Ismat is a defiant Uyghur, but not in the way that his people are typically depicted. He wields a guitar, not a knife. The Beijing based performer sings gentle folk songs about his Xinjiang homeland, rather than screaming shrill death chants. He performs with Japanese, Spanish and British musicians for captivate Han audiences, instead of conspiring to blow that Chinese majority to kingdom come.
His easy demeanor conflicts with the narrative on most Chinese news sites, social networks and message boards as of late. In that version of events, Ismat’s fellow Uyghur people are “terrorists” or “thugs.” That heated rhetoric has, of course, escalated since May 1, when state media reported that an explosive was detonated by Uyghur separatists at a train station in the autonomous region’s capital city of Urumqi. The blast killed three people and injured 79.
Such brazen dissent by members of the minority population, in a region where China steadfastly lays claim, is made all the more bold in the wake of even deadlier attacks beyond Xinjiang’s contested borders, much deeper in the Mainland. In March knife toting Uyghur separatists stabbed 29 people to death at a train station in Kunming, and in October police blamed Uyghur terrorists after a car exploded in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, claiming five lives.
Anxiety about future Mainland attacks, and anger about a separatist movement in one of the country’s most resource-rich regions, has prompted many in China’s Han majority to vent their frustrations, and even bigotry, on social networks and message boards. As reported in a recent Asian Correspondent article, one microblogger wrote: “They are trying to break up the country!” Others blamed the extremists’ Muslim faith, with one writing: “Dressed in the cloak of religion, they do wicked crimes. They’re the enemy of all mankind.”
Alif Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association in Washington DC, says he’s far from shocked by such blatant Islamophobia.
“In the aftermath of incidents like this in Urumchi, it is not a surprise that you will see an influx of discriminatory, racist and even fascist comments, some calling for genocide against all Uyghur people, on Chinese website message boards or microblogs,” Seytoff says, adding that government censors are surprisingly lenient on such posts, compared to their meticulous removal of other negative comments. “They do not delete them, but display them publicly and prominently to incite more Han Chinese resentment towards the Uyghur people. The Han Chinese who post such virulent comments are never punished by the authorities, whereas Uyghurs who respond to such nasty comments will be detained or arrested for ‘disturbing social stability’.”
Seytoff adds that his organization doesn’t necessarily blame Chinese netizens for posting negative comments, especially after outbreaks of violence, but it does blame the government for not moderating them. The seething online rhetoric not only reflects tensions between both sides, it also adds to them, leaving Ismat and other Uyghur people living outside of Xinjiang feeling vulnerable.
“When Han people say such things about Xinjiang, it hurts me,” Ismat says during a recent interview of the slander leveled against his people, before adding that such slights would never prompt him to retaliate. “They’re saying that because they don’t know Xinjiang, they’ve never been there, they just saw these things in the news. That’s why they’re confused, that’s why they say all Xinjiang people are bad.”
While he has certainly felt rising tensions since the May 1 attack, Ismat says no Han Chinese have blatantly harassed him because of the tragic news. He isn’t enduring catcalls onstage, and it hasn’t affected his work—he is still offered gigs several nights a week at a variety of bars and clubs across town, just like before. The audiences haven’t boycotted his shows- which feature his jangly Uyghur traditional acoustic strums, mixed with the tempos and melodies of more modern rock tunes, along with collaborations between him and artists from a spectrum of nationalities and ethnicities from across Beijing’s vibrant indie rock scene. His unique mix of musical and cultural elements still prompt plenty of Han fans to attend his shows, although some of those mainlanders have been approaching him, albeit gingerly, as Xinjiang related violence dominates more and more headlines.
“They ask me about what’s happening in Xinjiang, why this is going on,” Ismat says, a query for which he has no reply.
That question’s answer isn’t clear for even seasoned researchers like Henryk Szadziewski, who has spent years studying Xinjiang’s political situation at the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington DC. But he says that radical Uyghur movements are likely incited by what he sees as economic, social and cultural discrimination inflicted on the Xinjiang minority. He points to gaps in unemployment rates and GDP per capita between the Uyghur and Han Chinese as indications that the government’s economic plans, such as the development of Western style infrastructure, have not benefitted the Muslim minority. Szadziewski says that is but one official policy that leaves the Uyghur people feeling marginalized.
“Language planning policies favoring Mandarin Chinese, and religious restrictions on Islam also exacerbate the feeling of exclusion amongst the Uyghur,” he says, adding: “While it is difficult to attribute this as the direct cause, the correlation between increased repression and a growing number of violent incidents is hard to ignore.”
Seytoff goes even further, saying: “For the Uyghur people, China is an apartheid state. For being a Uyghur in China is like being a criminal – constantly being watched by police and suspiciously stared at by ordinary Han Chinese people… Some Uighurs try to ignore this reality and quietly live their lives. Some resist out of desperation and frustration. And those who have already reached the breaking point use political violence to resist Chinese rule – which is the cause of all racism, discrimination and mistreatment of the Uyghur people in East Turkestan.”
But Sophie Richardson, China Director for Human Rights Watch, says the situation isn’t so simplistic.
“Violence is deplorable, and an attack on civilians is a serious human rights abuse no matter who carried it out,” she says of extreme actions carried out by both the Chinese authorities and the Uyghur radicals.
Kendrick Kuo, an academic at John Hopkins University who has written about Xinjiang issues for foreignaffairs.com and other publications, says the Han and Uyghur people are both guilty of harboring deep discrimination.
“Racism between Han Chinese and Uyghurs plays a role in day-to-day interactions, with segregated neighborhoods in urban areas,” he says, adding that there are alarming concerns being raised by both sides. “The Chinese government claims that these incidents are the result of jihadist influences… Uyghurs also fear that their culture is under attack from the large Han immigrant presence, restrictions on religious practices, and the need to learn Mandarin Chinese to compete in the job market.”
Szadziewski says such Uyghur concerns are valid, but not to the point of warranting knife and bomb attacks. Regarding the violence inflicted at both the Kunming and Urumqi train stations, he says: “The incidents are tragic and the violence should be condemned. However, the PRC’s response is quite boilerplate in its explanation of the incident as being inspired by ‘religious extremism’. We have little information to go on other than that supplied by the Chinese state. I trust the Chinese government will not attempt to use the incident for political advantage, as this does a great disservice to the families of the innocent victims and those injured in the blast.”
Kuo says heavy handed government tactics are supported by some Han Chinese, because of a lack cultural understanding. He points to the traditional daggers that Uyghurs carry as religious tokens, saying those blades intimidate many Han Chinese because knife attacks have become a common form of violence, amid the nation’s strict gun control laws. But Kuo believes that such concerns have prompted many Han Chinese to overreact, as businesses and hotels turned away Uyghur customers in Kunming after the recent attack and, more alarmingly, the government detained at least 100 Uyghurs after the Urumqi incident.
“Many of them have been released,” he says of the latter arrests, before adding: “Racial profiling continues to drive a wedge between Han and Uyghurs.”
While the government may say its anti-separatist measures are justified, Henryk says further disclosure would make its case stronger.
“The Chinese government is quite clear about what is causing the violence, namely, the three evil forces of ‘separatism, extremism and terrorism,’ often with the involvement of ‘overseas forces.’ Given the Chinese government’s lack of transparency in Xinjiang and that violence anywhere is rarely so simply explained, we have to reasonably look elsewhere for the full picture.”
Henryk says the state media’s heavy bias speaks far louder than any of its actual arguments.
“Censorship of the region’s news is heavy,” he says, adding: “The state media’s simplistic portrayal of Uyghurs as either loyal or disloyal to the Chinese state creates the fear and suspicion needed to keep these two communities from rationally discussing the problems that exist between them.”
For now, Ismat says he hopes to be living proof that the conflict has far more nuances than the simplistic narrative broadcast by state media. He’s not interested in retribution, or heated debates with the Han Chinese friends that he rehearses and plays with.
“All I want to is play my people’s music, and continue to become a better musician. I hope that if people know more about Xinjiang’s people and culture, then things will get better.”