Magazine article The Spectator

'China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State', by Nick Holdstock - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State', by Nick Holdstock - Review

Article excerpt

China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State Nick Holdstock

I.B. Tauris, pp.288, £14.99, ISBN: 9781784531409

In October 2013, a jeep ploughed through a crowd of pedestrians on the edge of Tiananmen Square, crashed and burst into flames, killing five people. The authorities identified the driver as Uighur, a member of an Islamic ethnic minority hailing from China's northwest region of Xinjiang. Six months later, eight knife-wielding Uighurs rampaged through a packed railway station in Kunming in southwest China, killing 29 people and wounding more than 140 others -- an attack described by the national media as 'China's 9/11'.

Beijing blamed both attacks on radical Islamist organisations pursuing what it calls the 'three evils': terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. It claims terrorists are attempting to create an independent Islamic state in Xinjiang, directed by hostile foreign forces aligned with al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Since the World Trade Center attacks in New York in 2001, Beijing has explicitly linked its crackdown in Xinjiang to the US's global war on terror, portraying China as a fellow 'victim of international terrorism'. And it has used this to justify restrictions on Uighur culture and religion in the name of 'security'.

In China's Forgotten People , the Edinburgh-based writer Nick Holdstock sets out to 'reveal truth from facts' in Xinjiang, to appropriate one of the Communist Party's pet phrases. Holdstock's central contention is that there is little proof of either organised Islamic terrorism or widespread separatist agitation in Xinjiang, where he used to live. Instead, the spiralling violence witnessed over the past few years is itself a reaction to repressive government policies put in place to control 'terrorism' -- a self-fulfilling prophecy that is, tragically, now inciting the real thing.

Holdstock starts with a concise history of Xinjiang, explaining how this vast expanse of desert, steppe and mountain in central Asia is actually a relatively new addition to the Chinese empire. Conquered by the Qing emperor Qianlong in the mid-18th century, it was not named 'Xinjiang' -- 'new territory' in Chinese -- until 1884. Foreigners referred exotically to 'East Turkestan', a name that would be revived by Uighur nationalists in the 1930s. No one viewed Xinjiang as an essential part of China until the 19th century, and it wasn't until 1959 that Communist officials formulated the rigid line that Xinjiang 'has since ancient times been an inseparable part of the motherland'.

Since then China's leaders have encouraged Han Chinese to migrate to Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, as it is now formally but misleadingly known. …

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