As if to prove the need for Kurbanjan Samat’s mission, the reports about Xinjiang in China’s restive northwest on June 22 weren’t good.
On the same day the ethnic Uighur photographer visited Atlanta to clear up misconceptions, a bomb and knife attack on a police station near his hometown grabbed headlines.
The attack killed 22 and was carried out in Kashgar, not too far from where Mr. Samat grew up in the oasis city of Hotan. It was indicative of the type of violence that has left more than 400 dead in western China over the last five years.
Government outposts have been a frequent target, but the saga took a gruesome turn last March. The government fingered Uighur separatists, as the black-hooded, knife-wielding assailants that slashed and stabbed civilian bystanders at a railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming, killing 29.
Of the few Americans who have heard of Xinjiang, ethnic strife is likely the reason. The region’s main ethnicity — mostly Muslim Uighurs who speak a Turkic language — have chafed at government policies seen as restricting religious freedom and encouraging Han Chinese migration into a region rich with natural resources but poor in job prospects for local minorities.
China’s government, meanwhile, says it’s bringing development and opportunity, ratcheting up security in the meantime. The government said in May it had busted 181 terror cells in the province and had sent out 200,000 government officials to provide agricultural training and listen to the needs of citizens (announcements that were met with some skepticism overseas).
With all this in the headlines, what gets lost is the way Xinjiang’s 13 different ethnic groups have spread throughout China and contributed to its growth, Mr. Samat told Global Atlanta before a presentation at Emory University.
“American understanding of China is very weak. What the general public understands about China comes from the news media, and how much reality can you learn from the news?” he said through a translator.
He says he cried after the Kunming attacks, partly for the victims and partly because he knew media reports would perpetuate stereotypes about Xinjiang. Terrorists should be everyone’s enemy, he said.
“By no means can one terrorist represent an entire ethnic group, and one ethnic group can’t represent a whole region. Each place has good customs and bad customs; you can’t divide people based on their area, because when we’re born and when we die, we’re all the same,” he told Global Atlanta.
Last year, he decided not to cede the power of the story any longer and embarked on a new project he called his “minority report,” aimed at changing perceptions of the diverse Xinjiang people.
The documentary photographer, who has won awards for cultural and travel pieces with China Central Television in Beijing, took some time off and lived on his savings while traveling to 20 cities. He took more than 500 candid photos, interviewing people to capture 100 firsthand stories of Xinjiang people for his book, “I Am From Xinjiang on the Silk Road,” which was released in English in the United States in May.
It aims to counter stereotypes that at best, prevent harmony and at worst, lead to violence.
“When you tell people you’re from Xinjiang, they immediately think, ‘Oh, you like to dance to traditional songs and sell bread, fruit and roasted meat,’” he said. Instead, as he writes in the book, “I want people to put aside their geographic and ethnic backgrounds, rethink relationships, hear real stories, see the real Xinjiang an know their true selves.”
[pullquote]”Each place has good customs and bad customs; you can’t divide people based on their area, because when we’re born and when we die, we’re all the same.”[/pullquote]
The book tracks people from all walks of life, from CEOs to jade peddlers. One story looks at famous actress Tong Liya. Another highlights a Uighur yoga instructor in Guangdong province. Still another shows an ethnic Mongolians and Uzbeks that made new lives in Beijing. One even reaches out and touches Atlanta: tracking a female Uighur attorney who left her 18-month-old son to take an eight-month legal course at Emory and has returned to China to focus on women’s issues among minorities.
Mr. Samat is preaching as much to his own countrymen as he is the international community. The Emory event, in part organized by Jin Jin of the Atlanta International Education Group, was populated almost exclusively by Chinese students. A few were doctoral candidates from Clemson University who had driven a few hours to learn about a culture that, despite being part of their own country, seemed exotic and foreign.
Mr. Samat knows he isn’t typical of his province. He speaks great Mandarin and was encouraged by his father early on not to limit his ambition to the borders of Xinjiang. He learned the lingua franca of the land as a teenager because he wanted to talk with friends. To this day, his best friends are of the Han majority. He and his two brothers have all left the province, while his sister remains there as a Chinese teacher.
That said, he’s frank about the fact that people looked at him differently because of his ethnicity when he moved to Beijing. At first, he strived to prove them wrong, picking up trash on the street and working doubly hard. That is, until a mentor told him that he was playing their game, letting his ethnicity define him.
He doesn’t worry about Xinjiang culture being subsumed by Han Chinese. Instead, he seems more worried about parochialism in his province breeding extremism and division, he said in a lengthy interview translated into English by Foreign Policy’s Tea Leaf Nation channel.
That’s one reason he’ll continue spreading the word about the hardworking people who tell a different story about his homeland, a place of soaring mountains and vast deserts, of abundant produce and natural resources, a melting pot in a country known mostly for its majority culture.
“I want to be a communication bridge.”