An Encounter on Flight from Kashgar to Hotan
By Mulati Heiniyati, Director and Researcher of Institute of Philosophy of, Xinjiang Academy of Social Science
One day in November 2019, I sat next to Ms. Zhang and her husband, who were tourists from Taiwan, China, on a flight from Kashgar to Hotan. Ms. Zhang, a folk culture fan herself, had traveled with a tour group around northern Xinjiang last year. Impressed by the trip, she decided to visit southern Xinjiang this year along with her husband. She believes that Xinjiang is an amazing place where you always want “one more visit” no matter how many times you have been there. Ms. Zhang said she had seen a stable and harmonious Xinjiang, and she could feel it by either taking Urumqi subway and visiting the bustling International Grand Bazaar.
Ms. Zhang recounted her tour of the Kashgar Old Town, old but still glowing with diverse cultures. There she noticed myriads of traditional handicrafts of ethnic minorities, such as musical instruments, earth ceramics and woodcrafts, that have been handed down and renewed from generation to generation. She bought a traditional handicraft by scanning a QR code with WeChat Pay, and had it delivered to her home in Taizhong. She said today’s Kashgar is a city where ancient meets and modern, history meets contemporary. Here the time-honored Chinese culture has been thriving, and different ethnic groups are living happy lives in peace and harmony.
People dance at a harvest celebration event in Kuche County, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on September 21, 2018. [Photo: VCG]
Among all the places she visited, she was most impressed by the theme street called “Kashgar Impression”. Shop owners and vendors along the street include both local people and migrants from hinterland, and different ethnic groups mingle and get along well. On one side of the street are pubs, cafes, B&Bs and some shops owned by foreigners; on the other side stands the old city wall, against which wooden tables were set up for people to drink beer, eat barbecues, watch ethnic music and dance performance, and enjoy light show. The street is a perfect fusion of ethnic features and modern elements. Strolling down the street, one can feel the vibrant folk customs of western China, as well as the leisure and comfort of international flavor. Ms. Zhang said as she saw young lovers hand in hand and heard romantic guitar music wafting in the air, she was transported back to the pub street in Taizhong. Sweet memories welled up in her mind when she turned her eyes to her husband.
Ms. Zhang told me that she had noted the smear campaign by Western media and politicians accusing Xinjiang of genocide against Uygur culture. However, from what she saw in Xinjiang, she could tell that the accusation was far from true. Here in the old town you could find many Uyghur craftsmen with mastery of traditional craftsmanship which has been handed down for five or six generations and renewed by the young generation through the fusion with modern elements. I told Ms. Zhang that top traditional Uygur craftsmen have always been supported by government and some handicrafts had been listed as the intangible cultural heritage at national or autonomous regional level. Each inheritor of the national intangible cultural heritage is entitled to an inheritance allowance of 20 thousand RMB per year, and the inheritor of intangible cultural heritage of lower levels can also receive some allowance. While committed to the preservation of traditional Uyghur culture and handicrafts, the government has also been promoting their commercialization, which not only benefits traditional ethnic culture in return, but also bring about tourist boom and more income for locals. The themed streets and alleys around Kashgar old town are successful examples of commercialization.
I told Ms. Zhang the remarkable changes of the Kashgar old town were testaments to Kashgar’s history. There was a time when streets were full of sewage and garbage, pipes were hanging from walls and no decent toilets could be found. Many houses were not strong enough to withstand earthquake. The time-honored town got a new life only when the government invested more than 7 billion RMB in its renovation from the year 2010. Today, the town not only is a safe place to live, but also retains its original features and traditional bazaar culture. Some residents turned the ground floor of their houses into handicraft stores, or a comprehensive tourist site offering catering, performance, folk custom experiencing and handicrafts sale.
According to the “Pairing Assistance to Xinjiang” project organized by the central government, Shenzhen was designated as one of cities or provinces to assist Kashgar. For the last 9 years, Shenzhen has sent 906 cadres and technical experts and put up 8.4 billion yuan to help restore Kashgar to its old glory as a pearl along the Silk Road. This also can serve as another example of the superiority of socialist system with Chinese characteristics for its visionary overall planning and pooling of resources across the country for tasks that are impossible to pull off elsewhere. It is worth mentioning that some shop owners in the old town are graduates from vocational education and training centers. By learning national common language, legal knowledge and vocational skills, especially through the process of de-radicalization, they have ridded themselves of the control of radical thoughts. They are now refreshed and better men and women, and are fresh blood for the old town.
Upon learning that I’m a Kazakh scholar, Ms. Zhang showed interest in hearing more about my work experience and the situation of Kazakh ethnic group in Xinjiang. I was proud to tell her that as a Kazakh scholar working at Xinjiang Academy of Social Science for 30 years, I’m one of the numerous scholars of ethnic minorities nurtured by the Communist Party of China and its preferential policy to ethnic minorities. I came from a small city called Altay in northwestern Xinjiang. Thanks to the lowered threshold for ethnic minorities in national College Entrance Examination, I was admitted to East China Normal University and got my master’s degree there with the help of targeted training program for western regions. For the seven years of undergraduate and postgraduate programs, ethnic minority students never had to worry about tuition, which was waived, and instead received monthly stipend from the university. After some years in work, I was recommended by my employer to pursue PhD study in Nanjing University under the national support plan for advanced talents of ethnic minorities, with the hope to become a leading scholar in ethnic culture study. Then I moved on with my PhD degree to postdoctoral research station of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. After this research experience, I went to Ohio State University for one year as a visiting scholar, funded by China Scholarship Commission under the Ministry of Education for western region. There are actually hundreds of leading Kazakh scholars working at universities or research institutes in Xinjiang and across China with similar experience. Some have become rising international stars in social science. I am a frequent participant in academic conferences in China and abroad, where I discuss in Chinese, Kazakh and English my research findings, and introduce traditional culture and achievements of the Kazakh ethnic group in Xinjiang to the world. Thanks to bilingual education, I am able to work with confidence in international academic world and at the same time raise the visibility of the traditional Kazakh culture in Xinjiang. Compared with 70 years ago, when few Kazakh in Xinjiang were literate, this is nothing short of a miracle. Besides, there are also lots of people like me among other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
As a witness to the overwhelming transformations of Kazakh ethnic society in Xinjiang, I told Ms. Zhang that since the implementation of Reform and Opening-up over 40 years ago, Xinjiang has carried out resettlement projects to enrich people and boost the economy and society of ethnic minorities like Kazakh and Kirgiz. Especially since the launch of “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), a number of youth from ethnic minorities like Kazakhs busied themselves with the trade with surrounding countries. Some of them have become millionaires, even billionaires, who are also pioneers among minority ethnic groups in Xinjiang to get rich. This is an unprecedented and miraculous social phenomenon for the traditionally nomadic herdsmen who used to live in self-contented autarky. Back in October 2018, I went to the Republic of Kazakhstan and had a discussion with local officials and scholars from think tanks. When I mentioned the changes of Kazakh community in Xinjiang, they exclaimed “You Kazakhs from Xinjiang are really enjoying a happy life”. I blurted back: “It is the Communist Party of China who has brought happy life to all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.”
Some Western media and politicians accused the BRI of ignoring the right to development of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. The truth is exactly the opposite - they are the greatest beneficiaries of BRI. Under preferential policies, farmers in Xinjiang are not required to pay tax for farming, instead they get subsidies for farming and residence reconstruction. The policy of nine-year free compulsory education has covered whole Xinjiang. In addition, children in southern Xinjiang get three-year preschool education, 12-year elementary and secondary education all for free. Medical cost can be mostly covered with social security insurance; elderly people can get allowance for daily living expenses. In general, lives are getting better and better. Seventy years ago, the average life expectancy of Xinjiang people was merely 30 years, but now it has more than doubled to 72.35 years. Today’s Xinjiang is prosperous land where all the ethnic groups feel safer and happier with increasing sense of fulfillment. This is a historic progress that can be felt by all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
I told Ms. Zhang that all the traditional cultures of ethnic minorities have also been well preserved, inherited and developed like the Kashgar old town. However, in disregard of the facts and under the guise of “human rights”, some Western media and politicians are still brazenly accusing Xinjiang of genocide against traditional Uyghur culture. Facts speak for themselves. Human rights itself is a wonderful idea. However, it often falls into wrong mouth for political purpose. Just as many people have said, those groundless accusation and malicious attacks sound so absurd and despicable when they are compared with reality.