked my brother to go help out. My brother became
interested in photo processing and could sit doing that for eight or nine hours
after the ethnic riots in Urumqi in July 2009, there were some tiffs among the
employees at my brother's workplace. At the photography company, everyone other
than my brother was a Han. The most serious incident started with the tiniest
spark. One Han man was listening to a song by Taiwanese rap star Jay Chou but my brother preferred the Hong Kong rock band Beyond, so he
changed the music to Beyond. The Han man called my brother an ethnic slur and
my brother threw a water glass at him. Such a small thing had escalated into
friend, who owned the business, fired the Han and scolded my brother. The Han
thought the treatment was unfair and wanted to smash up the place. The Han had
gathered more than 20 fellow migrant workers hankering to beat up my brother,
but my brother had called up about 40 or 50 Uighur friends to come over as
well. This was quite a dangerous situation given the ethnic riots that had just
happened in Urumqi. My friend did not know what was going on and gave me a
call. I was extremely nervous and told him to call the police immediately. The
police came and took everyone away, averting bloodshed.
that incident, I could not let my brother stay in Hotan lest something were to happen.
I bought him a plane ticket to Shenzhen the next day and arranged a job for him
at a photography shop there. After he arrived in Shenzhen, I told his new
employer that I would bear full responsibility for his conduct and found
friends at the local police station to vouch for him.
he first went to Shenzhen, my brother had trouble fitting in. However, after
only six months, he returned to Hotan for three days and already felt out of
place. He told me himself that he had
"wasted almost 20 years in Hotan. Shenzhen is better and I will go back there."
my brother works for a chain wedding photography company in Shenzhen and he is
a popular guy. I spoke to his supervisors and they all liked him. He works hard
and has a special touch with colors. In Hotan, we didn't have much green but a
lot of warm yellow, like the color of a sandstorm. My brother is a master of
the warm color palette.
brother now gets along well with Han people around him. Out of more than a thousand
employees in his company, he is the only ethnic minority and the only one from
Xinjiang. Many of his co-workers had never had any contact with people from
Xinjiang, but after working with him they now think well of people from
now my brother has developed a good reputation at the company and has earned
people's appreciation through his hard work. I asked him, "Do you still want to
go back to Hotan?" He replied, "No, I really like Shenzhen and want to settle
here." He thinks Shenzhen is a very tolerant place, and his talent can be
appreciated there. Nowadays, my brother is a totally different person from his
friends in Hotan, in everything from manner of dress to lifestyle. My father no
longer worries about him.
Hotan, many Uighurs do not welcome Han in their homes.
If they hosted Hans, the Uighurs would
throw away the plates, chopsticks, and bowls that the Han used. But our family
was different, and I didn't feel the ethnic divide as much growing up. We
played with a lot of Han children when we were young. They also came to our
home and ate the pilaf rice that my mother made. My best friend in Hotan is a
Han who was born and raised there. He speaks fluent Uighur and often visits my
parents on holidays. He told them, "When Kurbanjan is not here, I'm your eldest,"
and gave them a goat.
a Uighur living in inland China, there are inconveniences from time to time,
but I've gotten used to it. After the terrorist attack on Tiananmen Square in October
2013, I was driving toward Tiananmen Square when a police officer stopped me to
check my car. I pulled over and politely obliged. I can understand this type of
profiling; it was an unusual occasion.
time I have tried to check into a hotel in China, there would be all sorts of
security checks or just flat-out rejections, and I can understand that as well.
My Han colleagues who travel with me sometimes do not, and they ask the hotel staff,
"Why check him but not us?" One time at the airport, my colleague almost got
into a fight with the security guard because he had asked me to take off my
shoes but not my colleague. I told my colleague that the security guard was
only doing his job. Whenever I try to visit a foreign country, I also receive a
very lengthy check.
supervisors and colleagues at CCTV all like me a lot. I work hard and no one
treats me differently because I'm a Uighur. When I first began working,
however, there were some inconveniences, but people around me all accommodated
me. On business trips with more than a dozen people, they'd search for a halal restaurant
for me. I'd tell them that I'm fine with a Han restaurant but they would insist
on finding a halal one just for me. If we ended up going to a Han restaurant,
they'd ask the waitress to get me tomato with fried eggs and rice (which are
acceptable to Muslims). My colleagues and I are all used to it now.
not interested in politics. When I went to the United States and Turkey, some of my
friends were quite worried about the contact I might have with foreigners. [Ed: Uighurs share much
linguistic, cultural, and religious affinity with Turks. There is a large Uighur
community in Turkey, where many have been able to obtain political asylum and
Turkish citizenship.] But my father has taught me not to do anything that would
destabilize society or come into contact with anyone with extremist tendencies.
After I went to Beijing for work, I had many opportunities to travel abroad. My
father said not to talk to strangers outside the country because they don't
understand what's going on in China and Xinjiang especially. Even Chinese don't
have a good understanding of Xinjiang; how could foreigners? Many foreigners have
made up stories or hyped up small matters into big ones, and use those lies as
a way to make a living for themselves. "Don't have any contact with them, just
do your job," my father said.
hard for me to get a passport in China. I can understand that as well.
Uighurs like me had gone abroad with honest intentions to study or do business
and returned to China with no incidents, there wouldn't be such issues, but
some Uighurs have told many lies after they had gone abroad, and I have gotten
angry at them for doing that.
2009, I traveled to the northeastern city of Shenyang and the hotel I booked
refused to let me stay. The police came to resolve this issue. I told them that
I'm a hotel club member and made a reservation, and there is absolutely no
reason not to let me stay the night. The police talked to me for more than two
hours, finally letting me sleep at 3 a.m. The next day I went to an Internet café,
and the guy at the café glanced at my ID card and, without even looking at me,
told me that "Your ethnicity is not allowed to access the Internet."
I wrote an essay about these stories with the sarcastic title "Xinjiangers are
Welcome Everywhere in China," but found out two weeks later that the essay was
posted on the Internet and had gone viral. I opened my email inbox to find more
than 300 messages, a lot of them requests from foreign media to interview me. I
was dumbfounded and a little scared. I called a close Han friend and mentor and
told him that I wanted to argue with them and set the record straight, but he
said that they could twist every one of my words into a hundred.
messages told me I could go to Hong Kong, France, or Germany for interviews and
they could somehow make me into a German citizen even if I didn't have a
passport. I deleted all those messages and did not go on the Internet for two
days. Six months later, a friend in the U.S. came back to China and told me
that he had read the essay overseas, but the title was changed to "Sorry, Your ethnicity
is not allowed to access the Internet."
lot of people from Xinjiang have an incomplete understanding of Turkey. Many
who have visited Turkey don't present the whole truth when they return to
Xinjiang, but rather only what is useful to them. Many have over-emphasized the
Islamic elements in Turkey and put it on a pedestal. But they have not
considered why Turkey is able to achieve its level of development. Turkey has
relied heavily on secularization and the convergence of all types of cultures. Turkish
culture is very tolerant. Because the country stands at the crossroads between
Europe and Asia, it has taken on both cultures. Its Islam is quite secularized
and absorbs what's good.
think Turkey is a good place for tourism and business, but I wouldn't be able
to live there. Turkish people treat Uighurs as their brethren, but not real
brothers. I think it's an unequal relationship with Turks on top, like telling
us that "I'm your big brother, you can depend on me" but they don't help us in
any real way. I'm not used to that.
the understanding and interpretation of Islam of many people in Xinjiang are
quite different from what is actually in the Quran -- they have become narrower
and more hostile. Many friends have told me that the photos I took on my recent
trip to Urumqi and Hotan are over-Photoshopped and way too dark. I tell them,
"That is the color that I see and I feel. A normal black and white photo should
have a transitional gray color that balances out the black and white, but now
that balance is lost."
is what I want to say: Most people in Xinjiang have lost this balance and
turned toward a darker side. Xinjiang now has large swaths of black and small
specks of white, which is unbalanced and depressive.
religious understanding of many people in Xinjiang has become problematic.
should be moving forward, but instead Xinjiang is now regressing. That is a
scary thing. They say they want to "return to the Quran" but they do not really
understand what that means. The government has not given them good guidance
either. These factors have put the squeeze on the balance between religion and
secularism, and extremism is on the rise.
early 2014, I helped host a concert with some of Turkey's pop stars in
Xinjiang. Quite a few Uighurs were angry with me, because they believed that we
were kuffar for singing and dancing.
These people have begun to reject Turkish culture, which is really scary. Just
a few years ago, young people in Xinjiang felt a lot of solidarity with Turkey,
but people have become increasingly narrow-minded and cannot even tolerate
Turkey's secular culture. They want Xinjiang to become another Afghanistan.
Translated by Rachel Lu and Bethany Allen.
Photo Credit: CAROL HUANG/AFP/Getty Images