From 2007 to 2008, Kinsey Wright taught English in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region. She writes about her experience watching coverage of early July’s Uighur civil unrest while in north India with exiled Tibetans.
“Ssshhh,” he whispered. “We mustn’t speak of those things here! Someone might understand English!”
‘Here’ was Urumqi, the provincial capital of China’s far northwestern Uighur Autonomous Area.
For me, an American, there was little risk in discussing Uighur nationalism, financial domination by Han Chinese or China’s harsh treatment of Islam. But if the wrong person overheard us, it could cost my Uighur friends everything. Some things in Urumqi are just not spoken about in public.
One of many areas that refute the Western misconception of a homogeneous China, the Uighur Autonomous Area (Xinjiang in Chinese) is populated with myriad cultures, religions, and a ‘dissident’ movement.
One of my most passionate issues is human rights in China, specifically violations related to the Uighur minority. I religiously follow everything that happens with the Uighurs, since I was intimately connected to them when I lived in Urumqi for nearly a year.
I cannot count the number of times I was silenced in public areas or confided in with secrets that people from both sides just needed to get off their chest. Once, a Han Chinese high school student who wanted to do Uighur studies at Xinjiang University told me how he was fearful about what his parents would say. Another time, half-Uighur, half-Han sisters recounted how they were unable to tell anyone in their group of friends about their mixed heritage for fear of being ostracized.
But I am also not so near-sighted as to believe that Uighurs are the only people having a hard time. There are the Tibetans, as well as the Mongolians, Hui and other groups who voice disagreeable opinions.
Early this summer I traveled in McLeod Ganj, India, home to the Dalai Lama. I was lucky enough to be present for the Tibetan spiritual leader’s birthday celebrations. When the Urumqi riots broke out in early July, I was en route to watching a documentary on the Dalai Lama’s life. I was extremely disturbed when I realized that much of the Urumqi unrest happened very close to where I had lived. Some of the rioting was right outside the building where I taught English.
Before the showing of the film, my sister and I were loudly discussing the riots. While I noticed that people were interested in our conversation, nobody interjected. They couldn’t focus on anything other than their own Tibetan cause. After suffering through the film for 25 minutes, I finally burst into tears. I needed to email friends still in Urumqi to see if they were alive.
On one level, I considered myself fortunate to be surrounded by another group of oppressed people from China. I assumed that the Tibetans would be outraged and ready to speak out about the Uighur situation — on account of having their own similar experiences. But the Tibetans didn’t show much sympathy for the Uighurs who were beaten and killed by the Chinese authorities. In fact, none of the Tibetans or the foreigners in McLeod Ganj had much to say about anything other than the Tibetan cause.
I approached a group of three Tibetan monks in a restaurant where my sister was having lunch. I first spoke to them in English, and when they didn’t understand, I switched to Chinese.
The monks had no idea what was happening in Urumqi. They weren’t even sure where Urumqi was. When I gave them a brief overview, the monks replied, “Oh yes, we know about their struggle, but that is different. They are Muslim. It is a religious issue.”
When I inquired further and compared the two groups situations, the monks politely replied, “The issues are different. Working together would do no good. We are happy living here in India.”
I left the restaurant and walked into one of many Tibetan shops. The shopkeeper spoke English, and when I asked him about the riots, he said he had gone and prayed for the people of Urumqi that morning. This comment sparked a feeling of hope.
When I asked whether he had been discussing the issues with his fellow Tibetans, he replied, “No, it doesn’t really affect us here. It is a different issue with the Uighurs. I always go and pray when I hear about riots erupting that end in death. I did the same for Iran.”
The majority of Tibetans I spoke with simply did not know about the Uighur unrest. Even those who knew didn’t seem to think that it affected them. They certainly didn’t see the situation as an opportunity for the two groups to work together. In one Tibetan’s words, “The issues are different. It doesn’t do either of us any good to work together. It is more complicated than that.”
After returning to the United States and reconnecting with some Uighur friends here, they showed me some photos from protests held in the States. And in the background of several of the photos, across the street from the main action, was a small group of Tibetans vigorously waving Tibetan flags.
– Kinsey Wright