It was an early summer afternoon. The heat wasn't yet unbearable and I had just hiked down from the snowy mountain of Muztagata. I was with two fellow backpackers who I just met the day before on my bus ride from Tashkurgan and who had invited me along to this hike in the first place. One was an unemployed factory worker from Guangxi, another a recent graduate from the Shanghai Jiaotong University. The day before we had hiked up the mountain and encountered the Chinese National Glacial Research team, where a group of middle age Chinese scientist warmly welcomed us to their camp, served us food while jovially teasing me for being an American spy and threatened to make me disappear into the crevasse in between the glaciers.
The next day we hiked down the mountain and there we were on the side of the dusty highway hitching a ride back to Kashgar. It didn't take long before we flagged down a huge truck carrying piles of lumber and off we went on this three-hour long ride. The disturbing conversation began shortly after.
The Chinese truck driver assured us that we were very lucky for being picked up and that if we hadn't been Han Chinese he would not have picked us up. He began talking about the uncivilized ethnic minorities that sparsely populated the region and how they should be thankful that we were here to develop them. He then explained the local mythology that at the beginning of time, Uyghurs were made out of a mix of urine of a Han Chinese man and mud. The university graduate from Shanghai echoed his sentiment after every outrageous statement. The factory worker and I were sitting in the back, stunned at the exchange.
I had come to Xinjiang to see for myself the ethnic conflicts that I had heard so much about outside of China. I started in Xining where I taught English with my good friend Jingjing, a Swedish born Cantonese expat/film student from the Beijing Film Academy, where I was secretly dropping in for classes. We were aspiring filmmakers back then. That was over a decade ago. The lives I captured in my camera of Xinjiang in those days were in stark contrast to the images captured in news reports coming out in recent years. Xinjiang has become a violent place and the ethnic Uyghurs' fight for independence has turned ever more desperate, culminating in a car bomb in Tiananmen Square that killed several people and and most recently a premeditated knife attack at a train station in Kunming that left 130 wounded.
In Xinjiang, while most ethnic minorities were friendly to me, some did refuse to serve me because I was Chinese. I would walk into stores and get ignored, sit in restaurants and not get served. Cold stares would turn bewildered when I tried to be friendly. The experience was similar when I was in Tibetan regions. Most welcomed me into their yurts and served me yak buttered tea. But Tibetan nomads who came onto the bus would ask me questions like if we Han Chinese people thought the Tibetans were stupid, before breaking into laughter and song as if nothing really mattered. The grievance, if not resentment, was always bubbling just below the surface back then.
Four decades of China's 'Go West' policy to develop the region has obviously generated more discontent and less the peace and prosperity the mantra had aspired for. Uyghurs argued that business opportunities and government posts mostly go to Han Chinese. While the region is autonomous in name, Beijing's economic reach is omnipresent through its military presence and its powerful state-owned oil and gas enterprises. Until recent years, the region's rich natural resources were exploited for the purpose of fueling economic growth of the coastal Special Economic Zones and the rest of the country and not Xinjiang itself.
With southern and coastal China's special economic zones climbing up in the value chain and labor intensive low cost manufacturing moving inland, the highly polluting, consumption-driven and exploitative production engine that has fueled China's astonishing growth is being replicated in places like Xinjiang. Western China is the country's latest frontier for hyper development in the country's relentless quest for economic dominance. The intensification of development in the region in the coming decades is going to make things worse and the region even more unstable. The huge wealth gap, toxic pollution, and endemic corruption that are still plaguing the rest of China will explode in Xinjiang and Tibet, and serve to radicalize already desperate minority populations that have historically perceived all the benefits of so-called development going to the Han migrants while their own cultures slowly destroyed along the way. The suicide bombings and self-immolations are desperate acts that will continue, if not increase, if their grievances are not addressed.
As no part of China is actually a democracy, the Uyghurs' aspiration can sometimes seem pointless, if not hopeless. But it is time the rest of the world to pay attention. Xinjiang is as strategically important to China as it is to the rest of the world. Western China's peaceful and sustainable development has major implications for social stability in China and global security. As we have witnessed in places like Rwanda and Sudan, long-term under- and-uneven development and ethnic conflicts can flare up anywhere and turn into the most unexpected yet devastating humanitarian crisis.
The world is already characterizing the latest terror attack in Kunming as China's own 9/11. The escalating and increasingly frequent, premeditated and suicidal attacks by ethnic minorities in China share eerie similarity to those jaded images of violence that characterizes the Israel-Palestine conflicts. It is critically important for China and the world to advocate for the Chinese government to pursue a development model in western China, and the rest of the country in general, that is inclusive, equitable and accountable to the many ethnic groups in the region. Otherwise, Kunming could well mark the beginning of China's own endless war on terror and we all know how "well" that's been going for the U.S and Israel.