Getting Along with the Invaders: Bishkek Versus Kashgar

07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, the New York Times published an article on the relocation of the Uighur detainees from Guantanamo to the islands of Palau and Bermuda (a great deal considering the first batch of Uighurs who left Gitmo went to the slightly less glamorous Albania). The article roughly coincided with my own return from China's Western regions. My experiences out West revealed the simmering race relations between the Han and Uighur peoples in the province, a factor that helps explain the necessity of sending these men to Palau and not back to China, where they would surely have met an expeditious demise.

Before I traveled to Xinjiang, however, I made a brief stopover in China's neighbor to the West -- the achingly beautiful mountain nation of Kyrgyzstan. Despite the scenery, I was more impressed by the race relations of the local Kyrgyz and other peoples, especially in contrast to what I saw in the subsequent portion of my trip in Xinjiang.

Both the Uighurs and the Kyrgyz have their own respective tumultuous relations with their "big brother" neighbors of China and Russia, respectively, over the past centuries. While my Central Asian history is far from complete, it is safe to say that neither of the two major powers was very kind to its smaller protectorates. Despite this, Kyrgyzstan could not feel more different than Xinjiang in terms of race relations -- the people actually appeared to like each other.

When the USSR collapsed, many Russian, Uzbek, and Kazahs were left in a new independent nation that bore the name of another ethnic group. While a good deal of these people left, many stayed. Bishkek, Kyrygzstan's capital, is a prime example of this -- a mélange of peoples and ethnicities to a degree I did not expect. We would regularly encounter pairs of Kyrgyz and Russians, walking, chatting, and living life together in -- from an outsider's perspective -- relative harmony. Many more still were of mixed blood, suggesting that this affection was not completely a misperception on my part. Our tour guide -- a white man whose parents were forced to leave Ukraine as a child -- considered himself to be exclusively Kyrgyz. He would berate us if we referred to him as anything but Kyrgyz. Adding to the mix, the receptionist at our hotel considered herself Russian but held a Kyrgyz passport and had never been to Russia. She indicated that the flexibility the Kyrgyz have with their identity lends itself to a stable -- if not amicable -- relationship with the other ethnic groups. When asked how the Kyrgyz and Russians could get along despite their less than friendly past, she stated: "We get along because we are neighbors. What else can we do?" While certainly I could be missing a hidden cultural fissure, from all outward appearances, Kyrgyzstan is getting along just fine.

Xinjiang was the exact opposite. In Xinjiang, the ethnic animosity is palpable. Not only did we not see any interaction between the Han and Uighur people beyond the perfunctory exchanges in stores and restaurants, we witnessed downright hostility. Our first glimpse came when we visited the famous Sunday Bazaar in Kashgar. There, amidst the din of hawkers, our recently befriended shopkeeper told us in hushed tones of his deep hatred for the Han. Understandably so, as his two brothers protested a government plan some years ago were quickly whisked away by secret police in the night. He hasn't heard from them since and can't -- like most Uighurs -- obtain a passport for fear of flight risk. On the other side, our Han cab driver regularly denigrated the Uighurs and our Uighur driver happily returned the favor. We even saw a Uighur shopkeeper tell Han tourists that there were no computers for use in his shop while standing next to two empty computers with signs blaring "Free internet for customers" in front of their faces. Needless to say, Bishkek and Kashgar were night and day when it came to the interactions and relations between the "invaders" and the "invaded."

While I will not, nor cannot, attempt to posit why this discrepancy exists, I would venture to guess that the fall of the Soviet Union has a great deal to do with it. I would surmise that in the absence of Moscow's zeal to maintain national unity, Kyrgyzstan enjoys a more relaxed atmosphere in which to compose just what modern "Kyrgyz" citizenship means in relation to ethnicity. On the other side, the increasing aggressiveness with which the Chinese Communist Party is trying to Sinofy Xinjiang and marginalize the Uighurs only fans the growing flames of hatred on both sides. Moreover, the income gap between ethnicities in Kyrgyzstan cannot possibly be as oppressive as the Han and Uighur divide in Xinjiang. All these factors compound a situation in Xinjiang so flammable that America sees the need to send innocent Uighur men into exile in the South Pacific rather than reunite them with their families thousands of miles away.