The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Unrest in Xinjiang

A year ago to the day, I met a Uighur shoemaker in Kashgar (read about it here and here). He loved foreigners, because a few years ago, a Westerner found him, a drunkard living on a park bench, and helped him set up a small shop where he now lives.

But he also loved foreigners for the simple fact they weren’t Chinese. Until the Chinese government hires white Americans to spy on its minorities, I was one of the few people he could safely complain to. Like many Uighurs I met on the trip, he was bitter and frustrated. The city he grow up in was being destroyed and replaced by Chinese suburbia. He wasn’t religious, but he felt the only people helping Uighurs were the Islamic groups and an occasional foreigner.

The English-speaking shoemaker spoke about (and sometimes embodied) the disorders like alcoholism and physical abuse that go hand in hand with social disintegration, and Chinese policies are only making the situation worse.

Mäshräps—grass-roots, Islamic social groups designed to supply substitute activities for drinking—were banned in 1995, and today, China banned group prayer in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. Underemployed, oppressed minorities with nothing to do can lead to violence anywhere in the world, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that riots broke out, though I would’ve expected it to happen in cities like Kashgar or Yarkand where tensions were much more palpable a year ago.

I’ve found myself these last few days since riots erupted in Xinjiang imagining what the shoemaker is up to. He’s a sick middle-aged man—not someone you’d think would get involved in something so rowdy as a protest. But he also has nothing to lose. His happy years of playing in Uighur rock band are over. Last year, I saw Chinese troops march through the centre of Kashgar’s Old City everyday, and the shoemaker told me the sight never ceased to anger him.

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