East Asian Studies series examines Chinese Uyghur culture

Dr. Tugrul Keskin, assistant professor of International and Middle East Studies at Portland State, spoke on the politics, history and culture of the Uyghur in Xinjiang, China, on Saturday, Jan. 10 in Smith Memorial Student Union.

The Uyghur are a Muslim-Turkish ethnic group in the northwestern corner region of China, which borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Russia and Mongolia.

The Uyghur are Turks who have lived in the area for more than 1,000 years. Their descendants have spread to surrounding Turkish regions in Russia and Eastern Europe and to Turkey.

Xinjiang, where the Uyghur live, was established by China in 1955 as an autonomous region. Xinjiang translates to “new territory.”

The region is desert in the south and high elevation mountains in the north. Today the population is around 22 million.

“In 1955 when Xinjiang was establish, 95 percent of the population was Uyghur, today it is 50/50 Uyghur and Chinese,” Keskin said.

Katherine Morrow, the program manager for International Affairs at PSU, said in introducing the lecture that Xinjiang is “a region where not much is known.”

“It is historically significant due to its central location along the Silk Road, an interstate highway of the ancient world, so to speak and is thus a crossroad between various Eastern and Western civilizations,” Morrow said later in an interview with the Vanguard.

Keskin said Xinjiang is the original homeland of the Turks, who then migrated from the area. Keskin himself is originally from Turkey.

“We speak similar languages, it’s maybe 60 percent similar,” Keskin said.

Keskin received his Ph.D in Sociology from Virginia Tech University before coming to PSU in 2009. Nearly a week after graduating he jumped in a U-Haul and drove all the way to Portland in three days.

Before speaking, Keskin had just returned from a 10-day trip lecturing about the Uyghur in China, Switzerland, Turkey and Germany. His topics included “Emergence of Modern Uyghur Nationalism,” “American Hegemony” and “Pan-Turkism,” which dealt with the creation of a Turkish state in the region near where the Uyghur and other Turks live.

“The Xinjiang region is one of the most important issues for China at the moment,” Keskin said. He then pointed to Uyghur nationalism and U.S. support of it as a specifically important challenge for China.

Xinjiang is the biggest region in China and borders many important countries. Keskin noted it is necessary for trade routes and that China is building railroads from Xinjiang’s biggest city of Urumqi to Turkey and Moscow.

“China has made a $70 billion oil deal with Iran recently and is targeting the Middle East as an oil source and a market to sell to. Electronics, for example,” Keskin said.

Goods imported from Europe, the Middle East or Western Africa could travel by train into China using the Xinjiang region as a hub.

Keskin went further to say that there are also energy needs that can be helped by the countries surrounded by Xinjiang, and the connection to the area through religion, language and history could be profitable to China.

Keskin runs a website called Chinaandthemiddleeast.blogspot.com, and is setting up a conference in Beijing from Mar. 17–18 about the subject. There will be 30 people presenting papers about Middle East-China relations. The conference is one of the first to focus on this subject.

He said the Middle East is very important to China and believes a good relationship with the Uyghur, who practice Islam, is important in creating relationships with other Islamic countries.

In relationship to China’s oil and energy needs, Keskin noted that China is currently the largest car buyer in the world and that they have a middle class larger than the U.S. population.

Of the Uyghurs, he said they are primarily Muslim and use Arabic script. He noted among Uyghurs there is a close relationship between ethnicity and religion, and they are very distinct from the Chinese.

Keskin spoke of the ancient Uyghur city of Kashgar as important to all Turks, and said many Uyghur call their home Eastern Turkistan.

“The province also offers a rich variety of agricultural and unique ethnic products developed by its local people,” added Denis Lee, chair of the First Sunday Program.

Moving past China’s energy needs and on to a question of Uyghur nationalism, Keskin described them as being stuck between two superpowers: Chinese oppression and a U.S. push for nationalism driven by political interests to destabilize China.

Keskin said it is a natural course that as Chinese oppression increases so does the Muslim traditionalism, radicalism and nationalism among the Uyghurs.

Unrest in the area has been serious and covered by world news media since 2009.

The lecture was a part of a continuing East Asian Program Series, which hosts monthly First Saturday morning lectures featuring history, architecture, landscapes, art and culture of East Asia and connects it to the Pacific Northwest.

Future lectures will include: “Music of the Guqin,” “Year of the Ram 4713 Chinese New Year Brunch,” and “About Portland’s Chinatown History,” according to the program’s website.

PSU is a primary partner in the program and hosts many of its lectures and its speaker pool.