Phantom enemies

China’s leaders are creating what they seek to avoid—a coordinated resistance
August 25, 2013

Mark Kitto and his family camp in Moyu County, Xinjiang. (© Mark Kitto)

After prayers on Friday 28th June, in the village of Hanerik , Hetian Prefecture, in the southern half of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, there was a civil disturbance. Due to the absence of independent witnesses, it is difficult to know what caused the disturbance and how it developed, but as it happened immediately after prayers it is likely that resentment of official interference in local religious affairs caused a number of young men to express their anger in public.

The native ethnic population of Xinjiang, who make up 40 per cent of the total, are Uighurs; a Turkic, Muslim people. They live mostly in the Tarim Basin, in the southern half of the region, and in the capital, Ürümqi. Since the 19th century, but particularly over recent decades, the Chinese government has encouraged mass migration to Xinjiang of ethnic Han Chinese from the northeast of the country. Han migrants are given free housing, incentives to start businesses, jobs in lucrative industries such as oil and energy, and access to good schools, among other benefits.

The influx of Han, and the perceived smothering of Uighur traditional society, has caused resentment among the Uighurs, which sometimes manifests itself in violence and attracts international attention. The worst case to date was in July 2009, when Uighurs went on the rampage in Ürümqi and killed approximately 200 Han Chinese residents. This year there were incidents in Bachu on 24th April, Turfan on 26th June and Hetian on 28th June.

Uighur mud-walled towns have been replaced with tower blocks. Every urban centre has a Han zone on its edge, many of which are growing so fast they dominate the original. Han Chinese refuse to enter Ürümqi’s “Uighur Quarter” after dark. Here, at all hours, you find phalanxes of young Han Chinese soldiers, armed with batons and shields, protecting a couple more with automatic weapons in the middle. They look like Roman Legionaries in an Asterix comic, and appear just as nervous. As with Tibet, the party line is that it is making life better for the locals. Besides, the propaganda says, all the Uighurs like to do is sing and dance.

Uighur society and culture, in particular Islamic religious practice, is closely monitored and tightly controlled. CCTV cameras cover the entrance to every mosque and all public spaces. Imams have their sermons censored. Beards and veils are discouraged. Service in the government requires a degree of renunciation.

The Uighurs have no high-profile figurehead like the Dalai Lama. There is a peripatetic, exiled World Uighur Congress, which does its best to raise awareness of the plight of their people, but the only time it gets a mention in the press is when it attempts to verify the truth about the latest “incident.” The Chinese government accuses it of being a front for the “East Turkestan Independence Movement”—or “Dong Tu” for short in Chinese.

I have visited Xinjiang five times. It was the launchpad for my China career. In 1993 I was a member of the Anglo-Chinese Taklamakan Desert Crossing Expedition, which made the first ever complete traverse of that desert, also known as “you go in but don’t come out.” It took two months, with 30 camels and half a dozen Uighur camel handlers. We were accompanied by Chinese journalists who ambled along behind us, but sprinted to the front when the TV cameras appeared. One of the expedition’s sponsors offered

article body image

me a job in Beijing.

This summer, before leaving China, where I have lived for 18 years, I took my wife and two children to Xinjiang. We traveled by car, a Great Wall “Chelsea Tractor,” from our home in Zhejiang Province. Our aims were to revisit the desert, find the camel handlers, show the children China along the way, and “home school” them in preparation to begin UK school this autumn. We covered over 10,000 kilometres, King Alfred to Henry VIII, and spent happy days camped in stunning, remote mountain valleys in north Xinjiang with a picnic table and a tree for a classroom.

When we moved south to the Tarim Basin we also witnessed and got caught up in the aftermath of the Hetian incident. We missed the demonstration itself by a couple of hours. What followed was fascinating and farcical and, as an example of the Chinese government’s policy towards Xinjiang, demonstrates how one day the government will create the very thing it claims it is trying to stop—and which does not exist as yet—namely a coordinated movement dedicated to resisting Chinese rule.

Two days before we arrived in Hetian we were in a small town called Makit, on the western edge of the Taklamakan desert. It was from here, amid fanfare and a public holiday, that our expedition set off in September 1993. I dropped in unannounced to the government office and was warmly received. The tourism bureau chief helped me find our camel handlers, took us all to the spot where we stepped into the desert, now marked by a large blue plaque, and treated us to a slap-up banquet.

In the evening I wandered the town, hoping to find familiar sites, such as the sports ground where we’d danced and the parade ground where the imams had blessed our camels. Of course everything had changed. I would like to say it had “developed.” But development in China means razing and rebuilding.

There was no trace of the original Uighur architecture. The Han Chinese template for a modern town had been imposed on the flattened mud-brick houses: a large square dominated by an “artistic” sculpture, white-tiled government offices, broad streets laid out in a grid, all signage in the same colour and font, residential areas of apartment blocks behind gates and walls, an “industrial development zone” on one edge of town, empty, unused.

Even the outlying villages had been unified, or “harmonised,” to use the phrase of Chinese internet users mocking the government’s jargon. On the road we had passed brand new hamlets of identikit one-storey brick buildings with yards, and beside them large posters explaining which Chinese city, county or state had donated the funds for construction. The Makit officials told me that every Uighur rural household was given about 24,000 yuan (£2,500) with which to build a new house. Of the compounds we saw, perhaps half were inhabited.

At about 10pm that evening, as I was wandering through Makit, police cars with flashing lights and sirens wailing sped past me. They were pulling up at junctions, the officers getting out and clearing traffic. At first I thought I was about to witness a demonstration. Sure enough, behind me there was a large mass of people walking down the street. But these were not unhappy Uighurs. They were all in uniform. They were Han students, hundreds of them, marching home from school after their late evening revision period. Han families in neighbouring provinces can purchase an official “residence” for their children in Xinjiang for 200,000 yuan. The notoriously demanding entry requirements for national universities are lower for Xinjiang residents than elsewhere in China, to make up for what was once a lower standard of education.

I obtained that titbit of information from a group of young Uighurs who were eating and drinking beer at a roadside barbecue. Abdullah was a “People’s Policeman.” He was still in uniform. Another, Siddi Mohammed, was a full time policeman who supervised the internet. The others were local businessmen. I asked them how they saw the situation in Xinjiang.

“Ninety-nine per cent of people are happy,” Siddi Mohammed said. He seemed to be the leader of the group. “It is just one per cent who are causing trouble.”

Once he had explained the loophole the Han Chinese students were exploiting I asked whether that upset them. “Surely those students are taking places meant for Uighurs?”

They all shrugged. “We just want a peaceful life,” he said. “No one wants trouble.”

The young man in uniform, Abdullah, offered to run me back to my hotel on his moped. He’d had a fair bit to drink, which made his offer more enthusiastic. I would have preferred to walk. I was given no choice. We set off, in the opposite direction to the hotel.

“I want to show you the town,” Abdullah said, although there was no commentary forthcoming while he turned a corner and the moped swerved across the road. I gripped his shoulders. He was drunk. But then I felt his shoulders heave. He was crying, sobbing. We pulled over.

“It is so hard, so hard for us, so hard.”

“What is?”

“Life,” he thumped his chest, “for us Uighurs.” He pulled at his uniform. “I have to wear this, but I am an Uighur. They make our life so hard.”

I asked him what made his life so hard. He was so upset he couldn’t speak. The alcohol didn’t help. I agreed to let him drive me round some more, hoping we’d find a place to sit and I’d get more out of him if he sobered up. But he’d said all he wanted. He drove to my hotel. I gripped him by the shoulder one last time, face to face. “Tell me in one word, what it is you want?” I asked.

Abdullah gave me that drunk, glazed, “do I have to?” look, shrugged and said, very precisely: “Equality.”


Two days later I was in the middle of the Taklamakan desert. I had driven there, along a new road that cuts past a major landmark, the low lying ridge of the Mazartag mountains that come to an abrupt end at the Hetian river. There’s a ruined Tibetan fort on the top of the mountains’ end, overlooking the river. It dates from the 18th century when the Tibetan empire stretched northwards to the Tianshan mountains. Below the fort was the site of a resupply point from the expedition. I wanted to show my children.

My wife Joanna, who is Han Chinese, had stayed in the town of Hetian (also known as Hotan or Khotan. All maps in China only give the Chinese versions of Uighur place names, many of which bear no relation to the original.) Joanna doesn’t do deserts. But I had a companion in my old friend Robert Jones, who had flown out from Shanghai with his son to join us for some of our trip.

We had an eventful drive through a blinding sandstorm, a couple of police checkpoints, and then along a sandy track off the main road that was too much for the car. We dug it out. Then the rain began—rain, in the desert. We set up camp and cooked supper. The wind had died to nothing. It was a beautiful evening. In the west the Mazartag ridge glowed red in the setting sun.

As we ate I joked with Robert about spending two months in the desert in 1993 and never having a day as eventful as this. Then his mobile rang. It was his wife calling from Shanghai to say there was a riot in Hetian. Details were sketchy but it seemed the violence was severe. I picked up my mobile to call Joanna. The service had been shut down. It was impossible to send texts. Robert used a different service, and a better phone. He could receive texts and calls. His friends in Shanghai began contacting him to make sure he was all right and tell him to get out of Xinjiang immediately.

We put the children to bed and opened a bottle of whisky. The texts to Robert’s phone relayed reports from Chinese online forums that spoke of armed Uighurs on the rampage, casualties, shooting. I got through to Joanna at last. She told me the Han staff at her hotel were lining the front gates, armed with pick staves and knives. She was staying put. I asked if she had heard gunshots. She had not. “But there were some fireworks earlier…”

The Hetian Hotel, where we had left Joanna, has a large compound at the back, which is home to a couple of smart new apartment blocks. The residents were male, middle-aged Han Chinese. They exercised every evening by walking circuits of the hotel building, under fine timber frames covered in vines—a traditional Uighur feature—like prisoners in the yard. They were teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, come to Xinjiang to serve as advisers and volunteers. They stayed for a few months and then went home to their provinces, duty done. I’d sat next to a Uighur doctor one evening in a crowded restaurant who explained how the system worked, the Han coming and going. I asked what they got in return. “Profit,” the doctor said. “From a hospital?” I asked. “No, the oil.” (The reason there are now roads through the Taklamakan desert is oil exploration; there are some major deposits.)

On the Saturday, Robert and I drove back to Hetian in search of burnt-out police stations, looted shops and bloodstained pavements. We found none. The streets were empty of Han Chinese, apart from the People’s Armed Police (PAP). Equipped and dressed as soldiers, the PAP are still referred to as police. They maintain “internal security.” They are the party’s private army.

The main public space, Tuanjie Guangchang, Unity Square, had been cordoned off and armoured vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns parked in its centre. We stopped beside it to buy kebabs. All young men who approached the square were stopped and searched. Unmarked police cars were circling the square. The occupants stared hard at the few people on the street, including us, looking for suspects.

I began to take photos. Within seconds blue uniformed police accosted us. “Don’t take photographs,” they shouted at Robert.

The kebab seller, whom we’d befriended when we were in Hetian before, told us hundreds of people had been arrested. “We have no guns,” was his repeated complaint, and he mimed the action of shooting. “They have. Many people were killed. Hundreds.”

From the state of Unity Square, it was clear there had been no violent demonstration 12 hours ago. There was no sign of damage. We still did not know where the riot had taken place. The rumours were already getting wilder. Joanna told us she’d heard from a taxi driver that five or six people had been killed. By Saturday evening the number—coming from Robert’s friends in Shanghai—was a precise 46. On another kebab run, our friend told us it was at least 100. He did the gun thing again, and a tank driving over people. The hotel receptionist, a sensible Uighur lady, said if that many people had been killed, no one would have been out on the streets, and the hotel would have been locked down.

We were in an information black hole—the closer to the incident, the stronger the vacuum. Hetian’s internet was shut down, television too. We could now make calls on our mobiles but texts—because of the ability to send pictures—were disabled. There were no newspapers that we could find.

As if to deliberately torment us—the only foreigners for miles around and, therefore, potentially independent witnesses—the Hetian government, senior PAP and police officers held their emergency meetings in our hotel, locked away in a back room. As much as they were discussing how to deal with the incident, they would also be working out the story they would present to the domestic media, and their leaders in Ürümqi and Beijing.

Their brand new Land Cruisers and large SUVs filled the car park. I pretended to repack our own car and tried to befriend the drivers, who were polishing their bonnets and smoking. They were not forthcoming. In exasperation I asked directly.

“For God’s sake, did anyone get killed yesterday?”

They all turned away, apart from one, who had been the chattiest earlier. With a look that I can only describe as genuinely reassuring, he said, quietly, “Nah,” and shook his head.

That evening a column of armoured personnel carriers, surveillance vehicles and open trucks full of soldiers, approximately 360 by my count, paraded through the town. One vehicle was mounted with loudspeakers that broadcast a warning, in Chinese, to stay off the streets, and proclaimed: “We only want you to live in peace and harmony.” Policemen on foot screamed at anyone who held up a camera or mobile phone. “No photographs!” A second echelon’s broadcast was in Uighur.

Eventually, some days later, I found some newspapers that mentioned the incident. The day after the incident, the Chinese-language Hetian Daily had run a simple report. “On 28th June, at 15.30 hours, there was a disturbance by a group of armed people in Hanerik township of Hetian Prefecture. Security organisations responded promptly, and in accordance with the law detained those responsible. The disturbance was quickly calmed. In the course of dealing with the disturbance, there were no injuries.”

By 4th July, the fuller official story had been decided. A front-page article, continued inside the Hetian Daily, first of all instructed readers, in no uncertain terms, to stop spreading rumours, which “confuse and poison people’s minds, mislead the masses in their understanding of the problem, and create an odious impression on society.” The articles immediately following set the record straight. The “6.28 incident” in Hetian, along with the “7.5” in 2009 in Ürümqi and ‘“4.23” in Bachu, were all “serious, violent, surprise attacks by terrorists” that had been “pre-planned” and supported by a foreign-based terrorist organisation, the East Turkestan Independence Movement, under what the party labels a plan of “sangu shili,” ‘three strand evil influences’.

No Han Chinese or Uighurs I spoke to could tell me what the three strands were. (One of them is bound to be “trying to influence the splitting of the Motherland.”) Likewise none of the Uighurs I asked believed in the existence of the independence movement. But its shortened name in Chinese, “Dong Tu,” was on the lips of every Han when the subject of the disturbances came up.


This being a family trip, we did not linger in Hetian. We did not entirely leave it, however. Before we moved onto the next town we camped out in the hills to the south, without realising it, in the same county, Moyu, as Hanerik. We didn’t mean to be there but we had been stopped by a police checkpoint from reaching our first choice of mountain camp. They told us the road led to the border with Indian-controlled Kashmir. The area was full of terrorists who were escaping from Hanerik. Our second choice scenic spot further along the mountain range was shut down: “for repairs.”

We found a beautiful spot in a meadow by a river, and enjoyed it for a whole day before the police arrived in force to tell us to leave “for our own safety.” We refused, politely. They said there were “bad people” in the area. We said the locals had been most hospitable. They mentioned the disturbance in Hanerik. I asked, once again, “was anyone killed?”

“That is a state secret.”

They insisted that now was a bad time to visit and it would be better all round if we left Xinjiang altogether. (Our local police back home in Zhejiang had also been in touch by phone, to urge us to do the same thing. They also asked Joanna “to tell Mark not to get involved.”) We came to an agreement. We promised to leave in a few days, as we planned anyway, and that we’d call the police if any terrorists came by. The police left. They had fulfilled their task. Or so we thought until 2am, when they returned again and we were dragged bleary-eyed from our tents.

“I am sorry,” the most senior of the officers who had been before said, “but my chief wants to see evidence that we have spoken. Do you mind if I make a video?”

By 4th July, the eve of the anniversary of the 2009 Ürümqi riots, Robert and his son had returned to Shanghai and my family was in Yutian, the next major town along the southern edge of the Taklamakan to the east of Hetian. There were rumours about a curfew and that all Han Chinese shops were to be shut, by official order, as was the thriving local night market.

While we were checking into our hotel, a convoy of military trucks pulled up across the street. An officer leapt out of the jeep in front and ran to let down the tailgates. Soldiers, or rather PAP, poured out and formed up into squads. There were about 200 of them. One squad formed a cordon across the street while the rest double marched to a public park opposite the main mosque, 100 metres down the road. Most of the soldiers—they really do not look like police in the slightest—were equipped with riot shields, helmets and batons, but each squad also included automatic weapons, one sniper rifle, and a dedicated photographer. Through the trees I watched them demonstrating their riot control drills. They were aggressive. The exercise was more like an attack on dug-in defensive position than riot control. Fire support groups covered baton charges to the sound of whistles and a set chorus of battle cries. Despite the heat the men ran at full pelt from place to place. After 10 minutes of intense activity, the soldiers regrouped and double marched, still shouting in unison, back to the trucks.

The next day I walked the quiet streets of the town. There were very few Han Chinese about. The full garrison was out again, but stayed on the trucks, which were driving slowly round the town, loudspeakers blaring warnings. Official shops such as the Post Office and the Xinhua Bookstore, with its copies of the officially-sanctioned Koran on prominent display beside a biography of Deng Xiaoping, were shut. Smaller Han-owned shops and restaurants were mostly open but deserted. I stopped off for a haircut in the old town, the best-preserved original Uighur quarter I saw in Xinjiang. The barber’s television was tuned to the main Xinjiang news channel, in Uighur. It was showing old images of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, news clips from what looked like a genuine attack somewhere in the world (I guessed it was the Algerian oil camp that was attacked in 2012) interspersed with images of the World Uighur Congress meeting in the west. The flags of Germany, France, the US and UK flashed onto the screen. The congress looked like a United Nations meeting, of senior citizen Uighurs, all in traditional caps. Rebiya Kadeer, the chairperson, featured prominently. Then it was back to hazy images of terrorists in training or action and, for the finale, a staged-for-the-cameras attack by Chinese armoured vehicles charging across a plain, guns blazing, soldiers grinning from the hatches. I had been chatting in Chinese to a Uighur businessman while we waited our turn.

“Dong Tu?” I’d asked.

“Who?” he said.

“Three strand evil influence?”

“Three what?”

I pointed at the TV.

“Load of rubbish,” he said.

Back at the hotel, Joanna had received a call from the police. “Tell your husband to go back to the hotel immediately. There is a disturbance in the town. He is in danger. And,” the caller added, “tell him to stop taking photographs.”

She relayed the message. She was nervous. The hotel staff had reinforced the police warning. Together they made it sound as though civil war had broken out on the doorstep.

But on the streets there was no sign of any unrest. By now I was at the gate of one of the major mosques in Yutian. It was 1.30pm on a Friday and hundreds of worshippers were streaming past. The streets around the mosque were a temporary bus park for the worshippers from the surrounding countryside. The barber came by and stopped for a chat. We agreed to meet for dinner. I wondered if the unmarked surveillance car with the dome camera on its roof, right across the road from us, picked up our conversation.

Once prayers had begun I returned to the hotel. Again, there was no sign of any upset. But heading back out to take the dog and children for a walk, we didn’t get far. As we passed a police post a man in a plain T shirt ran out, shouting into his radio, “I’ve got them! I’ve got them!” He motioned to us to stand still. My children looked perplexed. “You must wait for my leader,” the man said.

“How long will that take?”

“Five minutes.” He was waving his hand in the air as if he wanted to be ready to react if I ran.

“I’ll give you two,” I said. “Then we go.”

He bounced around us, talking into his radio. I looked at my watch. “OK,” the police officer said. “He says you can go, but you must go straight back to your hotel and stay there. It is not safe.”

We walked the opposite way to the hotel, along a street where a bustling Friday market was selling watermelon, leather belts, sun hats and kebabs to the mosque crowd.

There are no terrorists in Xinjiang. There is no equivalent of Eta or the IRA. I am sure there are young men who wish there were. If I were stopped and searched on a regular basis; were passed in the street every half hour by a pair of military vehicles that drive around your town non-stop, day and night; and had heavily-armed soldiers practising set attacks beside your card game in the park, let alone having your religious practice monitored on CCTV; your imam censored; your beard shaved off; while all the time being told by the authorities that you and your friends are potential terrorists, I’d be reaching for the fertiliser and sugar and watching for where those vehicles repeatedly go.

The heavy-handed, intimidating style of control that the party is imposing on the Xinjiang Uighurs is not producing the desired effect—a harmonious society with all ethnicities co-existing contentedly. If there is any effect, it is the opposite. If anyone is breeding discontent, and terrorists, it is the authorities. News blackouts, communication shut downs, ridiculous state propaganda—once it has decided its line—do not help. Nor do the rumours that spread like wildfire, propagated by the Uighurs who are desperate for world attention.

It was in Yutian that I heard the most disturbing story, a full week after the Hanerik incident. According to a Han Chinese shopkeeper some criminal Uighurs had come across a party of outsiders—Han or who she did not specify—who were camping in the hills. There were eight of them. The Uighurs slit their throats while they slept.

I suppose that was us.

The only time in five weeks in Xinjiang when I felt a fleeting sense of apprehension, was soon after the police had tried to move us from that campsite. It was dark, Joanna and the children were in the tents, and Robert and I were sitting by the fire. Two young Uighurs drove up fast and hard on motorbikes, parked them under the trees. They ran towards us, ducking under the branches like they were bullets. They had their hands rammed in their pockets.

The men stood in front us and pulled out handfuls of apricots. Without a word they passed them over, smiled and turned to leave.

“Thank you,” we said, in Uighur.