border review | 16 July 2011

Janyl Chytyrbaeva: Looking For China's Elusive Kyrgyz

Kyrgyz Journalist Janyl Chytyrbaeva reports for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty on her visit to Xinjiang. Joining a French tour group, she was hoping  to get an idea of the Kyrgyz way of life across the border. During check-in at the first hotel in Kashgar, a security agent approached her:

He already knew my name and as he greeted me he said he knew when I would arrive because “they phoned us from the border to say you crossed.” […]

“No journalism here,” he said in a friendly but no-nonsense way. As an ethnic Uyghur, he spoke his language. I replied in Kyrgyz, and we understood each other well enough. Suddenly, I had an eerily familiar feeling. This is how I used to feel growing up in the Soviet Union, when foreign visitors arrived in groups and knew they should not speak with us and we knew we should not speak with them. Was this how the Kyrgyz I had come to visit still lived?

Chytyrbaeva’s “disguise” as tourist had apparently raised too many red flags and the fact that her fellow Kyrgyz remained elusive is thus not surprising. What caught my eye, especially in relation to Ashraf Khan’s piece I wrote about yesterday, is her comparison to life in the Soviet Union. Later, when watching a Turkic-language program on TV she had, once again, a Soviet flashback:

What I heard saw and heard in the programs was some local coverage but an enormous amount of material from mainland China that was simply dubbed into the local languages. Again I had the overwhelming sensation of being back in the Soviet Union. There Russian culture dominated the airwaves of all the republics as the Soviet Union sought to forge a common Soviet man from the empire’s many ethnic identities. In China – no less an empire – the same process was still at work.

If this came from a Western journalist, I would probably just ignore it. But as it is, it shows how different China’s immediate neighbours experience and see the PRC.