China’s Area of Darkness

The very first anonymous star on the CIA’s wall of honor at Langley, Virginia (the agency rarely identifies its dead heroes), refers to Douglas MacKiernan, the agency’s man in Urumqi, the capital of what is now called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China’s largest province, a region of some one million square miles in the country’s northwest corner, about one thousand miles west of Beijing.

In September 1949, after the Communist conquest of Xinjiang, MacKiernan and four others, including an American anthropologist, Frank Bessac, set out to find Osman Batur, a Muslim tribal chieftain in Xinjiang with 15,000 armed followers: “a friend,” MacKiernan thought, “fighting for freedom,” whom he could encourage to fight the Chinese Communists. After meeting Osman, MacKiernan traveled for months across some of the most difficult terrain in the world to reach Tibet where he expected the Dalai Lama to welcome him. But when he arrived in April 1950, Tibetan border guards mistook MacKiernan for someone else; and they shot and decapitated him and two of his party. Bessac, who told this story to James Millward (and to Life magazine), survived.

In Xinjiang today, as in the rest of China no matter how far from the capital, all clocks are set to Beijing time, as if the emperor was still in charge of chronological matters. I recall making appointments with several Uyghurs, Xinjiang’s largest ethnic group that is not Han—ethnic Chinese people. They would give me a sly look after pointing at their watches and holding up two fingers, indicating, as an act of defiance against Chinese chauvinism, that we would meet two hours earlier.

In the late 1990s, Chinese officials in Xinjiang found that in 3,722 primary school textbooks Mao’s picture had been ripped out. The Uyghurs, who are Muslims, tend to call the Chinese Khitay, and when a schoolboy was asked why he had defaced his book he replied that he always tore the pictures of Khitay out of his books. “To this Uyghur school boy, Chairman Mao was just another Chinaman,” James Millward writes in Eurasian Crossroads. (When I traveled in Xinjiang in the 1980s some Han Chinese wore Mao badges; I never saw one on a Uyghur or a Kazakh, Kazakh people also being numerous in the province.)

Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, relates such stories and vignettes with pointed eloquence in his excellent book. It is the first comprehensive study of Xinjiang, including its geography and prehistory, in English. This vast region in Eurasia has long been the setting for thousands of armed men, some Chinese, most others not, trying and failing to dominate a culturally mixed region the size of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Spain combined. Xinjiang lies at the center of what is sometimes called the Silk Road, over which trade, religion, and works of art moved, east and west, between the Mediterranean, Persia, India, Tibet, Russia, and China. As Millward points out, writing about Xinjiang from …

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