The Uyghurs and the Han: 1 World, 2 Universes

A face scan checkpoint to exit the high-speed train in Turpan. The line on the left side which goes through a simple metal gate held open by an officer is for Han people.

Imagine a world where two separate peoples live side-by-side, but in parallel universes. One sets its clock to Beijing time and the other to Central Asian, two hours behind. The majority population is largely oblivious of and disinterested in the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the other. The cultural and social backgrounds of the two groups are governed by principles so diverse that it has become impossible to live together in peace and thus the government has decided that the only way to achieve its objectives is to clamp down and imprison anyone it deems a threat to the status quo.

This is Xinjiang, a Muslim, so-called autonomous region in the far west of China. The Turkic, largely Islamic people of Xinjiang – most notably the Uyghur minority group — have more in common with their Islamic neighbors in the five Central Asian countries to the west than with atheistic and quasi-Confucian Beijing, which has stepped up an across-the-board sinicization drive under President Xi Jinping. A vocal and sometimes militant Uyghur independence movement has also complicated relations with Beijing and estranged the majority Han, who see Xinjiang as an inalienable part of China.