When, on October 27, a Uyghur man, his wife and mother, crashed their car in Tiananmen Square, near Mao’s famous portrait, killing two and injuring dozens, China’s response followed an established pattern. After a couple of days of silence, during which only a few sketchy details were made public, Meng Jianzhu – Chief of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the Communist Party of China Central Committee – officially said that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was behind the attack.
The ETIM is a terrorist organization allegedly based in Pakistan, and although information is still sketchy, it is generally said to have between 300 and 500 members. Meng Jianzhu mentioned it as he was in Uzbekistan for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting, stressing the ETIM’s connections in Central and Western Asia, perhaps as a way to emphasize that terrorism in Xinjiang is not only a Chinese problem.
Although most Western scholars and Uyghur activists reject China’s official narrative, pointing to the lack of evidence provided and to the internal nature of Uyghur grievances, Beijing’s fears and claims seem to have significant international repercussions. Pakistan, in particular, has been repeatedly pressured to monitor, strike and – at times – hand over Uyghur militants hiding within its borders. Less known, however, is the extent of China’s influence within Pakistan, and its impact on the lives of a few hundred Uyghur migrant families who live there. The stories of these families, moreover, are revealing for a number of reasons, as they often go back well before the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the founding of the People’s Republic of China. What follows is based on several months of research between Xinjiang and Pakistan, and tries to shed some light on this untold, yet fascinating, story.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Sultan Khan’s father was born in Baluchistan, today Pakistan’s westernmost province. He was a trader, travelling through Afghanistan, British India, and what was known as Chinese Turkestan, or Xinjiang. In 1949, as Mao’s Red Army took control of the country, he found himself on the wrong side of the border, in south Xinjiang. Back then, the partition of the subcontinent into two hostile states, India and Pakistan, had already triggered a war, and the situation south of the Karakoram range did not look encouraging. He decided to stay, hoping that life under the communists would bring him fortune, and married a local woman in Yarkand. After a few years, however, when the Maoists had confiscated all his property and the failure of the Great Leap Forward had brought famine throughout the country, Khan Snr. decided that he had had enough and applied to the Pakistani authorities for expatriation. Years later, in 1967, he was eventually allowed to move to his native country with his wife and three children. It took them more than fifty days to cross the high passes of the Karakoram and reach northern Pakistan. Once in Gilgit, Sultan Khan learned from his father the art of trading. With the Chinese border still sealed, they established a successful business importing goods from Afghanistan and “down country.” In 1985, Sultan Khan’s father died in Gilgit, and one year later Sultan Khan took his mother to his native town, Yarkand, through the newly opened Karakoram Highway.
Sultan Khan calls himself a “Kashgari,” although at times he seems to prefer the expression “ex-Chinese.” Including his, there are about 300 Kashgari families in Pakistan, many of them living in the cities of Rawalpindi and Gilgit. The Kashgari are Uyghur migrants from Xinjiang, whose families moved to Pakistan between the 1940s and 1980s. Most of them, like Sultan Khan’s father, were originally from the subcontinent, but in some cases entire families left Xinjiang out of desperation, without a clue as to where they were going.
Mohammad Tursun was one of them. I meet Mohammad Tursun in Rawalpindi, near his house in Westridge. Many Uyghur migrants, the Kashgari, live in this neighborhood, where the local mosque used to be called “Turkestani.” Turson has a handsome white beard, and wears a white shalwar kameez with a black waistcoat which he keeps open as he walks with the help of a stick. He tells me that he was born in Yarkand in 1945, to a wealthy family of traders. Before the communist revolution, his uncle was a carpet dealer. The uncle was from Yarkand, but through his business he had many Afghan and Kashmiri friends. After the communist state confiscated his land he decided to leave China. He thus asked for expatriation in Afghanistan, claiming that his family was originally from there. It was a lie, but the Afghani ambassador believed him and the Chinese government allowed him to leave. It was 1961 and Mohammed Tursun was 16 years old. He and his uncle, who had adopted him, walked for three months to get from Yarkand to Badakhshan, in Afghanistan. They were not the only ones. Between 1961 and 1964, hundreds of Uyghur families went to Afghanistan, most of them lying about their origins.
One of these families was that of Karim Abdullah. Like Mohammed Tursun and Sultan Khan, he is now living in Pakistan, and despite his advanced age maintains vivid memories of his youth in Xinjiang. “I used to have my own business in Yarkand,” he tells me, “but with the communists I was forced to work in a cooking oil factory that was built by the government on the land confiscated from my father.” When he migrated to Afghanistan, Abdullah was 26 years old. Like Tursun, he had to walk across the Pamir to Badakhshan, where he stayed for a month before moving to Kabul.
Once in Kabul, Abdullah opened a small shop and married a local woman, with whom he would have five children. Meanwhile, Tursun worked as a laborer on various construction sites across the country, while his uncle earned a living making manta (Uyghur dumpling) at the bazaar. In 1973, when Mohammed Daoud Khan abolished the monarchy in a non-violent coup, Tursun married another Uyghur migrant from Xinjiang. Then the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and Abdullah and Tursun found themselves on opposite sides. Tursun was forced to work as an interpreter for the Russians, while Abdullah elected to join the mujaheddin. After the war, both Tursun and Abdullah decided to leave Afghanistan. Like many other refugees, they moved to Pakistan, and eventually joined the community of Kashgari families in Rawalpindi. Today, as the three of us drink a milk tea in Rawalpindi, they agree that the time of the Soviet war in Afghanistan was the most miserable of their lives.
The Karakoram Highway
After the Karakoram Highway was opened to the public in 1986, most Kashgari in Pakistan took the opportunity to visit their families back in Xinjiang. Many of them used their connections to launch profitable import-export businesses along the road. Back then, Sultan Khan tells me, “the Xinjiang government invited us to visit China and do business there.” Like many other Kashgari he began to import silk, and soon became one of the most successful businessmen in Gilgit. Now, however, because of the depreciation of the Pakistani rupee, this kind of business is not as profitable as it used to be, and as he puts it, “there is too much competition.” His business has thus once again changed, and he is now the owner of different shops where he sells European watches. The first time I meet him, in Rawalpindi, is in the back of one of his new shops, which is getting ready to open.
Khan’s new shop is in the so-called “China Market,” a street where many Kashgari sell imported fabrics and manage their warehouses. The area is renowned for once being an important stopover for Uyghur pilgrims going to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. After the Karakoram Highway opened, many Uyghurs from Xinjiang came to Pakistan to obtain their Saudi visa. In Rawalpindi, wealthy Uyghurs from Saudi Arabia donated two houses – renamed Khotan House and Kashgar House – which functioned as free hotels for Uyghur pilgrims waiting for their visas to be processed. They are both located near the China Market. Khotan House is a three-floor building with a few dozen rooms overlooking a small courtyard. Each room has two bunk beds and a small table, while half of the courtyard is occupied by a pray ground covered with small rugs. The only piece of decoration is an old picture showing General Zia-ul-Haq and the Chinese consul welcoming a group of Uyghur pilgrims. During my visit I was told that at times pilgrims were so numerous that many had to sleep on the naked floor in the rooms and in the courtyard. None of them, however, was ever charged a single rupee for their stay. In 2006, the Chinese and Saudi governments signed an agreement that allowed pilgrims to fly directly from Beijing, and Uyghurs from Xinjiang stopped going to Pakistan on their way to the Hajj. Kashgar House and Khotan House closed, and the buildings are now used by Kashgari traders as warehouses.
As we drink a second cup of tea in the back of his new shop, Sultan Khan tries to explain the peculiar position of the Kashgari. “Our fathers are from Pakistan and our mothers from China,” he explains, “we belong to both countries and we represent an important bridge between them.” In the 1990s, for instance, he says that many Kashgari used to work as interpreters and facilitators for the Uyghur pilgrims coming from Xinjiang. Others, like Sultan Khan himself, were doing business between the two countries. The in-between nature of the Kashgari is difficult to contest. It emerges from their stories, and it is mirrored in their businesses and activities. It does not always represent, however, a comfortable situation. Qayyum, one of Mohammed Tursun’s friends, has quite a different story.
Qayyum, whose grandfather was originally from Kashmir, was born in Yarkand and moved to Pakistan in 1967, when he was 15. He still remembers how, with his family, they climbed over the Karakoram range into Pakistan: “There was no proper road, we had to climb through narrow paths and I remember that we reached the border at sunset. Nobody was there, we slept under the open sky and in the morning we realized that my mother was dead. We buried her there, then we moved down toward Gilgit.” Qayyum married shortly after he arrived in Rawalpindi, and began to work at a local factory. Poor and uneducated, he managed to make just enough to sustain his family. Local Pakistanis treated them well, he tells me, but from the beginning, for some reason, they called them “Russians.” Now all he wants is good education for his children and grandchildren. By the end of his story, he is almost in tears: “I had no education in either China or Pakistan. I spent all my life in pain and anger. When I was young the Chinese snatched our land from my father, then they put him in jail. I came to Pakistan and people called me Russian, or Chinese. When I go to China they call me Pakistani. I didn’t have a life or an identity, only anger.”
From Gilgit to Beijing
Gilgit, in the north of Pakistan, has always been a major gateway for traders and pilgrims coming from Central Asia and Western China. When some Uyghur families first moved to Pakistan from their homes in Xinjiang, they stopped in Gilgit. Many stayed, others moved south toward Rawalpindi. Still others went further away, toward Turkey, Europe, or the United States. For those who stayed, however, Gilgit soon become their new home, and although people kept calling these migrants “Kashgari,” the migrants themselves came to think of themselves as Pakistani.
The first time I meet one of those Kashgari is in Beijing, in one of China’s most famous universities: Tsinghua. Salman is doing a master’s degree there, and warmly welcomes me into the room he shares with a Mongolian student on the tenth floor of one of the dormitories. “I’m from Pakistan, I’m Pakistani,” he says, “but I’m from Xinjiang too, my parents are from Xinjiang.” Salman is 21 years old, and although he was born in Gilgit, he grew up in Islamabad. Sadly, his story is not exceptional. As the result of repeated sectarian violence in the area, he tells me that over the last 20 years many Kashgari families have left Gilgit and moved south, to Rawalpindi. “But it is not always easy to leave your home, some people cannot,” he adds, “my dad for instance, he stayed in Islamabad for two years, but now he’s back in Gilgit!.”
Months later, in Gilgit, I meet Salman’s father, a successful businessman dealing mostly in silk from Hangzhou. He is one of the leaders of the local Kashgari community, with good connections with the Chinese embassy in Islamabad. “Many Kashgari families used to be very poor,” he recounts, “now with the help of the Chinese government we are trying to help them.” His son, Salman, is studying at Tsinghua with a Chinese scholarship, and half a dozen other Kashgari are studying Mandarin at Minzu University, also in Beijing. The Chinese embassy, he tells me, is also providing school fees for Kashgari children in Pakistan from primary to high school, and some money also goes to widows and families in difficulties.
The Overseas Chinese Association
Salman’s father, as most Kashgari in Gilgit and Rawalpindi, is a member of the Overseas Chinese Association. It is through the Association that money is distributed, yet feelings on this vary. Akbarjan, who runs a small shop near Gilgit’s main Sunni mosque, has a lot to say about it. “The Association was created in 2003, before that the Chinese government wasn’t interested in us,” he tells me as he pours me a cup of tea. “Since 2003,” he continues, “the Association has received about 16 million rupees ($150,000) from the Chinese government, and the Kashgari have now better education and find better jobs.” Another man, whose family moved here from Yarkand in 1952 and who prefers to stay anonymous, tells me a different story. “The Chinese government isn’t really doing anything for us,” he whispers as we chat in a small teahouse in the center of Gilgit, “they give money to some people, but then these people use the money for themselves and the others don’t get anything.”
The Association, in fact, operates with little transparency. Nobody was able to tell me how the money is distributed, or based on what criteria some people received scholarships and other benefits. Everybody, however, directed me to one person: Raza Khan.
Khan, whose mother was Uyghur and father Pashtun, has been the leader of the Overseas Chinese Association since its foundation. A wealthy businessman and owner of a steel mill in Islamabad, Khan is well known and respected by all the Kashgari I met. Unfortunately, he died during my time in the region, and I only had the opportunity to speaker briefly on the phone with him. I learned, however, that he directly received the funding for the Association from the Chinese embassy in Islamabad, and he personally distributed it to local leaders in different cities around Pakistan. If, through this system, Raza Khan managed to make many friends, he also had a few enemies.
Raza Khan’s most severe critic is surely Umer, who tells me his story over the course of several meetings at his house in Rawalpindi. Umer’s family was originally from Kashgar, and moved to Pakistan in 1948. Born in Rawalpindi, he worked in Saudi Arabia with his brother for a few years, as many Pakistanis did in the 1970s and 1980s. When he came back to Pakistan, between 1986 and 2006, he was in charge of Khotan House and Kashgar House. In 2008, Umer founded with his brother and four other people the Umer Uyghur Trust, with the aim of teaching Uyghur language and culture to the youngest generations of Kashgari in Rawalpindi. “Education,” Umer says over lunch at his house, “is the basic right of every person. We just want to teach our culture and our language to out children.” So Umer opened a small school near his house, in Westridge, where most Kashgari live. Soon after the school was opened he received visits from different “Pakistani agencies” pressuring him to close it, as it was endangering the good relations between China and Pakistan. Eventually, Umer claims, under Chinese pressure a group of men from some agency came to the school and destroyed everything, while his name and that of his brother were put on the Exit Control List, thus preventing them from leaving the country. Umer was accused of being in contact with Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress, which the Chinese government considers a terrorist organization and holds responsible for the deadly Urumqi riots of 2009. Umer claims that his connection with the Congress has nothing to do with politics, and that he simply aims to learn about Uyghur history and culture.
At the time Umer’s school was forced to close, a new “Montessori school” opened in the neighborhood. The principal of the school – a Punjabi man with little interest in political feuds within the community of Kashgari – told me that he was first contacted by Raza Khan and the Overseas Chinese Association in 2010. They were interested, he told me, in opening a school in the area for the children of the Kashgari families. They eventually found a way to collaborate, and with the financial assistance of the Association the school is now moving into a new, four-floor building. The Chinese ambassador also visited the school, and donated 16 computers and books for the school’s library. At the time we spoke, the principal told me that about 150 Kashgari children were currently enrolled in the school, all their fees and expenses paid by the Association. “We also have a plan to teach their language [Uyghur],” he tells me, “but the Association is in charge of that and I honestly don’t know.”
Umer is very critical of the new school. “The only reason Raza Khan made that school is because we made our own school,” he says angrily. “The [Chinese] embassy is using Raza Khan, he does everything they tell him to do. The embassy told him that we were manipulating Uyghur children in our school, and he had to make a new one. And you know why? Because he’s a good businessman, and he has a lot of contacts with Chinese companies.” Umer, moreover, does not seem to believe that Uyghur language will ever be taught at the Montessori school. “Even if they were to teach Uyghur,” he complains, “they will teach their own version of what Uyghur culture is, not what it really is.”
Where the truth lies is quite difficult to tell, particularly in a situation like this where politics seem to be mixed with personal rivalries. What is certain, however, is that over the last decade the Chinese government, through its embassy in Islamabad, has actively began to interact with the Kashgari community in Pakistani. Although the activities and modalities of these relations remain obscure, it is significant that they have taken place under the framework of a Chinese overseas community. As a result of the Chinese embassy’s activism, the Kashgari community seemed to have split along political lines. If Umer represents the strongest voice of local dissent, many are still dubious about China’s real goals and intentions. Although all the Kashgari are proud of their origins, many struggle to define themselves as Chinese, and few have ever thought about moving back to Xinjiang. “We are Muslims,” Akbarjan told me in his shop in Gilgit, “and here we can practice our religion easily and freely.” For most of the Kashgari, China ultimately seems to be little more than an opportunity. An opportunity for education, like the kids at the Montessori school or Salman at Tsinghua University; for business, like Raza Khan or Salman’s father; and for re-discovering an identity, like Umer and his Uyghur Trust.
There is one thing, eventually, that all the Kashgari I have met during months of fieldwork in Pakistan seem to have in common. They were all well aware that in recent years the Chinese government has often blamed Pakistani-based Uyghur terrorists for repeated acts of violence in Xinjiang. Irrespective of their political ideas, activities or background, these Kashgari asked me to write about them, describing them for what they are: traders, laborers, teachers, businessmen, but not terrorists. Although unable to provide a number, they all admitted that some Uyghurs were probably involved with militant groups along the Afghan border. None of the Kashgari I met denied that. Yet as Salman told me from his Tsinghua dorm room, “They are a minority, probably just a very few people. These people shouldn’t be able to hurt us, we are a peaceful community.”
Alessandro Rippa is a Ph.D. student in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He recently concluded a year of ethnographic research on the Karakoram Highway between Xinjiang and Pakistan. You can follow Alessandro on Twitter @AlessandroRippa.