2017
04.22

TANK AT THE TRAIN STATION

SYNOPSIS:  A fortified province.  About security and “the situation” in Xinjiang.  About this trip, a museum visit,  a hot pot dinner, and a difficult decision for my host, Summer.

If I hadn’t known any better, I would have mistaken Xinjiang Province for a war zone, or a country under martial law.  Far from it.  This was only the Chinese government hard at work to ensure the safety of its people.

At Urumqi (pronounced:  You-room-chee) — the capital of the province, where my journey in China begins — the train station was barricaded as if they expected the return of the Mongol Army!   A tank was positioned in front of the train station.  I had to pass at least five security checks before I could as much as buy my train ticket to Turfan, my next destination.  Crowds were led through metal corridors serpentine style.  A once-beautiful big square in front of the train station, surely laid out envisioning romantic strolls in the evening a few picturesque moments before boarding a train, had become an ugly bastion of fear-mongering and military might.

Urumqi and the train station were one thing and bad enough, but I was almost willing to excuse all of this muscle-flexing there.  But when I had to show my ID and have my bag checked to enter the museum, a pedestrian overpass, and later a restaurant, I had to wonder how much further this all could go, and where all of this had started?  What little I could gather without access to Google is this: in 2009, a scuffle at a work site broke out between workers of the Chinese Han majority, and the local Uighur minority population.  Three Uighur were killed.  Following this incident, students in Urumqi took to the streets demanding justice, and from there protests spread further throughout the province.  Uighur are associated with terrorist incidents in recent years here, and in the rest of China. Uighur are Muslims, and have made news even in the West.  Some Uighur have been radicalized, and about 5000 of them are reported to have joined ISIS.  The radical Uighur population seems to be concentrated in the south of the province.  Radicalization and terrorist attacks are alarming indeed, but they are not unique to this region.  Unfortunately, they mirror developments in so many other parts of our world.

My hosts referred to this as “the situation” and warned me to get ready to face armed guards and passport checks everywhere.  Aside from policing, Han Chinese have come up with another response mechanism: infiltration.  A policy is in place in Xinjiang that gives preferential rights of residency to Han Chinese.  I was told by a local that 60 years ago, the Han population was between 1-2%.  Now it is 40%, and in Urumqi as high as 80%.  Uighur, especially from the South, who want to set up residency in Urumqi are systematically denied access.  A new, high-ranking Han government official was recently appointed to the province who is enforcing and developing even stricter measures than before.  He used to work his “magic” in Tibet…

What was seen after the 2009 incident as a temporary measure to keep unrest in this province under control, soon became the new normal.  What started with a few dozen police stations soon boomed into hundreds if not thousands.  What started as the occasional check of vehicles and property, now constitutes about 10 checks per day if you are on the move like I am.  Security checks that were concentrated around government buildings, train stations, and airports at first, now have spilled into hotels, markets, stores and public parks.  Is this kind of blanket policing the answer to this problem?  Is this where we are heading in the US?!

To keep a police force like this going must cost the Chinese government millions every year, if that is enough.  Good for us, I would say.  If the Chinese would put all of these resources into research and development, we in the West would be doomed.  It is already scary to see what they accomplished in the last twenty years compared to the stagnation we experienced in the US over the same time period.

Urumqi.  And you thought I was going some fun places like Beijing, or Shanghai!  Well, the centerpiece of this trip is Tibet, or the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region) as it is referred to.  Even though China claims Tibet as a fully integrated Chinese province, many restrictions for entering Tibet apply.  I will write much more about this later.  One can enter Tibet via Nepal but entry through China provides more guarantees.  In 2001, I had been to China for the first time with a group of teachers through a Fulbright-Hayes scholarship.  For six weeks we made a big circle through China.  This time, I wanted to go to some places I had not seen before, but also to places that felt relevant to my current teaching. 

I chose Xinjiang Province specifically, because it is the province with almost 60% of the population from the Uighur minority.  With my lack of speaking Chinese, I don’t expect to gain much of an insight into “the situation”.  But I wanted to have a bit of a firsthand feel.  Seeing all this police presence was an unexpected and insightful beginning. 

The Provincial Museum at Urumqi seemed another good starting point for somebody like me.  It is a big, impressive building complex at the north of town, with four major permanent exhibits, various temporary exhibits, and a couple of high-end art stores.  One of the most famous sections of the museum is filled with ancient mummies which have been remarkably well preserved in this desert climate.  With grotesque facial expressions and bent limbs and some of their clothing still intact, they lie in dusty plastic coffins, preserved for eternity.  One of them is considered the primordial Mother of the Uighur. She is highly revered.   My favorite section displayed costumes and textiles, living quarters, instruments, and daily life implements of the various ethnic groups of the region.   I wish at least some of the signage would have been in English…

I guess not too many foreigners come here, or perhaps, it is just off season right now.   I provided great entertainment at the museum as the only foreigner in sight.  The museum guards took turns taking selfies with me, and a few attempted to make conversation.  But we failed.  Language barriers suck.

At 3 PM I very much missed a nice museum cafeteria which could have given me the much needed caffeine shot after I almost slid off a bench, having falling asleep when I sat down…   Jet lag is a drag, especially when you get older.  And so, I headed home. 

At night, I invited my AirBnB hosts for dinner.  They choose a nearby restaurant serving a specialty of the season:  Hot Pot.  Into a sizzling pot of broth, you put a variety of small pieces of meat, tofu, or vegetables.  The amount of food on the table seemed prohibitive.  But between the three of us, we polished off the plates.  Summer was in great distress as she had to make a life-changing decision:  The government job she holds, secure and with good pay and benefits, requires her from now on to work in a different location.  She will have to fly 500 km back and forth to work, adding hours and hours to her commute each week!   Her choice: take it or leave it.   She has only been married to J.B.  (that’s how his name sounds to me) for one year.  They want to have a family.  She hates the idea of going so far away.   But her family is pressuring her into not giving up a secure government position.  All of this was weighing heavily on her.   

I could not quite picture a request like this without a hefty pay raise or some sort of incentive, in the US.  But this is China.  The individual will submit to the needs of the community.  It is exactly this right the government is able to exert over its people that makes it so powerful.  And perhaps by extension, it is the insistence on individual rights regardless of the needs of the community, that has put the Western World on its slow but sure descent.

And with that heavy thought, I am calling it a day.

Good night.

4 comments so far

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  1. We were so aware of the situation between the Hans and Uighurs when we were there but remember too the joy in the square in the early morning light with the crowds doing tai chi and dancing to western music at night.

  2. Hi Elisabeth,

    It doesn’t sound as if much has changed since I was there in 2009 except maybe a gradual worsening of the situation for the Uighur people. Hopefully you will be able to experience something of their individual culture as, despite all that the central government does to try to make them assimilate, they are not going to change anytime soon.

    You will find the archaeology of the Western deserts unique and fascinating. There are not English captions in the museums so finding a guide is paramount.

    best, N

  3. As Spock once said: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one”. China is certainly no longer “communist”, but its government is and certainly the old mental structures take a loooong time to wear off. The people, while they support and work toward capitalism, still feel the effects of all those years of communism.
    It is going to be interesting, Elisabeth, to see how these two forces are playing out in verious parts of China.

  4. I must say Elizabeth, at this point I’m extremely jealous. I want to be there with you. Fascinating your discussion about the rights of the individual rights of the community. It is a much debated subject in my home. We must take that on when you come home the pictures are great.