Dissent is pure clockwork in far western China
There are few places in the world where the answer to a simple question such as “what’s the time?” can open a Pandora’s box of plots and counter plots, resentments and simmering discontent. But Xinjiang, China’s most remote northwestern province, is just such a place. This immense desert region, which comprises a fifth of China’s landmass, has long been the locus of friction between Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese.
Few would fail to concede that the physical battle for Xinjiang has been settled. Beijing jealously guards the province with battalions of troops and military hardware on standby 24 hours a day. It’s hard to believe that China will ever voluntarily give up the vast gas and oil deposits under the Taklamakan Desert—and the enormous mineral and fossil fuel deposits there for the taking.
But for the Uyghurs, the psychological battle for independence rages on. Particularly in a form of intransigence known as Xinjiang Time, a self-imposed time zone adhered to by Uyghurs, which allows them to live simultaneously with the rest of China—yet be two hours behind Beijing time.
The origins of Xinjiang time are clouded in the midst of rebellion and subterfuge, but never before has “time” become such a political issue. For some Uyghurs, it is the only weapon left in their battle for an independent homeland. Seeing sovereignty come to the former Soviet Central Asian republics in the early ‘90’s was a particularly harsh blow to this at least 16 million-strong national group that more closely allies itself with fellow “believers” in Muslim Central Asia than to the “unbelieving” Chinese.
Geographically speaking China, as with most of the world’s continents, should be divided into several time zones. Even Moscow at the height of its powers relinquished control over the passage of the sun, and allowed several time zones to operate under its control. But Beijing will have none of it. When the capital awakes and the flag is raised in Tiannamen Square, all of China must wake with it.
Beijing’s penchant for qualifying any departure from the accepted definition of a word with the adage “with Chinese characteristics” applies not only to terms such as “Communism,” “democracy,” and “human rights” but also in the remote North West to the very concept of time itself. Life in the Xinjiang “Autonomous” region lends not only new meaning to the term “autonomy” with its Beijing-appointed Han Chinese rulers and puppet Uyghur sympathizers, but “time” too has a peculiar way of bowing to Beijing’s characteristic intransigence.
The dogged imposition of Beijing time across almost 5,000 kms of Middle Kingdom was designed to impose a clockwork homogeny and central control over every movement of its one and a quarter billion people from the raising of the red flag and morning exercises to committee meetings and the setting of the eternal sun. But in Xinjiang, where seeds of mutiny are rarely submerged for long, the Uyghur so-called minority race’s simmering but benign rebellion is reflected in the hands of their watch. A mere glance of someone’s left wrist can be enough to locate a Chinese patriot or a Uyghur dissenter, a believer in “One China” and the simultaneous political and social meltdown of all 100 or so minority groups, or a veiled adherent to the hope that one day Uyghurs will be free to run their own lives. Depending on the hands on one’s watch, an unwitting foreigner can also make friends or enemies for life.
Geographically, Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi is at least two hours behind Beijing, and Kashgar, its furthest western city, another half an hour. Despite Uyghurs’ dealing with this reality by setting their watches to “Xinjiang time,” two hours behind Beijing and living according to the sun, The Han Chinese, indifferent to the reality and answerable only to the party set their watches to Beijing Time, but paradoxically, though none would admit it, live in practice by Xinjiang time. Whereas typical Beijing-ers start work at 8 a.m., have lunch at 1 p.m., and go home at 5 p.m., Xinjiang-based, Beijing-timers start the day at 10 a.m., have lunch at 3 p.m. and go home at 7 p.m.
Uyghur and Chinese live in two separate but parallel worlds. Uyghurs feel persecuted and oppressed by their pork-eating “conquerors,” while the Chinese are on the whole oblivious to the differences and get on with life in an increasingly Han-dominated Xinjiang. Friendship with members of both groups, while possible, necessitates considerable skill and maneuverability. One wrong move, at its most harmless involves promising to be in two places at one time—or missing a train. At its worst, a foreigner can be accused by Uyghur friends of betrayal or by Chinese officialdom of sympathising with terrorists or encouraging dissent.
Friendships are won or lost on the basis of the hands on your watch. The clocks in your house can win an ally in an instant, or cause deep offence and arouse suspicion.
For a Han Chinese, Xinjiang is China, always has been and will continue to be. For a Uyghur, it is East Turkestan, always was and always will be. There can be few places in the world where the simple matter of time is such a politically charged commodity. To live at peace with both sides of the political chasm involves considerable diplomatic skill and not a little “flexibility with Chinese characteristics.”
Ruth Ingram is a writer living in China. She has also written for The Guardian.