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Discovering Xinjiang
A vast land with a mix of people of different ethnic groups and religions
By Yu Lintao | NO. 24 JUNE 16, 2016

    

A Uygur student at the Urumqi Senior High School in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, shows his musical talent to the class on May 24 (ZHANG LEI) 

'In all, there are 24,800 venues for religious activities in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, about 24,400 of which are Muslim mosques. Almost every village in Xinjiang has a mosque," said Muhtar Eshan, Deputy Director of Xinjiang's Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, when meeting a group of journalists, either domestic or foreign, at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute in Urumqi, capital city of the autonomous region in northwest China, on May 24.

"This is different from what I had learned before," said Thean Lee Cheng from The Star, Malaysia's largest paid-for English-language newspaper by circulation. She said that most of what she had learned about Xinjiang talked about how the government bans religious activities. Of course, she added, that information had come mostly from Western media.

This was Thean's first opportunity to visit Xinjiang to cover stories in the region, and so did Mark Mallabone, feature editor of The West Australian, who had a similar impression.

Their preconceptions of Xinjiang were challenged after they were able to experience the region by themselves. During their tour, they discovered that there were many different types of mosques belonging to Uygur, Hui and Kazak communities.

"I am really surprised by the diversity of Xinjiang's ethnic groups, their uniqueness and well-preserved cultures," said Mallabone at the end of the trip.

Although it is named Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the provincial-level administrative region is actually a multi-ethnic area with Uygur as the dominant ethnic group. According to Eshan, people of 47 ethnic groups live in the region, and 13 of those ethnic groups, including Uygur, Han, Kazak, Tajik, Hui, Mongol and Xibo, have been prevalent in the region for many generations.

Statistics provided by Eshan show that by 2014, the population of Xinjiang was around 23 million, while the Uygur population numbered around 10 million.

The region's multitudinous ethnic minority groups live side by side, often within the same communities. Traditionally, Uygur people live in many different places in Xinjiang, but they are concentrated in the southern part of the region, Eshan told Beijing Review.

On the streets of Xinjiang's cities including Urumqi, Khorgos, Yining and Bole, people speaking different languages, such as Uygur, Mandarin Chinese, Kazak and Mongolian, could be seen everywhere.

A student defends his thesis before graduating from the Xinjiang Islamic Institute in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on May 24 (YU LINTAO) 

Freedom of belief 

With so many ethnic groups living in Xinjiang, religious beliefs vary from Islam to Buddhism. Islam, though, is the dominant religion.

A white paper entitled Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang, published by the Chinese Government in early June, shows that five major religions are currently practiced in Xinjiang, which are Islam, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Taoism.

According to the document, 24,800 venues for religious activities, with 29,300 clerical personnel, exist in Xinjiang. Among the venues, there are some 24,400 mosques, 59 Buddhist temples, 227 Protestant churches or meeting halls, 26 Catholic churches or meeting halls, one Taoist temple, and three Orthodox churches or meeting halls and dozens of religion institutes and schools.

"Among the major religions in Xinjiang, Islam has the most followers. A total of 13 million people from 10 ethnic groups, such as Uygur, Hui, Kazak and Tajik, believe in Islam," Eshan said. 

To satisfy believers' religious needs, Xinjiang has established eight religious colleges, including the Xinjiang Islamic Institute and the Xinjiang Islamic School, to train clerical personnel. According to the white paper, since 2001, the State Administration for Religious Affairs has held 12 courses on Islamic scripture interpretation, training more than 500 clerical personnel for Xinjiang. The Xinjiang Buddhist Association also holds regular training sessions on Buddhist knowledge for monasterial personnel.

Xinjiang Islamic Institute, founded in 1987, is one of China's eight Islamic institutes. By the end of 2015, 689 students had gained a bachelor's degree and graduated from the school, and in 2001-15, the institute held 132 training sessions for 28,665 clerical personnel. Furthermore, in order to train high-caliber clerics, Xinjiang has sent 70 people since 2001 for further studies at Islamic higher-learning institutions in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other countries.

Abdul Keyum, who comes from south Xinjiang's Hotan Prefecture, has been studying at the institute for four years. After one more year, he will graduate and return to his hometown to serve as a clergy member in the local mosque. Keyum told Beijing Review that he is proud of studying at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute, where he gets the opportunity to learn from erudite teachers and exchange ideas with learned imams.

Every day, besides engaging in all kinds of courses related to Islam and praying at a mosque five times, Keyum also finds time to play basketball with classmates. And, just like young people elsewhere in China, he also likes using social media such as WeChat to talk with family and friends in his spare time.

"Religious education is a proper way to prevent the spread of religious extremism," said Maulana Adudulrekep Tumniaz, President of the Xinjiang Islamic Institute.

Over the past several years, China has suffered an increasing number of terrorist attacks driven by the spread of religious extremism, with Xinjiang as a major victim.

According to Maulana Tumniaz, Islamic doctrine requires adherents to do good and to cherish lives. It forbids killing or suicide, but religious extremism violates the doctrine. The Muslim population of Xinjiang has reached approximately 13 million and constitutes over half of China's total Muslim population. Thus, guiding them in the right direction and keeping them away from religious extremism by promoting Islamic education is also a matter of national security.

Normal religious activities are protected by the Chinese Government. According to Eshan, since 1996 Xinjiang has arranged charter flights to take more than 3,000 Muslims annually to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. Every year, the Xinjiang Regional Government funds the pilgrimage with millions of yuan, which pays for the travelers' accommodation, medical care, transportation and other needs. Since the 1980s, more than 50,000 people from Xinjiang have visited Mecca for the pilgrimage.

The recent white paper also shows that to expand the means by which believers acquire religious knowledge, the Xinjiang Regional Government has also taken many measures. The document says religious classics and books, including the Koran and writings by Islamic scholar Al-Sahih Muhammad Ibn-Ismail al-Bukhari, have been translated and published in the Uygur, Mandarin Chinese, Kazak and Kirgiz languages. The New Collection of Waez's Speeches series, a kind of Islam expostulation, and the magazine, China's Muslims, are published with a total combined circulation of over 1.76 million. Religious classics on Buddhism and Christianity have also been published and distributed.

From 2014 to 2015, the Xinjiang Regional Government distributed a combined total of over 1 million copies of 43 Islamic publications in various ethnic minority languages, including over 230,000 copies of the new Koran and over 29,000 copies of Basic Knowledge of Islam, both in the Uygur language. The China Islamic Association provides a Uygur-language version of its website, and the Xinjiang Islamic Association publishes the magazine Xinjiang Muslims in the Uygur, Mandarin Chinese and Kazak languages, providing free copies to mosques and clerical personnel. It has also set up the Xinjiang Muslims website in the Uygur and Mandarin Chinese languages.

Mayinuer (center), the host of a Uygur family, caters to tourists at Yangbulake Village, Huocheng County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on May 29 (YU LINTAO) 

Unique policies 

Statistics from the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences show that in the late 19th century, the Uygur population in Xinjiang was about 1.5 million. When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the population of Uygur people in the region had grown to around 3.29 million. Now, the figure has tripled to reach 10 million, and the growth rate is slightly higher than the national average.

Eshan, who is also a Uygur, said the rapid growth of Xinjiang's Uygur population is a symbol of China's ethnic policy, which offers preferential measures for the social development of ethnic minority groups.

In the late 1970s, China adopted family planning policy to curb population growth in order to accelerate the development of the country. The policy was basically implemented among the majority Han ethnic group, while ethnic minority groups were rarely affected.

Generally, regional autonomy for minorities is the most prominent of China's ethnic policy. Under the system, members of ethnic minority groups in autonomous regions are entitled to exercise the democratic right of managing their own internal affairs.

The system of ethnic regional autonomy also guarantees ethnic minorities' rights to use their own languages and follow their own cultures. According to Eshan, primary and middle school teaching within Xinjiang is conducted in one or more of seven languages, including Uygur, Kazak, Mandarin Chinese, and Mongolian. Furthermore, radio and TV programs are broadcast in one or more of five languages, and books and electronic publications are distributed in up to six languages.

Members of ethnic minority groups also enjoy a number of preferential treatments. For instance, in addition to state official holidays and festivals, ethnic minority groups' traditional festivals are also granted as legal holidays; in Xinjiang, compulsory education is completely free of charge, and in the southern part of the region, a policy of 14 years of free education has been implemented, five years more than most parts of the country; ethnic minority group students, meanwhile, even enjoy college entrance examination privileges, as they can be awarded bonus marks just for their identity.

Aitella Emet, a Uygur girl from a village belonging to south Xinjiang's Kashgar, now studies at the Department of Dance of the Xinjiang Arts Institute. She told Beijing Review that although her family is not wealthy, her schooling imposes no burden on her family as the government provides the education fee. Emet is now studying hard to become an actress so that she can help improve her family's livelihood following graduation.

Dong Wei, a Han Chinese aged around 40, is a bus driver for tourists in Yining in north Xinjiang. Dong's grandfather migrated to Xinjiang from Gansu Province in the 1940s due to war, and his family has been living in Yining ever since. Dong told Beijing Review that he feels a little jealous of the preferential treatments enjoyed by ethnic minority groups.

As part of measures to promote economic development in ethnic minority regions and help improve job prospects for their people, the Chinese Government is also promoting bilingual education in Xinjiang involving Mandarin Chinese and minority languages.

Statistics from the Xinjiang Regional Government show that, since 2004, the Central Government and local authorities have invested a total of about 10 billion yuan ($1.52 billion) in promoting bilingual education in the region. Over 2 million students have had access to such education.

This year, the Central Government has invested over 1 billion yuan ($152 million) to build 552 bilingual kindergartens in Xinjiang, mainly in the southern part and rural areas. The regional government aims to ensure that 85 percent of pre-school children across the region have access to education by 2020.

Dilinazha Duolikun is a 17-year-old student at a senior high school in Urumqi. She dreams of becoming a biologist. To make her wish come true, Duolikun said bilingual education and mastering Mandarin Chinese are fundamental.

"Mandarin Chinese is the language used by the largest number of people in the world. It is also the carrier of much world-class knowledge and technology. Mastering this language can give me a much larger space for development," Duolikun told Beijing Review.

In addition, the young Uygur woman said another reason she should master Mandarin is that she is Chinese. "Uygur is my native dialect. Learning Uygur can help us promote and preserve Uygur culture. And, learning Mandarin Chinese can help us promote the culture of the whole Chinese nation," said Duolikun.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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