As soon as I stepped outside of the airport in Urumqi, I felt the difference. Urumqi felt very far removed from the fast-paced, economics-obsessed, technologically-advanced, southeastern-concentrated country that the rest of the world thinks of when they think of China. I have never been to Central Asia, but I imagine that Kazakhstan or Tajikistan feel much the same as Xinjiang. The Uighur language, which looks almost identical to Arabic, was written alongside Mandarin on every sign. It was more common to hear the Uighur language being spoken on the streets than Chinese. Urumqi is in direct contrast to Shanghai, the city I had just come from. In Shanghai, young professionals often only live in the city for a few months before moving on to their next fintech job. Meanwhile, Urumqi felt like a permanent home for its inhabitants, with a slower pace of life that retained its traditional nomadic elements. The Uighur way of life permeated the city. Most food vendors sold traditional Uighur noodles and still baked their bread directly in the side of their ovens, like their parents before them. Most women wore hair coverings similar to hijabs. The men wore little round hats, Sherlock Holmes-style caps, or large furry hats with earflaps that reminded me of Russian hats. People looked more like Arabs than East Asians. The stereotypical eastern Chinese city life, with its rapid technological change, economic growth, and societal restructuring, was not immediately apparent here in Xinjiang.
The lively atmospheres and colorful displays of Xinjiang’s markets further reflected unique Uighur culture. Uighur-style hats, scarves, rugs, and jewelry packed the stalls. The products were an interesting mix of East Asian design with heavy Russian and Central Asian influence. In the markets, people went about their daily business, buying grapes and dried melon (Xinjiang specialties) at the countless dried fruit stalls, eating meat-filled dumplings and long handmade noodles, and shopping for groceries. Sometimes vendors would not even speak Mandarin. China’s skyscraper construction, shopping malls, banks, and absorption of Western media did not seem to have reached this part of the country yet.
But this image of a traditional nomadic utopia untouched by eastern Chinese development does not reflect the true reality of life in Xinjiang. Every train station, airport, and shopping mall included soldiers with riot gear and metal detectors. I went through more metal detectors and experienced more pat-downs during my four days in Xinjiang than I had ever experienced in the rest of my life. The security apparatuses to enter a grocery store rivaled that of the United States’ Transportation Security Administration. Tanks and soldiers were common sights around the city, and I was repeatedly asked to drink the water in my water bottle to ensure that I had not tried to hide explosives in my beverages.
Although Chinese museums claim to embrace and celebrate all of China’s ethnic minorities, it was clear that the Chinese government viewed the Uighurs as a potential threat that must be controlled. The Uighur language is not taught in schools. Most Uighurs are Muslim and the influence of Islamic culture was apparent in Uighur dress and architecture, but men cannot wear beards and Uighurs cannot practice Islam openly. Most Uighurs do not leave Xinjiang, and it is incredibly hard for Uighurs to obtain passports. The Chinese government’s overwhelming influence exists everywhere in China, but most residents of China can easily ignore or live with the control of the internet and travel during their daily lives. In Xinjiang, though, the Chinese security state was obvious.
Ninety-two percent of Chinese people call themselves Han, but ethnicity does not contribute much to Chinese nationalism. Instead, Chinese government propaganda makes a point of including all of China’s ethnicities in its national identity, showcasing its ethnic minorities’ unique cultural characteristics in its museums and propaganda. In a different way, it includes Uighurs, too. The soldiers patrolling the streets and security guards monitoring market and bus entrances were all Uighur, giving the appearance that the government trusted its ethnic minorities to ensure the state’s security. While the government clearly treated Uighurs differently from the rest of the Chinese population, there was also at least a façade of inclusion of the ethnic group.
Contrary to popular media opinion, China is not a homogeneous developing nation, defined only by its economic growth and environmental issues. It is also a clear national security state and contains many diverse ethnicities with disparate cultures. And nowhere are these nuances better reflected than in Xinjiang.