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China's Xinjiang province is a study in contrasts

Ethnic minorities described as 'happy' in a region that is a 'hotbed of terror'

<p>Mourners in Kunming burn joss money and incense sticks at the scene of a terror attack at the main train station that left 29 dead and 143 injured (picture: AFP Photo)</p>

Mourners in Kunming burn joss money and incense sticks at the scene of a terror attack at the main train station that left 29 dead and 143 injured (picture: AFP Photo)

  • Kelly Olsen for AFP, Beijing
  • China
  • March 13, 2014
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Chinese portrayals of the far western region of Xinjiang veer from a happy land of dancing minorities to a hotbed of dangerous separatist terrorism, polarized and simplistic viewpoints that experts say are used to justify domination and harsh security.

The vast area has drawn international attention for its spasms of violence, which officials decry as "terrorism" by "Xinjiang separatist forces" – code for radicalized Uighurs, the region's largest ethnic group, who are mostly Muslim.

Beijing blamed such separatists for a horrific machete attack at a railway station earlier this month, when 29 passers-by were killed and 143 injured.

But, at the same time, state media and official propaganda paint a more idyllic picture of Xinjiang, stressing an ethnic tapestry of brightly colored national costumes and customs against a background of breathtaking natural beauty.

"Minority people here are good at singing and dancing," according to Xinjiang Cartoons, an English-language book illustrated with drawings introducing the region's history, culture, society and environment.

"They turn this part of the world into a happy and harmonious world."

The publisher is China Intercontinental Press, an arm of the national government's information department.

"Xinjiang is a sea of song and dance," adds a brochure put out by the regional government.

Both publications were made available to journalists covering the National People's Congress, China's Communist Party-controlled legislature, which ended Thursday.

There is a long history of Chinese influence and periods of rule in Xinjiang, which has religious, linguistic and cultural ties to Central Asia.

But, as in Tibet, resentment has been stirred by an influx in recent decades of millions of ethnic Han, who account for 92 percent of China's population.

Experts say Beijing's romantic depictions of Xinjiang are a key element in a narrative of constructed simplicity used to cast the region in a patina of vulnerability and innocence.

"This is the typical Han orientalism towards Uighurs and other ethnic minorities," said Haiyun Ma, an expert on Xinjiang at Frostburg State University in the US.

The objectification of peoples and nations, aimed at domination, was analyzed in the landmark 1978 book Orientalism by Edward Said, who focused on European and US attitudes towards and relations with the Middle East.

In the book, Said wrote: "Orientalism can be discussed ... as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority for the Orient."

Ma said that such imposed exoticism helps telegraph to the Han that Xinjiang's natives would be helpless without their tutelage.

"They are socially, culturally, politically backward, that's why you need all these so-called laodage [big brother] Han Chinese to help them," he said.

Conversely, Chinese scholarship on Xinjiang has turned into an industry focused on anti-terror studies and projects dependent on state funding, Ma said.

"There is an ideological campaign against Xinjiang," he said. 

Three evil forces

The idyllic image is in stark contrast to the very real violence that regularly hits Xinjiang.

Ethnic rioting in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009 left around 200 people dead and resulted in a security crackdown.

Numerous deadly clashes have been reported in Xinjiang since last April, and the railway station attack earlier this month in Kunming – 1,600 kilometers away in the southwestern province of Yunnan – raised fears violence was spreading beyond the region.

Authorities also blamed Xinjiang separatists with links to foreign extremist groups for a deadly vehicle crash in late October on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the symbolic heart of the Chinese state.

Xinjiang has borders with eight countries, five of them largely Muslim – Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

But outside experts largely see the problem as one of Uighur frustration with state efforts to interfere with religious identity and expression – accusations China denies, stressing it "protects the rights of all ethnic groups, including their freedom of religious belief".

Authorities are careful, however, to avoid blaming Uighurs as a whole for violence, suggesting rather that anyone involved has been duped by wicked outside elements intent on breaking up China.

Terrorism, they say, is one of the "three evil forces", along with ethnic separatism and religious extremism, from which Uighurs must be protected.

"China's state-controlled media portray Xinjiang's Uighurs as vulnerable to – and therefore as potential victims of – hostile foreign Islamist influences," said Nicholas Dynon, who researches Chinese media and propaganda at Macquarie University in Sydney.

On one hand, Beijing puts out "positive orientalist images of content ethnic minorities" and "negative images of separatist elements infected by foreign extremist contagion" on the other, he said.

The narrative, he added, was constructed "in the interests of national unity". AFP

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