Uighur exile lets freedom sing in China's Xinjiang province

Ehrling Hoh
The Washington Times

Eskilstuna, Sweden -- "Don't sell your land." Sultan Kurash's voice is so powerful that you can hear the lyrics of his popular song echoing from one end of China's Xinjiang province to the other.

In fact, the passion of his singing is so fearsome that the knees of China's rulers start to shake when they hear it.

They have banned his music, confiscated his sound equipment, annulled his business license, held him under house arrest, and driven him into exile, all to no avail. His songs live on.

"For 50 years, nobody was allowed to sing what we Uighurs have in our hearts. I am the first," said Mr. Kurash, sitting in his apartment in this quiet former steel town where he was granted political asylum in 1999. His road from the heart of Central Asia to Northern Europe has been long and tortuous.

In 1996, he left China for Turkey on a fake passport. A year later, he arrived in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan with 10,000 cassette tapes of his music in his luggage. Police there arrested him and threw him in jail without an explanation, but Mr. Kurash believes it was on the instigation of the Chinese government.

Nine months later, he was released and given 20 days to leave the country. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for refugees in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, arranged his passage to Sweden.

The son of a Uighur farmer, Mr. Kurash trained in Uighur folk music at the Academy of Performing Arts in Urumqi, where he graduated in 1988. For the next five years, he toured the length and breadth of his homeland in western China, which he prefers to call East Turkestan, performing in small villages more than 1,000 times.

"We became deeply aware that the life of the common Uighur was very bitter. Before then, we hadn't left the big cities. We had only watched TV, and we had believed what we had seen," Mr. Kurash said.

As an example of what he learned during his five-year road trip, Mr. Kurash describes the situation of the Uighur cotton farmers in Xinjiang at the time. Although the world market price for cotton was about $1,000 in U.S. currency per ton, Mr. Kurash said, Uighur cotton farmers had to sell it to the state for $70 per ton.

In addition, they were required to fulfill certain annual production quotas, regardless of the weather and the size of their harvest. Sometimes, farmers had to buy cotton at a higher price to fulfill their quotas. At the time, this left many Uighur cotton farmers teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

When land-hungry Han Chinese from the overpopulated coastal provinces -- some of whom had received the equivalent of $3,650 in a grant from the state to settle in Xinjiang -- offered to buy their land, many Uighur cotton farmers had little choice.

"Don't Sell Your Land," Mr. Kurash's best-known political song, struck a chord in the hearts of his fellow Uighurs.

During China's gradual, quiet occupation of Xinjiang over the past 50 years, the grievances of the Uighur people have disappeared into an eddy of neglect, ignorance, anti-Muslim sentiment and geopolitical toadying to the world's largest market.

Official Chinese statistics give an indication of what is taking place in Xinjiang, and present the government in Beijing with a tricky question: What happened to the Uighur population?

In 1949, 8.5 million Uighurs were living in Xinjiang. By 1992, that number had dropped to 7.3 million. In the same period, the Han Chinese population grew from 290,000 to 5 million, the Kazakh population increased from 443,000 to 1.5 million, and the Tungan Chinese Muslims multiplied from 120,000 to 705,000.

In 1993, the authorities decided that Mr. Kurash had become a political agitator for the Uighurs and tried to silence his voice. His equipment was confiscated, his music was banned, and he was kept under constant police surveillance. But unlike Rebiya Kadeer, the prominent Uighur businesswoman who in 2001 was sentenced to eight years in prison for mailing two local newspapers to her husband abroad -- her term was reduced last year to seven years -- Mr. Kurash managed to outsmart the police and leave China.

At a meeting last year of exile Uighur dissidents in Germany, the World Uighur Congress was created through the merger of the World Uighur Youth Congress and the East Turkestan Congress, the two main exile organizations. Erkin Alptekin was elected chairman of the congress and Mr. Kurash was chosen as its auditing supervisor.

He lives in Eskilstuna, with his mother, wife and son, keeping in close contact with other Uighur dissidents who have been granted political asylum by the Swedish government, and developing ties with the folk music community in Sweden.

In May, he was appointed a salaried "national composer" by the Swedish government. His new hometown has sponsored a compact disc of his music, and he has performed at folk-music festivals across Europe.

"In our eyes, he is invaluable," said a fellow Uighur refugee.