26 February 2006

Foreign Impressions of Korla, Xinjiang, China

Sunday's Japan Times ran a two-part special report from China's Xinjiang by Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus in Tokyo. Here's an excerpt from his impressions of the oil boomtown of Kuche.
About 60 percent of Korla's population is Han, and most of the unemployed and underemployed are Uighurs. The influx began in the 1970s, due to a major famine in inner China, and has gained pace since then with the development of the oil and gas sector.

Today, Korla exudes the air of a town that is going somewhere -- a place where big deals are negotiated in high-rise office buildings. On the swish Han side of town, designer boutiques, mirror-glass malls and upmarket hotels and restaurants cater to a well-coiffed crowd in shop-to-drop mode.

Only Uighur buskers remind one that this is Xinjiang, their hypnotic drumming and haunting flute-like horn riffs cutting through the din of modern commerce. Playing at the entrance to an underground mall, close to a traditional crafts shop that's also selling Barbie Dolls, their dark-hued clothes, beards and fingerless gloves set them off from the fashionable crowds studiously ignoring them.

Passersby also ignored the large street-side posters of self-sacrificing, quota-exceeding working-class heroes -- anachronistic Stakhanovs for the 21st century -- that nobody even pretends to emulate anymore.

Western news media and international human rights organizations regularly report about assimilation and migration policies that are marginalizing Uighurs in their homeland, and ethnic Han now constitute more than half the population. Chinese is the language of upward mobility, but even this is a limited option for locals, as Han-managed companies entice Han workers to relocate to Xinjiang with higher wages and better benefits.

Whether it is at the oil complexes or in the shopping malls, locals remain on the outside looking in.

The relative deprivation is one of the factors driving separatist political movements. There have been several uprisings and violent outbursts in Xinjiang over the past 50 years -- all have been resolutely quashed. The government is vigilant about this resource-rich, strategically located region contiguous to Russia and Central Asian countries where cross-border ethnic and religious ties are strong.

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