Witness to development in Xinjiang over 35 years

Zafaruddin Mahmood

Recently I had been reading in the western media negative stories and reports about Xinjiang. These are repeated by media in other countries without verifying the facts. Unfortunately, most of the commentators are looking at China/Xinjiang through the eyes of the western media which at times is biased for one reason or the other and thus misleading.

I had spoken with some of the people in media and think tanks in my country; Pakistan was also influenced by these reports and was commenting without any research or making any effort to verify the facts. Surprisingly most of them had never visited China, let alone Xinjiang.

This negative propaganda convinced me that people with firsthand information about China/Xinjiang need to come forward and share their knowledge and experience to negate the baseless propaganda for the benefit of the public at large.
I had been living and working in China since 1976 when I came here as a student and I had the pleasure of visiting Urumqi, Xinjiang as early as in 1984 with a delegation headed by the President of an international bank, which I was working for in Beijing. The trip was organized by China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) and the delegation was accompanied by CITIC officials.

We boarded Air China Flight (Russian Aircraft) from Beijing international airport and reached Urumqi after a technical stopover at LANZHOU. We were welcomed by the officials of Xinjiang Foreign Affairs Office and were taken to “Friendship Guest House”, which at that time was a very ordinary place with simple furniture and basic facilities.

During our few day’s stay at Urumqi, we visited TIANCHI Lake, Museum, Shops, and Mosques and also met with the Governor and senior officials from various government departments, Peoples’ Bank of China and Bank of China.

In every department, tourist spot, or shops we visited, Han and Uighur nationals were working in harmony. At the historical WULUMQI Grand Mosque, we met with the IMAM and held free discussions with him. We were pleased to see that Uighur Muslim kids were studying QURAN and other religious books at the mosque school. Local Uighur Muslims were offering their prayers. Mosque was very well kept and clean. This impressed the delegation members who incidentally were all Muslims.

Next year (1985) I visited Urumqi again to meet with officials of Bank of China to introduce the Travelers Cheques issued by our bank for sale to overseas travelers who were mostly the Uighur Muslims going to Saudi Arabia to perform HAJJ (A Muslim religious ritual). Every year Muslims from Xinjiang and other parts of China travel to Saudi Arabia for this purpose and at that time Bank of China was providing an appropriate quantity of Foreign Currency to every individual for expenses. It is noteworthy that China did not have much Foreign Exchange in those days and there was strict regulation on buying foreign currency. This again impressed me that despite difficulties, the Chinese government is helping members of the Muslim minority to undertake and perform their religious activities.

In 1986, I accompanied a team from the UAE Royal Family for a 21 days excursion in GOBI DESERT. During the trip, we were accompanied by the Director General of the XINJIANG Foreign Affairs Office (A Uighur Muslim) who remained with us throughout the trip to ensure that we are as comfortable as possible and that we get all the supplies including water, petrol, food items and necessary logistics support during the trip. Most of the support staff traveling with us were Uighur Muslims. This was well-considered arrangement as all the visitors were Muslims. Because of curiosity during the visit, I had lengthy discussions with the DG and other members of the team to find out about the lives of Muslims in Xinjiang. There were no complaints and everyone seemed happy and satisfied despite the prevailing economic difficulties. Most of the Uighur Muslims were joining for prayers whenever there was prayer time. This again impressed me but all of us about the religious freedom enjoyed by the minority Muslim community.

Like most of the other parts of China, poor infrastructure was visible everywhere. There were no nice hotels or restaurants, high rise buildings, shopping malls, and very few cars on the streets in Urumqi.
During my several visits afterward, I had been noticing the gradual but visible changes in infrastructure development, new and wider roads, improved street lights, airports, hotels, buildings, shopping malls. In every visit, changes were visible in each area.
The number of vehicles and private cars on the roads was significantly increasing. People were dressing in fashionable clothes. Shopping malls, restaurants, and hotels were crowded which was a clear sign of growing prosperity.
During every visit, I would visit one mosque or the other freely and always found the mosques opened. A number of the students at the schools attached with the selected mosque was either same or increasing. Moreover, students were regularly sent abroad on government expenses to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, and other places for religious studies. Yet another sign of religious freedom. Many students were also going abroad for religious studies on a self-finance basis.

I also had the opportunity of visiting Kashghar, Shihezi, Turphan, and KARAMAY. Signs of development and economic prosperity are visible everywhere. In each of these cities, I also visited the mosques which were no different than those in Urumqi. The rail and road network is as good as in any other part of China and the number of vehicles on the expressways was impressive, yet another indication of the growing prosperity. During the years the number of flights from Urumqi, Kashghar, and other cities in the autonomous region has increased substantially showing enhanced connectivity not only with other parts of China but also to foreign countries.

A number of small and medium-sized private businesses is growing at each place and a new group of private entrepreneurs is emerging not only in big cities but in small towns and the situation in counties is the same.
I met a number of Uighur students at Shanghai and Beijing who are studying at best schools and universities under a special program to uplift the minorities where local governments are subsidizing the expenses.

Based on the firsthand knowledge based on personal observations and experience gained during my 14 visits (mostly private) to Xinjiang since 1984, I can say with authority that people in Xinjiang enjoy the fullest religious freedom as at any other place in the world.
Uighur minorities like all other minorities in China, in fact, are enjoying privileges as compared to their Han countrymen. Just to quote a few examples, considering the food preference of the Uighur Muslims, there was additional meat when it was strictly rationed throughout the country. Special seats are allocated at the top universities for students from minority nationalities including Uighurs. As a special initiative, different municipalities and provincial governments are regularly sponsoring students from minority nationalities including Uighurs at the best schools in their cities. These are just a few examples of the special privileges enjoyed by the minorities in China.

Minorities in China are enjoying complete freedom to practice their values, traditions, cultural activities, language, and religion. Each Central, Provincial, and local government allocates a substantial amount to preserve and maintain these relics and traditions. Children at school are taught their language and books in minority languages are available. Perhaps no other country is making so many efforts and make available so many resources to protect the languages, culture, and values of its minorities as China is doing.

There are miscreants in every society and nationality, China is no exception. Anyone disturbing the law and order and harmony in the society or engaged in criminal activities is dealt with according to the law in any country in the world. As it is the responsibility of every state to protect its citizens from criminals.

I would humbly suggest to the observers and commentators on the situation in Xinjiang to be realistic. Instead of believing in and depending on unreliable reports, they must look at China/Xinjiang through and with their own eyes and then make a true assessment of the situation.

The writer is Policy Advisor to Secretary-General BOAO Forum for Asia, and Executive Secretary-General, International Finance Forum (IFF).