The two regions of modern day China that draw the most controversial global news are Tibet and Xinjiang, two regions that we have visited on this course.
For many of us in the West over the age of 30 we grew up in the age of the “Free Tibet” movement. In 1949 Mao Zedong founded the Chinese Communist Party the People’s Republic of China (PRC). One of Mao’s first goals was to make China great again by reestablishing the Qing Dynasty boundaries of China, which included Xinjiang and Tibet. Tibet had been an independent nation since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and while Xinjiang had technically remained part of China it had been basically self governing.
During the 1950s there were numerous conflicts with Tibetans as China attempted to “Peacefully liberate Tibet from western imperialism” (as they called it and still call it to today). Most notably the Battle of Chamdo in eastern Tibet marked an important moment in the Tibetan battle for independence. After massacring thousands of Tibetans the Tibetan government signed the 17 point agreement with China basically making Tibet part of China. Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s more conflicts broke out throughout Tibet as China refused to uphold the 17 point agreement’s requirements of autonomy, religious freedom and other basic human rights of Tibetans now under Chinese rule.
With the creation of a train from Golmud in eastern China to the historical political and spiritual capital of Tibet, Lhasa, in the early 2000s came a mass migration of Han Chinese (the Han make up around 97% of the population while some 55 other “officially” recognized minority groups, including Tibetans, make up the remaining 3%. This doesn’t sound like many but remember China has a population of 1.4 billion, so we’re still talking about 10s of millions of people).
Currently Lhasa is like any other Han city. Signs are in Mandarin. The majority of the population is Han. Starbucks and KFCs sit next to “Tibetan tourist attractions” aka a handful of pretty temples that attract tourists but now hold little to no political or spiritual power. The Chinese goal to “develop” aka control Tibet is arguably done. The Free Tibet movement has arguably failed. Even the Dalai Lama himself is no longer calling for an independent Tibet but instead for one with more autonomy within China.
Xinjiang is in a very different stage of “development.” Many of you have likely heard the shocking news of upwards of over 1 million Uyghurs (one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities) being held in “reeducation centers.” The goals of these centers have been to stop the spread of terrorism, extremist thought and ideas of separatism from China. In China’s defense there have been some pretty horrific terrorist attacks done by a handful of Uyghur extremists in the past in China where innocent people have died. However, we come to a chicken or the egg kind of situation. Did the extremists cause the government to crack down or did the government crack down cause the mounding frustrations that lead to the extremism?
When you’re in Xinjiang the oppression of the Uyghur people is hard to not notice. As foreigners we are removed from all this but we still witness it and have to travel within the structures at play. One day while in Turpan we went outside the city center to explore some nearby caves and a traditional Uyghur village that had been turned into a cultural heritage site (aka a museum) and we had to pass through 5 security stops, getting out each time to have our passports checked. (3 years ago this “traditional Uyghur village” was a normal village where Uyghurs lived their daily lives, they were forced to move out and the village was Disneyland’ified by the Chinese government. Many of the residents were relocated to concrete homes built by the government, some taken to live in the reeducation centers.)
The international community is divided on the treatment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. Earlier this month 22 nations (mainly western European nations and notably NOT the United States) sent a statement to the UN council on Human Rights to condemn China for its mistreatment of the Uyghur people, listing a wide variety of human rights violations. A few days later 37 countries sent a response announcing support for China’s approach to “counterterrorism” within Xinjiang. The majority of these countries are deeply reliant upon China economically. China and its economic strength partnered with America’s rise in isolationist mentality has encouraged many nations to side with the second largest economy (China) over the largest (USA). For more details see the links below.
While in Kashgar we went to a bar called The Dream of Kashgar. In my 7 years with Dragons this is the first time we’ve ever held a lesson in a bar! Before going Noam, Tindy and I strongly debated going but given the nature of this bar we felt it was necessary to go. You walk into The Dream of Kashgar and are immediately impressed by the intricate beauty of the architecture. The place holds a real “silk road” feel. Exotic looking Central Asian decor, hookah set up on elegant carpets. As you look closer you start to notice familiar details of the architecture. Over the sound of western pop music, behind the bar of imported liquors you start to see the dark truth of this place, it was a mosque.
A few years earlier, in effort to suppress religious expression the Chinese government started to demolish mosques in Xinjiang. Instead of demolishing this beautiful old mosque they decided to sell it to entrepreneurs from eastern China whom turned it into a bar. Sitting in this sacred place in uncomfortable silence the reality and depth of what’s happening in Xinjiang sank into our bones.
As we left Xinjiang and crossed into Kyrgyzstan only then did we start to truly process our time in China. For the first time in 4 weeks we could surf the internet freely. For the first time in 4 weeks we could speak freely without censoring ourselves. China is a complex place that invokes complex emotions. It may be hard to believe but I honestly do like China and I am fascinated by its rich and complex culture. At the same point I am deeply disturbed by the treatment of Tibetans and Uyghurs in the borderland regions. Like I said, it’s a complex place. We have two weeks left in this course. We have already begun to prepare our students for the transition home but a lot of the processing of this course will happen once they return home. When your son/daughter/friend/loved one comes back from this course be there to help them process this intense experience. You don’t have to be an expert of Xinjiang or Tibet, you just have to be a listening ear, be present. If you want to be more informed there is plenty of information out there. To get you started here are a couple links.