Frontline World

China - Silenced, January 2005

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Silenced"

Secret Meetings and an Unexpected Arrest

Who are the Uighurs? The People of Xinjiang Province

Uighur History, Separatism, U.S.-China Relationships, Uighurs in Guantanamo, Uighur News




Interview With Serene Fang: Secret Meetings and an Unexpected Arrest
Part One: The Wild West -- The Roots of Uighur Nationalism

A young Kashgari girl.

A young Kashgari girl.

Most people have never heard of the Uighurs. Who are they?

The Uighurs are a Muslim population in China. They speak their own language. They look very different from the Han [majority] Chinese, and most of them live in the far northwest of China in the Xinjiang province. There are about 8 million Uighurs.

When did they become part of China?

It's disputed. The Chinese will say that the Uighurs have always been part of China. They themselves feel like they've always had a separate culture, identity and civilization. Most people agree that since the 1950s, China has had control over that region. That's when the People's Liberation Party went in and started pacifying the Uighurs. They have a separatist movement that has been pretty feeble, but it's becoming more intense.

Serene Fang in front of the Apak Hoja mausoleum

Outside the Apak Hoja mausoleum, where Iparhan, a Uighur princess, is buried.
There is a famous legend in China about a Uighur princess who has become a symbol of Uighur nationalism.

It's the legend of Iparhan. There are several versions of the story, all contradictory, of course. This much is known: She was born in Kashgar, at the foot of the Pamir Mountains in the far west of China. Her family was an Islamic dynasty famous for leading armed rebellions against the Chinese during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. She was acclaimed for her beauty, and she was also said to have had such an intoxicating scent that the Chinese renamed her Xiang Fei, the Fragrant Concubine.

According to the Chinese version of the story, her grandfather, Apak Hoja, gave her as a gift to Emperor Qianlong to mark the end of a long period of war and rebellion. Uighur versions of the story say that she was stolen from her husband or that she was captured on the battlefield and taken to Beijing as a trophy. Either way, she was placed on a sedan chair and carried all the way to Beijing, a journey that took three years to complete. Once she arrived, she was presented to the emperor.

Serene Fang at the Apak Hoja mausoleum

The Apak Hoja mausoleum is a symbol of Uighur nationalism and has been called the holiest site in Muslim China.
Here, the story diverges again. Some versions say she was so unhappy she killed herself within a year of her arrival, perhaps by hanging herself. Her body was then carried back to Kashgar and buried in the family's mausoleum. Another version of the story says that she was strangled by palace eunuchs who were jealous of her power over the emperor. Yet another version says she lived to a ripe old age as one of the emperor's favorite concubines.

In Kashgar, which is the main city in the Uighur area, the Apak Hoja mausoleum lies at the center of a vast and ancient Uighur burial ground. Inside the main dome, there is a small tomb covered with green cloth that is marked as Iparhan's grave. The mausoleum itself is a symbol of Uighur nationalism and has been called the holiest site in Muslim China.

Uighur men

Uighur men talking and reading in Kashgar's Old Town.
Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit missionary who lived in the court of Emperor Qianlong, painted a portrait of Iparhan as a warrior princess. It's the most widely circulated image of her.

Do the Uighurs want their own country?

There's a spectrum of opinion. On the extreme end, there are Uighurs that would like a separate nation. They would call it East Turkestan or Uighuristan. Most Uighurs, I think, have accepted that they're part of China. But they'd like to have more autonomy. They'd like to be able to practice their religion freely and educate their children as they see fit.

And China, to put it bluntly, has a policy of colonizing the region? They send out Han Chinese, the majority, to populate this area.

Xiao He in a car

Xiao He, a Chinese tour guide in Kashgar. A government program called Go West encouraged Chinese from eastern China to move to Xinjiang.
Yes, [Xinjiang province] used to be about 90 percent Uighur, with Tajiks, Kazakhs and other minorities comprising the remaining 10 percent. In recent years, the population shift has been enormous. The province is now about 40 percent Uighur and 40 percent Chinese with the remaining 20 percent from other ethnic groups. Beijing pushed a program called Go West, which encouraged Chinese to move there. There were job incentives, housing incentives -- Uighurs complain that Chinese tend to get the better jobs.

What does the area look like?

It's beautiful -- Xinjiang is mostly desert surrounded by high mountain ranges. It's a very stark, beautiful landscape. Unlike other parts of China, it's not overlycrowded. So there's a more open feeling. The people tend to be fairly segregated. In each town, there's a Uighur section and a Chinese section. The Chinese section tends to be more modern -- skyscrapers, office buildings, the downtown section. The Uighur neighborhoods tend to be more agricultural. There are stalls where they sell food in smaller markets. The Uighurs tend to be very poor. It's just a very segregated community.

Landscape in Xinjiang

Xinjiang is known for its high mountain ranges as well as its deserts.
Isn't this where China has tested its nuclear weapons?

Yes. The region of Lop Nor is China's only nuclear test site. The Chinese for many years have used Xinjiang as their sort of Siberia. It's where they built a number of their penal colonies and some large prisons. The country's largest oil reserves are also in Xinjiang. So there's a lot of building and construction there. The oil is vital to China's economy.

Oil, Muslims, political tensions -- sounds like the Middle East.

China has five majority Muslim countries on its western border, and three other countries are nuclear powers. A number of countries are former Soviet republics that have very weak economies and weak governments. And there's Pakistan and Afghanistan. So it's kind of a tough place.

A fur merchant

A fur merchant in Kashgar's Old Town.
What's China's worst fear about this region?

That the tension with the Muslim population there will lead to another Israel/Palestine. Right now, the Uighurs practice Islam, but it's a more relaxed form. The men drink, the women do not cover up very much. The older women do, but most of the younger women don't. But now the borders are open with Pakistan, so it's not a static situation. The Chinese authorities do fear that ideas will percolate in. And as China puts more pressure on the Uighurs, the Chinese fear that they may join a sort of global movement toward Islam and militant Islam.

The United States captured some Uighurs in Afghanistan. What were they doing there?

There were about 20 Uighurs caught in Afghanistan fighting alongside the Taliban. They have been held in Guantanamo for years. But [in late 2004] the United States decided to release them. Secretary of State Powell has said that they will not be repatriated to China for fear they would be executed upon arrival. The United States is trying to find a country to release them to.

The events of 9/11 changed U.S. policy toward China. Washington wanted an ally in the war on terrorism. How did that affect the Uighurs?

China has a long list of what it calls terrorist, or splitist, organizations that are Uighur-based. When the United States went into Afghanistan and Pakistan, it needed China's support. So the United States did agree to list one Uighur organization, the ETIM, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, as a terrorist group. In effect, the United States gave a little bit of face to the Chinese on this. But the United States has also tried to balance that by not turning over the Uighurs in Guantánamo, and they have not listed any of the other Uighur groups that the Chinese claim are terrorist organizations.

Part Two: Arrest and Disappearance

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