Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Last Uyghur Town

As Xinjiang irreversibly changes one town ultimately will become the last 'Uyghur town'.

Kashgar, without doubt, is the most well known 'Uyghur town' in Xinjiang. By Uyghur town I refer to towns/cities that have a majority Uyghur population. Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, for example, surrendered this classification over a hundred years ago as has many other towns throughout Xinjiang. According to the 2000 census, of the 16 major urban areas in Xinjiang, 12 had non majority Uyghur populations. 

Kashgar, though, is rapidly changing. Going is the 'Old Town', of adobe brick houses with pigeon roosts on roofs and small alleys, of no running water and sewerage. The Chinese government is tearing it down to make way for more modern, sanitary and earthquake proof tenement housing and in the process relocating almost one quarter of a million Uyghurs.

Still operating, but for how long, is the iconic 'Kashgar Sunday Markets' where local Uyghurs and those from outside Kashgar have met weekly, for hundreds of years, to trade and socialise. Images of dust, donkey carts and small scale agriculture and animal husbandry.

Going too, though more slowly, is the Uyghur as the ethnic majority. Whilst, at the moment remaining overwhelmingly Uyghur, as the Special Economic Zone takes off, and it will, and with train lines and highways providing transport, the Han will continue to come in their hundreds of thousands as they have done so, in increasing numbers, since the train line came to Kashgar in 1999.

Some in the west decry the passing of the 'old Kashgar' but perhaps for selfish reasons. It epitomised the image of the far flung oasis town, of camel trains and 19th century Colonial British Raj, shadowy Russian figures and queue tailed mandarins, The 'Great Game' of intrigue and espionage at the very farthest outposts of Empire, be it British or Czarist. Mysterious turbaned Muslim men, daggers at their waists, milling, seemingly in deep intrigue and more than likely ready to cut your throat. Beautiful Central Asian women, dark and alluring, dancing, swirling as if like a desert eddy, all stepping straight out of the pages of a Rudyard Kipling novel

This is what the west was raised on and that is what, by and large, it wants to see. But time advances and with China having, after two millennia, finally consolidated it's presence in Xinjiang, things have, and will continue to change at a breakneck rate in Xinjiang. As Urumqi has not been an Uyghur majority town for over a hundred years, so, in the future, Kashgar, and every town close to a train line or natural resource, will follow suite.

Every town perhaps one. The last 'Uyghur town' in Xinjiang will ultimately be Hotan.


Hotan (a.k.a. Khotan, Hetian) is an oasis town/city 1,509kms from Urumqi, and some 519 k ms south-east of Kashgar. It lays in the shadows of the Kunlan mountains, neighbours Tibet, India and Pakistan and abuts the unforgiving Taklamaken desert.

The 'Uyghurs' found their way to Hotan around 1006 CE displacing the local Khotanese, a famous Buddhist Indo-European speaking people, By the time of Marco Polo's visit to Hotan between 1271and 1275 the Uyghurs had assimilated the original Khotanese and converted to Islam. Marco Polo remarked on this in his journals when he noted the people in Hotan were "all followers of Mahommet."

Hotan Prefecture has a population of 1.8 million with the city home to 120 thousand people. The Uyghur comprise some 97% of the total. This is a higher Uyghur population ratio than Kashgar Prefecture (89 percent and falling) or in any other prefecture in Xinjiang.

The reasons that it remains a majority Uyghur area and should remain so for some time is twofold. Firstly, it has very little to offer economically. The ever expanding Taklamakan Desert, the aridity of the land and the lack of sustainable water supply makes it a less than appealing area. It is also bereft of any sizeable industry having for many years survived on small scale agriculture, cottage-like textile industries and the Jade trade. Secondly, it's remoteness. It has only, as recently as of June 2011, been linked via a train with Kashgar, the preferred mode of transport for China's Migrant workers.

The Hotan Uyghurs are Muslim and, like most Uyghurs, the Khotanliks follow the Sunni traditions of Islam, a moderate and more secular form of the faith. They do, however, like the Uyghur in Kashgar, practice it slightly more strictly than in the north as evidenced by the women's wearing of head scarves, hajibs and the occasional full face niqab.

This can be put down to historical reasons as the south of Xinjiang has been long influenced by it's proximity to Central Asian and Arabic Islamic sources and Islamic Pakistan where some Uyghurs have for long gone, when permitted, to Islamic schools for religious tuition. As well the relative isolation and the lack of external and 'moderating' influences experienced by the more worldly north.

Despite this proclivity for stricter feminine Islamic attire the people of Hotan exhibit no more religious devotion than any other Muslims in Xinjiang.

Economy and Outlook

Employment wise, 70 percent of Hotan's population is in agriculture, 20 percent in government, 8 percent in wholesale or other trades, and 2 percent in private retail such as hotels, shops, and restaurants.

The main industry in Hotan is agriculture; cotton, fruit and silk farming, followed by textile manufacture and to a lesser degree the Jade industry. The wholesale and retail Jade trade is conducted almost exclusively by Han Chinese and despite the high quality of Hotan Jade and the high prices being commanded in domestic and international markets, little of the rewards seems to stick in Hotan.

Tourism has not played a large part in Hotan's economy to date due to distances, transport logistics and tourist time constraints given the more attractive destinations elsewhere, but, with the recent coming of the railway and upgrades to the airport, this should see an increase in the future, especially, as tourists seek out the more 'Uyghur/Silk Road experience' disappearing in Kashgar and other areas. As well, Hotan is home to some historic Buddhist archaeological sites, and this, marketed right, would attract tourists.

The Hotan area, therefore, is one of the poorest in Xinjiang. Government plans to boost the region's economy have so far failed to reap any real dividends. As an article in the Financial Times reported as recently as July 2011 a large industrial park built some time ago by the government to attract businesses remains mainly unlet. Given poor employment opportunities many young Uyghurs leave the area and join China's migrant worker population seeking employment elsewhere in Xinjiang and China.

Problems for economic development are further exacerbated by a severe and worsening water crisis combined with advancing desertification. Due to severe water problems the government has put in place restrictions on jade extraction from Hotan's river systems impacting adversely on that industry. Any expansion of existing agriculture e.g. cotton farming or extractive fuel and mineral industries, not to mention any significant increases in population, will have hugely negative consequences for the local ecology, economy and people.

All in all, the potential for growth in Hotan, as compared to Kashgar and other areas of Xinjiang appears to be very limited and this may go some way to preserving the existing way of life of the local Uyghur people. It is unlikely, given the foregoing, that Han in-migration will be a significant factor in the near future, despite the advent of the railway, as incentives and economic opportunities do not seem to exist at a level to be attractive. The Han Chinese follow the money trail and given the low percentage of Han Chinese in Hotan, the money trail stops at Kashgar.

Hotan: The Last Uyghur Town

In terms of the larger sized Xinjiang cities/towns it would appear that only Hotan will survive as a unique Uyghur town into the future. Unique in terms of the majority of the population and, therefore, the general culture of the town remaining predominantly Uyghur. 

Whether this is a good thing or not is highly debatable. On one hand development of the likes of Urumqi and Kashgar have brought many improvements to the life of the average Uyghur, on the other hand it has weakened, though certainly not destroyed, their culture and brought with it social unease between Han and Uyghur.

Development, as has been seen throughout Xinjiang with the attendant increase in Han in-migration has, it must be said, marginalised some Uyghur, especially the young, who rail against Han rising eminence in areas they see as being historically theirs.

 China's 'Develop the west' policy of the last ten years is undoubtedly succeeding but it is, by and large, missing the Uyghurs. Due to it's focus on capital intensive industry the Uyghur have not the language or education skills to gain employment in these types of industry leading to increased in-migration to fill the breach. As well, advances in agricultural output, the traditional Uyghur area of employment, has come not with increased labour demand, but through greater mechanisation, further compounding problems.

But some Uyghur's response through passive resistance, evidenced by attitudes towards learning Mandarin, participating in education generally and small acts of civil disobedience, are precluding them from fully partaking of the benefits on offer, admittedly ones inherently prejudiced against them in terms of share, but, benefits nonetheless.

Instead some turn towards alcohol, drugs and crime, major problems among the Uyghur, and in doing so do more harm to themselves, their culture and identity as a people than many Han policies do. One only has to look at the Kazakhs, and Kirghiz whose achievements, measured against all criteria, are far greater than the Uyghur, These peoples are most certainly minorities with as much right to call Xinjiang home as does the Uyghur. They, too, are Turkic and mainly Muslim, but present with few of the problems that afflict the Uyghur, especially Uyghur youth.

Progress, development and change is a given fact of life. One may pine for the 'good old days' that is natural, but, were they truly the good old days? In 25 years time if you offered an Uyghur to return to his adobe home without running water and sewerage would anyone think he would accept?

The Uyghur Paradox.

It may seem paradoxical but Hotan becoming the last 'Uyghur town', and likely to hold that distinction for some time, does not give reason for celebration. It is symptomatic of a town left behind.

 It means that the people of Hotan are not participating to any degree in the benefits afforded other areas of Xinjiang and China where income, living standards and quality of life have increased dramatically these last 30 years. If it were then it would not hold the distinction of being an “Uyghur town' for the Han would have followed the money trail and the train line as they always have.

Like in Kashgar, and elsewhere, run down adobe houses without basic utilities, mule carts for transportation and barefooted Uyghur children may appeal to western tourists but it is evidence that for many Uyghur the economic boom in their historical land has not attached it's benefits to them.

Has that time come in Xinjiang when we should not wish for 'Uyghur towns' of yore but just prosperous and harmonious towns? Towns where everyone partakes of the fruits of industry and growth? Each retaining their culture, albeit, within a different set of circumstances? Not yearn for the old but embrace the new?

I think, for a majority of Uyghur, that day is dawning. That the time has come for change and, generally, I believe, it is being accepted and should be encouraged.

I do not think the Uyghur culture will be destroyed or subsumed in accepting this proposition, quite the opposite, that by attaining their rightful place economically, the culture of the Uyghur will not only be strengthened but greatly enhanced.