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China’s Area of Darkness

The very first anonymous star on the CIA’s wall of honor at Langley, Virginia (the agency rarely identifies its dead heroes), refers to Douglas MacKiernan, the agency’s man in Urumqi, the capital of what is now called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China’s largest province, a region of some one million square miles in the country’s northwest corner, about one thousand miles west of Beijing.

In September 1949, after the Communist conquest of Xinjiang, MacKiernan and four others, including an American anthropologist, Frank Bessac, set out to find Osman Batur, a Muslim tribal chieftain in Xinjiang with 15,000 armed followers: “a friend,” MacKiernan thought, “fighting for freedom,” whom he could encourage to fight the Chinese Communists. After meeting Osman, MacKiernan traveled for months across some of the most difficult terrain in the world to reach Tibet where he expected the Dalai Lama to welcome him. But when he arrived in April 1950, Tibetan border guards mistook MacKiernan for someone else; and they shot and decapitated him and two of his party. Bessac, who told this story to James Millward (and to Life magazine), survived.

In Xinjiang today, as in the rest of China no matter how far from the capital, all clocks are set to Beijing time, as if the emperor was still in charge of chronological matters. I recall making appointments with several Uyghurs, Xinjiang’s largest ethnic group that is not Han—ethnic Chinese people. They would give me a sly look after pointing at their watches and holding up two fingers, indicating, as an act of defiance against Chinese chauvinism, that we would meet two hours earlier.

In the late 1990s, Chinese officials in Xinjiang found that in 3,722 primary school textbooks Mao’s picture had been ripped out. The Uyghurs, who are Muslims, tend to call the Chinese Khitay, and when a schoolboy was asked why he had defaced his book he replied that he always tore the pictures of Khitay out of his books. “To this Uyghur school boy, Chairman Mao was just another Chinaman,” James Millward writes in Eurasian Crossroads. (When I traveled in Xinjiang in the 1980s some Han Chinese wore Mao badges; I never saw one on a Uyghur or a Kazakh, Kazakh people also being numerous in the province.)

Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, relates such stories and vignettes with pointed eloquence in his excellent book. It is the first comprehensive study of Xinjiang, including its geography and prehistory, in English. This vast region in Eurasia has long been the setting for thousands of armed men, some Chinese, most others not, trying and failing to dominate a culturally mixed region the size of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Spain combined. Xinjiang lies at the center of what is sometimes called the Silk Road, over which trade, religion, and works of art moved, east and west, between the Mediterranean, Persia, India, Tibet, Russia, and China. As Millward points out, writing about Xinjiang from its earliest time to the present demands

specialized knowledge and access to materials ranging from artefacts unearthed in the desert and paintings daubed on the walls of caves, to texts in Tokharian, Türk, Soghdian, Tibetan, Mongolian, Manchu, classical Chinese, Chaghatai, and Persian, not to mention important secondary works in Chinese, Russian, Japanese, French, Turkish, German, and other modern languages.

Looking at Millward’s bibliography and notes, I can see why Nicolas Becquelin, himself a formidable expert on the region, calls him “Mr. Xinjiang.” His book is remarkable, however, not just because of his scholarship, impressive though it is, but because no other book I know of tackles so many huge questions about China, its self-image over the millennia, its relations with its neighbors, and the Chinese attitude toward what it calls “minority peoples.” Most Han Chinese disdain them as not quite civilized or not civilized at all, although since 1949 Beijing has insisted they are held in equal regard.

* * *

Long claimed by China or rulers of China, Xinjiang has been occupied by ethnically varied peoples and tribes who have collided with one another, with the Manchus, whose Qing dynasty ruled China between 1644 and 1912, and with the Chinese. It has been ruled heavily or lightly by Chinese, by Manchus, and by Chinese again. Its population today of 20 million people is made up largely of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Uzbeks; but now, and not for the first time, there is a growing number of Hans. Some 60 percent of the inhabitants are non-Han, and mostly Muslim, but in the past they were members of at least six religions. Xinjiang’s major regions and towns have had a bewildering variety of names. Yining, a sizable town in northwest Xinjiang, has four others.

Fundamental disagreements dominate relations between the Chinese on one side and Uyghurs and other non-Hans on the other. Hans generally regard non-Hans as culturally inferior, although they may be “colorful and vigorous.” Many Uyghurs, Millward reports from his conversations in the region, see the Hans as “calculating, dirty, and promiscuous; they like to live with pigs and strew garbage all over their own neighborhoods.” When they and others from Central Asia call the Chinese Khitay, they are using the Russian word for the Chinese (which also happens to be the origin of the word “Cathay”). China officially bans the word, and this, Millward says, guarantees its constant use. During the final decades of the last century, Uyghurs occasionally attacked and killed Chinese. So sensitive are the Chinese to Uyghur nationalism, Millward writes, that “scrutiny from Beijing forces even non-Chinese scholars to think and rethink what they write and say in public settings.”

While in recent years Xinjiang’s fervent anti-Han nationalism has been driven by militant Islam, historically its Muslim inhabitants, Millward contends, were not usually animated by jihad. They fought the Chinese and Manchus because they were oppressed, not because they regarded the dominating groups as nonbelievers. In recent decades, however, Millward says, the Islamic motive for resistance to China has become much stronger; especially since September 11, Beijing has attempted to convince Washington that its Muslim enemies in Xinjiang are enlisted in the global network of terrorism. Before September 11, President Bush declined then President Jiang Zemin’s invitation to associate the US with Beijing’s claims to be fighting global terrorism in Xinjiang. “We have had a very broad discussion,” the President replied, “including the fact that the war on terrorism must never be an excuse to persecute minorities.” Since then Washington has acceded to Beijing’s call for an antiterrorist alliance. A few dozen Uyghurs, captured in Afghanistan, have for years languished at Guantánamo. No longer “of any intelligence value,” they remain there because Washington knows what would happen to them if they were returned to Chinese control.1

That the Chinese hold Tibet by force, declaring that it “always” has been China’s, is widely known and condemned. Tibet and the Dalai Lama are held in nearly universal esteem. But there is little charisma and romance, much less general knowledge, about Xinjiang; there is no Uyghur Dalai Lama, and celebrities like Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, and Senator Dianne Feinstein do not speak up for Xinjiang. Then there is the question of violence. In Tibet, where China has behaved brutally since the middle 1950s, Tibetans, with a few exceptions, have reacted nonviolently. In Xinjiang Muslims have periodically resisted China’s occupation by force of arms. This makes the native resistance in Xinjiang less appealing to Westerners.

* * *

Until 1950, the Chinese or Manchu presence in Tibet was light, usually consisting of a few officials sent by the central government. In Xinjiang, by contrast, from almost 200 BC on the former Han dynasty battled nomadic peoples like the Xiongnu along the borders. By 120 BC Chinese armies penetrated into what is now central Xinjiang and fought the Xiongnu on their own ground. After 60 BC the Han began establishing military agricultural colonies, “state farms worked by Han soldiers,” Millward writes, “that Chinese [and Manchu] regimes, right up to the present PRC government, would use with minor variations, to resolve logistical problems and enhance frontier security, especially in Xinjiang.” Here Millward makes a crucial point. The idea, he contends,

that all Xinjiang was Chinese territory throughout the Han Dynasty is a distortion arising from later historians’ emphasis on certain aspects of this mixed record. In this case, the historians have proven more powerful than the armies.

The Li family, founders of the Tang Dynasty (between AD 618 and 906), had intermarried with nomads. Chinese historians, writes Millward, argue that these Tang aristocrats had become “sinicized”; but this, he contends, could easily be replaced by “Turkicized.” The Tang court spoke Turkic among themselves, its women played polo, and the court enjoyed Central Asian music and dance. The Tang ruled parts of Xinjiang through alliances with powerful local leaders.

During the 660s the Tang regime’s allies were defeated by Tibetans who drove the Tang rulers from their control of the Silk Route, a position not recovered until 693, when Tang garrisons reappeared throughout the region. The Tang were finally driven out of Xinjiang altogether by a rebellious general, An Lushan, who was half Sogdian, half Turk. His revolt, in 755, fatally weakened the Tang, although the dynasty survived, crippled, until 906. Millward observes that not for another thousand years did a China-based state rule Xinjiang directly. Thereafter, “the names of states pass by in quick succession,” but what is important, he emphasizes, is that “the seeds of modern religious and national identities began to be sown.”

By the middle of the eighteenth century, an expeditionary force of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty marched into Xinjiang and defeated the ruling tribe, the Zunghars. Commanded by the greatest Qing emperor, Qianlong, the Qing army enslaved the Zunghar women and children, and effaced the very name Zunghar. This was, in the judgment of the Qing historian Peter Perdue, “a deliberate ethnic genocide…a ‘final solution’ to China’s northwest frontier problems.” The Qing were determined to station their troops in Central Asia to defend their frontiers from steppe raiders. Although Han officials at the court had initially opposed this expansion into what they conceived as “wasteland,” eventually they agreed. From this arose the idea, Millward writes, “that Xinjiang was an essential inalienable part of China, something that no Chinese would have argued before the nineteenth century.”

During that relatively stable century, “Qing rule in Xinjiang resembles the empires of European powers,” especially the British Raj in India. The Qing

permitted a degree of local autonomy while maintaining a monopoly on military force, and cultivated and employed a cadre of local officials under the supervision of imperial officers.

This form of rule was adapted by the Communists in the first years of their rule after 1949. But like the Han almost two millennia earlier, the Qing, even while they were still battling the Zunghars, also set up military farms, stationing in them both soldiers and, like the Communists today, exiled convicts. Between 1760 and 1830 the Chinese population grew to 155,000, but unlike the situation today the Qing decreed, until 1831, that Chinese could not settle permanently in Xinjiang. Thereafter they encouraged Chinese migration, but only small numbers of people came. It is an irony of history that Lin Zexu, the Qing official whose collision with the British in Guangzhou led to the first Opium War in 1839, was banished to Xinjiang where he was in charge of a survey of available land.

* * *

What is fascinating in Millward’s narrative is what came next. The Qing officials, advised by Jesuit missionaries at the court, created huge maps of Xinjiang, dictionaries of local place names, genealogies of important local families, and ethnographic studies. Like the Republican and Communist rulers who succeeded them, the Qing regarded themselves as having a “civilizing mission.” Did this lead to sinification of the region? Basing himself on the work of the historians Pamela Crossley and Evelyn Rawski, Millward concludes that this notion should be dismissed or at least “highly qualified.” What the Qing actually did, he maintains, was to limit both Chinese influence and bad feeling against the Chinese by operating “parallel administrations and legal systems” for the various inhabitants of Xinjiang. The aim, he fascinatingly observes, was for the Qing to rule not as Chinese emperors but as Inner Asian great khans, with their legitimacy based on their own Manchu nomadic past and on the authority of Tibetan Buddhist high lamas.

Still, as the influence of Han scholars grew at court, the Qing, near the end of the nineteenth century, began to move Xinjiang toward assimilation with Chinese norms. This was provoked in part by a series of late-nineteenth-century Muslim uprisings, which were motivated not so much by religion as by economic hardship and “rampant misrule.” The Qing’s main Muslim adversary was the military chieftain Ya’qub Beg, who would soon gain respect throughout the region as a “defender of the faith and holy warrior against the infidel khitay.” Like militant Muslims today, he banned male and female prostitution, alcohol, and the sale of “unclean” animals such as cats, dogs, and pigs. His agents flogged inadequately covered women and men not wearing turbans. Many Uyghurs regarded such rules as too strict. In the end the Qing briefly retook Xinjiang.

After the fall of the Qing in 1911–1912, Millward tells us, new rulers emerged over the next thirty-eight years and the Russians and the Soviets took an increasing interest in Xinjiang. Two rival governments emerged and around them there were revived stirrings of Turkic Muslim nationalism. Although the Guomindang (GMD) government of Chiang Kai-shek attempted to reassert some authority in the region—Chiang was convinced that all the early non-Han inhabitants had arisen from an original Chinese stock—the first of two East Turkestan republics appeared in Kashgar in 1933. Many Uyghurs look back on that short-lived regime with nostalgia, although Millward writes that it is hard to know just how Islamic it was. The constitution stated both that the republic would be guided by Sharia law and that it would be a democratic republic.

In this period Stalinism heavily influenced the Guomindang’s regime in Xinjiang, which used secret police and intelligence networks to crack down on Turkic nationalists. During the late Thirties, there was some collaboration between the Guomindang regime in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and Mao Zedong’s guerrillas. In one of those almost surreal moments in the region’s history, Mao’s younger brother, Mao Zemin, became the regime’s deputy finance minister. In 1944 a second Eastern Turkestan Republic emerged and set about fighting the rapidly weakening GMD. But Chiang Kai-shek dispatched a highly competent general, Zhang Zhizhong, who eventually became governor of Xinjiang; Zhang is still remembered, Millward says, “as a governor who was appreciated by virtually all the region’s rival parties…. We may also credit him with what may be called multi-cultural sensitivity.” Zhang wondered why the GMD had not turned political power over to the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups, since they made up 95 percent of the population. In another one of his insightful observations, Millward notes that merely because the Soviet Union backed nationalist movements in Xinjiang “does not in and of itself obviate the fact that many such movements, be they anti-colonial or class-based or both, derived from genuine grievances and deeply-held nationalistic feelings.”

* * *

In 1949, following the Communist triumph in Beijing, Red Army officers, including Zhang Zhizhong, who had defected to the Communist side, opened negotiations with the GMD garrison and its native allies. (It was then that Douglas MacKiernan began his fateful attempt to organize resistance and in 1950 met his death on the Tibetan border.) In December 1949 the Chinese Communist government established the unified Xinjiang Provincial People’s Government, and, as they would briefly in Tibet, included many existing GMD and ethnic leaders in the administration. In 1950 the new government began land reform, organizing, as was the case in China proper, trials of landowners who were called “local despots.” As would also be the case in Tibet, attempts were made to collectivize the nomad economy, a far tougher task, and there was much resistance, especially among the Kazakhs. By 1955 the region had been renamed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in which real power lay in the hands of Wang Enmao, a veteran of the Long March.

Now came the problem of deciding which of all the ethnic groups in China should qualify as “minority nationalities.” This would allow them to use their own languages, retain their cultural characteristics, and have representatives in bodies of the central government. Five hundred groups applied; by 1955 thirteen groups in Xinjiang were designated, some of which were assigned to autonomous counties, prefectures, and districts. What seemed an admirable beginning was vitiated at once by “nesting” the power of any one minority group within prefectures of another. While the chairman of a local government would be a member of an ethnic minority, real power always lay with the Han vice-chairman. The new government abolished Sharia law and with it the valuable land rights of the mosques and other Islamic institutions.

One marked similarity with the Qing was the practice of frequently sending Han Chinese to Xinjiang, often to state farms with distant connections to the Han and Tang dynasties, on which retired soldiers and convicts were settled. These bingtuan, or Production-Construction Military Corps settlements, were populated by hundreds of thousands of Hans and tens of thousands of exiled prisoners between the Fifties and mid-Seventies. They came under the supervision of the Communist Party and the Beijing government.2 During the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1976, 1.6 million Hans arrived in Xinjiang, including some 450,000 urban young people who came there in 1975.

Millward gives more attention to the post-1949 years than to the rest of Xinjiang’s history.3 Chinese rule in Xinjiang, as in Tibet, has been marked by Han chauvinism, brutality, and insensitivity and—unlike Tibet—there has been little international condemnation of it. During the late 1950s the campaigns to encourage or smash enemies of the regime were officially the same as in China proper, but the situation was different. Although the Fifties slogan was “practice democracy,” non-Hans were soon the target of “class struggle.” Millward writes:

In the social and cultural spheres, moreover, these years [from the 1950s on] were marked by a climate of communist puritanism, xenophobia and rejection of cultural artefacts and expression seen as “feudal” (old) or deviating from the norms that came to define the good socialist citizen…. These socialist norms were largely Chinese norms.

Chinese policy in Xinjiang became strongly assimilationist. In 1960, Wang Enmao looked forward to “the complete blending of all the nationalities,” a policy and hope that I heard from every Han official when I traveled in Xinjiang in the Eighties. Both were rejected by every Uyghur and Kazakh I talked with.

The Hundred Flowers movement of 1956 caused hundreds of thousands of Chinese to risk criticizing the regime. They suffered for their plain-speaking a year later. In Xinjiang thousands of non-Han cadres were punished for condemning the effects of cultural chauvinism; some of them, Millward writes, were, like some Chinese, rehabilitated only in 1979. During the great famine that swept China from 1959 to 1961, killing at least 30 million people, over five thousand starved to death in one Xinjiang county alone during 1960. Nomads’ herds were reduced by 75 percent.

In those years the anti-Islamic policies of the Religious Reform Movement stipulated an end to the hajj, and herders were forced into settlements. “The overall impact of communisation on herdsmen was to replace clan-based organisations with closer party control, to sedentarise them, and to divert as many as possible from herding to agricultural and industrial labour.” And yet starving Xinjiang was forced to export grain to Han provinces. Between 1966 and 1976 there were bloody clashes between the rival state farms; and hospitals were crammed with wounded and dying for whom there was no blood for transfusion.4 A new campaign for the 2000s, the Great Development of the West, has led Uyghurs to fear that yet more Hans are to be settled in Xinjiang. The China scholar Nicolas Becquelin, a Xinjiang specialist, predicts “increased sinicization and increased ethno-national unrest in the future.”5

In considering violent non-Han resistance to Chinese rule in Xinjiang, which became significant between the middle Seventies and the late Nineties, Millward correctly observes that foreign journalists have gained increasing access to once-remote areas such as Xinjiang. “The story” concentrated on separatism and its violent expression, putting emphasis on what were sometimes described as “holy warriors” and “Muslim separatists.” Such concentration on fights for independence was encouraged, Millward rightly suggests, by Uyghur exiles. There were indeed antigovernment incidents and even uprisings, but there has been nothing, he writes, like the disorders in Northern Ireland, Palestine, Chechnya, or Kosovo. Still, by 1999 there had been hundreds of arrests and executions. Jails were reportedly jammed. But despite Chinese accusations that the resistance was linked to al-Qaeda and despite the Uyghurs’ relationship with the exile East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which has had expressions of sympathy from Washington since September 11, Millward emphasizes that he sees no “unified movement, let alone…a single organisation.” In any event, he says, opposition violence, such as it was, “tapered off from 1997 to 2005.”

Nonetheless, near the end of his long, detailed, and invaluable book James Millward perceives in Xinjiang

an “autonomy” system that leaves real power in the hands of Han party secretaries, rapid economic development that seemingly benefits Han migrants more than Uyghur residents, a strenuous crackdown on political organisation or criticism of the government, tightening state restrictions on religion, muscular reinforcement of a Sino-centric historical narrative.

In the face of such oppression, the Uyghurs who set their watches to evade Beijing time by two hours seem to be engaging in heroic defiance.


  1. Erik Eckholm, "American Gives Beijing Good News: Rebels on Terror List," The New York Times, August 27, 2002; Erik Eckholm, "US Labeling of Group in China as Terrorist Is Criticized," The New York Times, September 13, 2002; "Devastating Blows," Far Eastern Economic Review, May 5, 2005.
  2. The main specialists on this subject, cited by Millward, are James D. Seymour and Richard Anderson, especially their jointly authored New Ghosts, Old Ghosts: Prisons and Labor Reform Camps in China (M.E. Sharpe, 1998).
  3. These years are also laid out in considerable detail in "Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang," Human Rights Watch, April 12, 2005, available at www.hrichina.org.
  4. The narrative here leans on June Teufel Dreyer, China's Forty Millions: Minority Nationalities and National Integration in the People's Republic of China (Harvard University Press, 1976), and Donald Hugh McMillen, Chinese Communist Power and Policy in Xinjiang, 1949–1977 (Westview, 1979).
  5. "Staged Development in Xinjiang," The China Quarterly, No. 178 (June 2004), p. 378.
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