The Xinjiang riots

The riots, which have killed over 150 people and injured over 1,000, Uighur and Han, came up at our NAM editorial meeting yesterday. Our director made the point that the Uighurs get a bad deal twice over  – firstly, because they have become increasingly dispossessed of their resources, rights , and culture by the Han Chinese, which is a major reason for the current unrest and Uighur resentment toward the Han; secondly, because for some reason or other, they are a group that few outsiders care to advocate for – unlike, say, the Tibetans. (Although the Guantanamo Bay resettlement story gave them some recent exposure.)

It seems likely to me that the general lack of passion about Uighur rights is at least in part because they are Muslim. Maybe it is hard for many, say, in the US, who want to fight for greater freedom, etc., to champion a Muslim cause in the same way they can champion the Tibetan Buddhist cause (which of course also has its own issues of class and religion that do not match the liberal values of many of its champions  as well as they might like to think). I believe this bias exists even though the Uighur’s brand of Islam is, from my understanding, a good deal less rigid than Islam in much of  the Middle East, for example. I don’t know if many people know that much about Uighur culture.

Call to prayer in Kashgar
Call to prayer in Kashgar, from my 2006 trip. I feel a little weirdly anthropological and condescending in the dumb Westerner way, adding these photos, since they’re not related to the riots in particular. But I want to give a sense of the normal scene in one of the currently affected cities.

The Uighurs also don’t have a figure quite like the Dalai Lama to rally outsiders. They do have Rebiya Kadeer  – who currently lives in the US, and who the Chinese government accuses of instigating the recent riots, maybe taking a US-blaming cue from the Iranian government.

Also like Iran, however, the Uighurs now have things like Twitter and text messages to help unify them.

A few people in Munich, Washington, etc. have been showing their support by protesting, trashing the Chinese embassy, etc. But these protesters are generally Uighurs in exile themselves, not multi-ethnic supporters like those Tibet attracts.

I am certainly not saying that the Uighurs do not share blame for the riots. But it seems unfair (as it often is) to classify them as the sole aggressors or terrorists, and unfortunately, it may be easier – for China or observers – to do so because the Uighurs are Muslim. Then again, may also be too easy for many Western observers to classify the Han Chinese as solely at fault because of the way many in the West delight in pointing out the continuing repressive nature of the Chinese government and somehow using that to incriminate the Chinese people themselves.

If anything, these riots demonstrate that people’s tendency to be violent idiots is in no way limited to one group of people.

Kashgar Sunday Livestock Market

Kashgar's Sunday livestock market

Selfishly, but probably in a way many people might be, I probably feel especially sympathetic to the Uighurs because I was in these places – Urumqi, Kashgar, etc. – three years ago, when I went on a trip along the Silk Road from Beijing through Xinjiang with my mom’s side of the family. Worse, I might also feel an especial interest because the Uighurs there thought I was one of them – I have that Eurasian look. It was the first time I’d felt like I fit in, appearance wise, with most people around me.

But I guess silly things like that are how many people come to care about specific causes, rather than just having a general desire to do something about something, which often bothers me, especially when I detect it in myself. Not that a simple desire to do good is a bad thing.


Uighur kids in Kashgar from my 2006 trip. Again, I feel dumb putting their photo here. My point is just that the little girl is adorable, chador (I think?) and all. And that the kids look Eurasian like me.

Unrelatedly, except in that it comes from my Silk Road trip, I wouldn’t like to have a cavity in Kashgar. This was not the only shop in Kashgar’s Old Town with a sign like this at its front:



My apologies that my photos are only of Kashgar, and not Urumqi, the epicenter of the recent riots. Kashgar was a much more interesting city for us as tourists, and my mom, who took all these photos, didn’t get any of Urumqi. Maybe it is a little suspicious that, at least according  to several Chinese news sources, Rebiya Kadeer, who lived in Urumqi for over 20 years, couldn’t tell that the photo she used to demonstrate government brutality was actually from Shishou, in Hubei Province, not Urumqi. But as far as I remember, Urumqi really doesn’t have many visible distinguishing characteristics as a city. (By the way, it is, however, of all the cities in the world, the farthest from any ocean.)

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One Comment on “The Xinjiang riots”

  1. […] have also got a lot of visitors searching for various terms I used in my Xinjiang riots post: “uighurs,” “Kashgar,” etc., and, strangely, “Kashgar dentist,” […]

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