Some time in the 1920s — accounts vary — students from the small village of Artush in what is now China’s far west played a game of football against a team put together by the staff of the British Consulate in the nearby Silk Road city of Kashgar. At the time, Kashgar was strategically important to the competing ambitions of the British, Russians and Chinese in Central Asia. On a hard and dusty pitch, the students, ethnic Uyghurs [pronounced ‘wee-gors’], ran out easy winners by two goals to nil. After the full-time whistle, the British Consul left in such a cloud of fury that he reneged on a promise to award the winning team the prize of a horse and saddle. The Russian Consul, enjoying every minute, stepped in to congratulate the students and gave them a football instead. The Uyghur students went on to beat a team of Swedish Christian missionaries based in Kashgar, while the Russian Consulate wisely did not offer them a game. 

Kashgar, an oasis pressed into the land between the Taklamakan Desert and Pamir Mountains, is part of a vast territory which, depending on your politics, is either called East Turkestan or the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Uyghur people, who live in Kashgar and throughout the region, are a Turkic Muslim people culturally distinct from their current Chinese rulers. I worked in Kashgar as a teacher at the local college for three years in the mid-1990s. 

Football is entrenched in Uyghur life and like fans anywhere Uyghurs enjoy giving their mates a tough time when results go awry. As the only person from Britain living in Kashgar, Uyghur friends and acquaintances never missed an opportunity to remind me of the two-nil hammering by the students. England fans are known for living in the past, always harking back to 1966, but a loss from 70 years ago was one I was willing to concede without too much argument. 

The Uyghurs ended up in modern China after the People’s Liberation Army entered their homeland in 1949. In the decades leading up to Chinese Communist Party control, Uyghurs experienced two separate periods of independence as the East Turkestan Republic. The government in Beijing, having consolidated its rule, renamed the territory in 1955. With autonomy existing only in name, the arrangement did little to quell the long-held Uyghur yearning for self-determination. 

In over 60 years of Chinese rule, the struggle for Uyghur sovereignty has been replaced with one for cultural survival that has been likened to the situation of the Tibetans. Faced with a steady influx of Chinese migrants to their homeland that has seen the proportion of Uyghurs shrink from 80% of the total population in 1941 to 46% in 2010, the Uyghurs are at a crucial point in maintaining their identity. 

The gradual loss of cultural identity is not only a result of demographics, but is also a consequence of government ‘modernisation’ policies that have undermined Uyghur society. Uyghur has been replaced with Chinese as the language of instruction in schools and universities. The authorities defend the policy as a way of increasing Uyghur children’s economic opportunities in the modern Chinese job market, but the shift to the Chinese language in schools seems slow in achieving that aim, as unemployment rates among Uyghurs remain high due to discriminatory hiring practices. 

The modernising narrative of the Chinese government has taken root in a number of other policies that have put Uyghur culture in a vulnerable position. For many Uyghurs, Islam is both their faith and a statement of their distinctiveness from the Chinese. Government restrictions on following the basic practices of Islam are therefore a challenge to the Uyghur’s sense of ethnic identity. In addition, the government-led demolition of traditional Uyghur housing across the region, most notably in Kashgar, has torn the foundations of contemporary Uyghur identification with the people who have lived among these unique buildings for centuries. 

The clash between modernisation and preservation is not uncommon in a globalising world but many Uyghurs see the process as a struggle to uphold their existence as a distinct people against assimilation into Chinese culture. With so much unrequited nationalism and ethnic pride, it is no surprise that a stray teacher from Britain has to put up with the odd comment about a lost football game from 70 years ago. 

The future direction of the Uyghur people is not just being played out in the classroom or the mosque, but also on the football pitch, in the stands and at home in front of televised games. Whether the Chinese state succeeds in securing Uyghur affinities for the Chinese state’s version of modernity through youth football programs, or whether Uyghurs can maintain a sense of their ethnic identity by resisting China’s national teams and developing grassroots football organisation in exile, football is an important part of the fight to win Uyghur hearts and minds. This is the story of the role of football in the struggle for the Uyghur identity. 


Fans

In December 1996, about eight Uyghurs and I crowded into my flat in Kashgar to watch the Asian Cup quarter-final between Saudi Arabia and China in the UAE on TV. Before kick-off, while crunching sunflower seeds, my Uyghur friends were clear in their dislike of the Chinese national team. They wanted Saudi Arabia to win the quarter-final and agreed that they would be happy to see any country beat China in any game. 

The Chinese took a two-goal lead inside the first 16 minutes with goals from the former Grimsby Town player Zhang Enhua and Peng Weigua. The effect was immediate in Kashgar; the Uyghurs in my flat turned their anger on the Saudi team, with some of them calling the Saudis the ‘dogs of America’ for having let Uyghurs down. By half-time, though, the Saudi had gone 3-2 up and the Uyghurs in Kashgar were firmly back on the side of their co-religionists. Twenty minutes into an open second half the Saudis extended their lead with a second goal from Yousuf Al-Thunayan.

Then an earthquake hit Kashgar. There had been strong earthquakes throughout the year, one in March measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale. Everyone in my flat bolted down the three flights of steps to the ground floor. Waiting outside the building for the all clear proved difficult for everyone who had been following the match. Despite warnings from some neighbours not to go back inside, we returned to my flat to see out the rest of the game. For the Uyghurs it was worth it. Although Zhang Enhua scored his second, China were eliminated.

The swing in support for the Saudis during the game and the ‘anyone but China’ sentiment made me wonder whether the way that Uyghurs identify against the Chinese majority translates into affinities for international teams that are viewed as ‘more like us’.

I put together a quick survey early in 2012 to establish whether Uyghurs broadly did not identify with the China national team and to see if there was some kind of pattern to those international teams they did like to see win. I posted the survey on three online forums used by Uyghurs worldwide and collected 95 responses. The first question asked:

If the below teams were in a hypothetical World Cup qualifying group, who would you prefer to win each game (not who you think will win on ability, but who would you like to win)?


Teams: East Turkestan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, China

Uzbekistan was included in the group to see if Turkic identity was important to Uyghurs, as Uzbeks and Uyghurs have a cultural and linguistic affinity. The addition of Saudi Arabia was to determine if any allegiances were attributable to shared faith. The results I got back left no doubt about the Uyghur antipathy to the Chinese national team:

To get at why Uyghurs chose one international team over another in the games that did not involve the notional East Turkestan, I asked whether their choice was down to similar ethnicity, shared religion or another reason. Overwhelmingly, Uyghurs said they based their choice to win first on similar ethnicity, then on shared religion. Either way, both the identification with Turkic ethnicity and Islam put the Uyghurs at odds with the dominant Han Chinese culture of China. 


China’s involvement in the 2002 World Cup is a good example of what the survey demonstrated. As the first World Cup to be held in Asia, the event had special resonance for teams from the continent and China qualified for the first time. In the first round of group games, they were drawn in a group with Turkey, a country with which many Uyghur identify through ethnic ties, its sizeable Uyghur diaspora and its role in hosting exiled Uyghur groups. The game between Turkey and China was held in Seoul on June 13 and clearly visible behind one goal was the blue and white crescent moon and star flag of East Turkestan, which is banned in China. Enver Tohti, a Uyghur activist now living in London, coordinated the action. “We knew that there would be a live broadcast of the game in China,” he told me. “If we unfurled the East Turkestan flag during the game, CCTV [China Central Television] would be unable to conceal it on screen. It was also possible that CCTV may not even know what the flag signified. Such a display of our national flag in millions of Chinese homes and public spaces was an opportunity that we could not afford to miss. Flying the East Turkestan flag in China is impossible, so our action would show our people inside China the spirit of the Uyghurs is still alive. In East Turkestan many Uyghurs suddenly expressed a new interest in football and called their friends and family to tell them to watch the game on TV. What they were really watching was our national flag! In Turkey, when some Uyghurs who had gathered to watch the game saw the flag, the atmosphere in the room turned upside down.” 

In The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land, Gardner Bovingdon writes about how the display of the East Turkestan flag at the game and China’s 3-0 defeat by Turkey was greeted with glee.  A contact described to Bovingdon how he had watched the match with both Uyghurs and Hans. “Uyghurs showed their delight each time Turkey surged ahead and the Hans became increasingly angry. My contact recalled with amusement that one Han had chastised the Uyghurs in the room, saying, ‘Since you’re Chinese citizens, you should cheer for China. Aren’t you loyal to China?’” 

Showing this kind of support during the game had serious repercussions for some Uyghurs in China. According to one unconfirmed report, 20 Uyghur students at Xinjiang University, who were watching the game with Han Chinese, were arrested on charges of “promoting spiritual separatism” for their support of Turkey. Another unconfirmed report said three students at another university had been expelled and arrested for the same offence.

In politically repressive societies, dissent against the government can express itself in ways that are indirect: sport is one of those outlets. While watching football on TV in Kashgar, Uyghur friends would make fun of the Chinese commentators, often by mimicking Communist Party propaganda to describe the game. In a recent video that went viral in the exile community, the Mandarin language commentary of a Chinese game was replaced with a Uyghur voiceover. Throughout the video the Uyghur ‘commentator’ makes continuous reference to how honourably the Chinese team play to serve the people and the Party despite showing clips of obvious bad sportsmanship. 

None of this antagonism seems to suggest football fans will be the catalyst for greater understanding between Chinese and Uyghurs. Yet bars and city squares that show televised games live are often filled with a mix of Uyghur and Han Chinese. This intermingling may happen only when China are not playing, but it does show how football can create a forum for a shared experience. 

Uyghurs are passionate fans of football at levels other than the international. The game has permeated popular culture — the Uyghur rappers Six City used the popular Uyghur football chant “Hurra, Hurra” in one of their songs — while the one-time local league team, Xinjiang Haitang, attracted an average crowd of 29,000 during the 2012 season. This statistic might not seem high to some, but this was in the Chinese third tier, where attendances range from 100 to 5,000. In China’s top tier, the Super League, only Beijing Guoan and Guizhou Renhe had an attendance larger than Xinjiang’s highest of 45,000 in 2012. The Shanghai Shenhua that featured Didider Drogba and Nicolas Anelka regularly played in front of only 16,000 at home. 

The popularity of Xinjiang Haitang, based in the regional capital Ürümqi, might offer a glimpse into a less ethnically polarised future. Fans at the home games, held at the 50,000-capacity Xinjiang Sports Centre, were a healthy mix of Uyghur and Chinese. A string of blogs and forums focused on the team and football in general, and showing postings by both ethnicities, were extremely popular. However, the Chinese authorities get nervous when large groups of Uyghurs gather, especially since an outbreak of unrest between the Uyghur and Chinese communities in Ürümqi in 2009. There was usually a large police presence at the ground on match days and reports emerged that local universities forbade Uyghur students from attending some games. The fact that Xinjiang’s supporters took to wearing T-shirts in the same shade of blue as the East Turkestan flag will not have been lost on the authorities. 


Players

The manipulation of football for political ends is nothing new. Among the Uyghurs, the winning of hearts and minds through football is happening at the grassroots and largely among players. For the Chinese government it’s all about stemming anti-state sentiment to promote a ‘pan-People’s Republic of China’ identity that theoretically holds a place for ethnic minorities. On the other hand, for Uyghurs in exile, football is being used as a means to educate young Uyghurs about their history and culture, and to inspire a new generation of Uyghur activists.

The Chinese government has been accused of funding only elite athletes in order to gain success at international competition. However, China’s lack of success in international football has been invariably explained as a lack of interest in developing the game at the grassroots. Among the Uyghur, though, informal kickarounds and local leagues based around places of work and study are common. During my time at Kashgar Teachers College, I played in an annual tournament between the various university departments that reminded me why bone-dry pitches are so dangerous, and I was often roped into street games with kids. This level of participation is nothing new under Chinese rule with Uyghur teams, especially at Xinjiang University, active since the 1950s. 

Even so, the organisation of Uyghur football outside the auspices of the Chinese state is a different matter. In the mid-1990s, Ghulja, a city in the western part of the region next to the Kazakh border, experienced an increase in drug and alcohol use among Uyghur youth. In order to combat growing social problems, Uyghurs in Ghulja revived a traditional gathering called a meshrep that functions as an important social forum for discussing and resolving community affairs. Despite the success of the Ghulja meshrep, nervous city authorities banned the gatherings in July 1995. 

No more than a month later, the Ghulja meshrep leader Abdulhelil and others organised a 16-team football league that continued to work to promote healthy alternatives among unemployed Uyghur youth. Just when the football was about to kick off, on 12 August 1995, the local government cancelled all games and parked tanks on the football pitches. They claimed the space was needed for military exercises and broadcast regular announcements over the radio that the games would have constituted an “illegal gathering”. To make sure that the tournament definitely did not go ahead, all local schools had the goalposts removed from their pitches.

The banning of the meshrep was among the grievances cited by Uyghurs who participated in a bloody demonstration in Ghulja in February 1997. Salam Kari, one of the organisers of the Ghulja football league, was arrested in May 1997 in connection with the February unrest. A few days after his arrest, he was dead. According to Amnesty International, his body showed signs of torture despite the police claim that he had committed suicide.

If organising independent football tournaments can loosen the grip of state control, then conversely, state-backed football programs can be a means of reasserting authority. The Chinese Football Association (CFA), unlike the majority of its counterparts worldwide, does not operate free of government control, which is a fact that Fifa are happy to overlook for the time being. The CFA has been criticized for its small number of youth football initiatives, but in the Uyghur region, there appears to be a concerted push to launch elite and recreational youth football programs.

Local and regional governments in the Uyghur region, with the blessing of the CFA and in cooperation with the Soong Ching Ling Foundation1, have been active in promoting elite football among young Uyghur. In 2002, the foundation spent US$7.9 million to establish a new academy in Ürümqi, in conjunction with a $15.9 million contribution from city authorities. In 2008, the Xinjiang regional government built a new training ground in Ürümqi, and in 2010, the cornerstone was laid for an expanded football academy with new funds from the Soong Ching Ling Foundation and the state. The new facility will provide training for 300 13- to 19-year-old students. Local authorities across the region are also using state funds to promote recreational football among the youth in schools and universities. Furthermore, in February 2012, the Xinjiang Football Association announced overwhelming interest in registration for its 12-year-old amateur league for the coming season.

The state’s involvement in promoting sport as a healthy activity is not unusual. What is different are hints at a relationship between all the football investment and the winning of Uyghur hearts and minds. At a ceremony to launch a Youth Soccer Development Fund for students at the Ürümqi academy, the CFA president Wei Di said that in addition to sharpening their football skills, new students would also “learn how to be... a good citizen.” Moreover, at the President’s Cup, an international youth tournament held in the Kazakh capital of Astana in 2010, a Kashgar-born Uyghur, Hirali, was clearly enthusiastic about his participation as a representative of the Under-15 China team. Describing his feelings at scoring a goal at the tournament, Hirali said, “Some Chinese people... were waving the national flag and celebrating my goal... I felt so great at that moment.” Hirali has since been selected to play for the China Under-17 team.

The two most famous graduates from the Ürümqi academy are Bali Maimaitiyili and Mirahmetjan Muzepper, who were members of China’s Olympic qualifying team. In 2010, Muzepper became the first Uyghur player to be selected for the senior national squad after the China head coach Gao Hongbo called him up for several training sessions in preparation for the 2010 East Asian Football Championship. Muzepper has been held up as an example of the national team’s multiculturalism, as well as Uyghur success in Chinese society. The 21-year-old defensive midfielder from Kashgar plays for Shandong Luneng in eastern China and has represented both the China Under-20 and Under-23 teams. He has also featured in a number of prominent international tournaments, appearing in the Asian Football Confederation Under-19 championship in 2010 and for the Under-23 team in the 2010 Asian Games held in Guangzhou.

As much as the Chinese state uses football as a way to integrate Uyghurs into Chinese society, Uyghur exiles have made use of the game for political mobilisation and nurturing a nationalistic Uyghur identity among the diaspora. As far as I was able to discover, organised Uyghur exile football exists in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the United States, Germany, Canada, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Australia, which represents only a sample of where Uyghurs can be found worldwide. With the increasing ease of communication and the growing sophistication of Uyghur exile groups, Uyghurs have taken football as a means to bring together Uyghurs within their local communities, across their host countries and on a transnational basis. 

Uyghur United, a team based in Fairfax, Virginia, in the United States, is a good example of a local community club. According to Mustafa Rouzi, a team member, the team was established in 2002 to congregate the Uyghur community concentrated around the Washington, DC area (the largest in the United States) and to have some fun. Since 2004, the team has played in local leagues, mostly against opposition from other immigrant communities, such as FC Kurdistan, as well as teams from Turkish, Latin American, Afghan and Vietnamese communities. 

Rouzi added that the team supports Americanised Uyghur youth in maintaining their Uyghur identity. Team members are encouraged to speak in the Uyghur language, and Rouzi commented that many Uyghur-Americans had improved their language skills simply by being on the team. On the team’s travels to tournaments and in social gatherings to watch European football on TV, hanging out with other Uyghurs had been important in solidifying Uyghur identity among the players.

The East Turkistan2 Football Club in Australia has taken a nationwide approach to Uyghur mobilisation and organises an annual tournament contested by different Uyghur teams from across Australia. The fifth edition of the East Turkistan Football Tournament was held in December 2011 and involved teams from the host city Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. At the opening ceremony, the vice president of the Melbourne Uyghur Association reminded participants and spectators of the tournament’s significance in unifying and bringing together the Uyghur-Australian community. Furthermore, one of the players at the tournament told Radio Free Asia that, “The reason to come to Adelaide is not just for the football. East Turkistanis have gathered here... because our youth, the future generation of East Turkistan, will learn about the great history of the Uyghurs, discuss our current difficulties and how to solve these problems. We hope in the future the tournament will attract more people, even from overseas... and will become an educational venue for protecting our identity.” 

Dotted Break             

2 This is how it is spelt, even though the more usual spelling is with an ‘e’ 

Dotted Break

The dream of transnational competition was realised in July 2011 at the three-day long International Uyghur Youth Freedom Cup held in the Netherlands. The Youth Committee of the World Uyghur Congress (a transnational Uyghur organisation in exile) organised the tournament and teams from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, France and the United States participated, with a total of 500 people attending the games. Uyghur teams from Kazakhstan, Turkey, Australia and Canada were invited but were unable to attend due to funding constraints. 

Gheyyur Qurban, the head of the tournament organising committee, outlined the broader objectives of the competition as “motivating Uyghur youth, giving them an opportunity to identify as Uyghurs and learning about Uyghur history and culture.” Qurban added a further objective of “finding and training the best young Uyghur minds, so that they can become politically engaged in gaining the freedom of the Uyghur people.” He explained that the motivation behind these objectives came from a sense that the current generation of Uyghurs in exile was not as engaged in political activity as the preceding ones, a situation that he labeled a “dangerous development for the Uyghur movement”.  Qurban continued, “The generation from the 1990s were educated in Chinese schools and may be unaware of Uyghur history, but have a desire to self-identify as a Uyghur. By coming together as a people, not only in the small communities of our home countries, but also in a global context, we can build a foundation towards securing a future for the Uyghur identity. Football is an effective way to bring people together, educate them and have them identify as a nation.”

The venue in the Netherlands was decorated in the symbols of nationalism, with East Turkestan flags displayed, political slogans on show and the national anthem played before games. As part of the opening ceremony, the well-known Uyghur human rights activist Rebiya Kadeer sent a message of support and Uyghur singers and dancers performed. Qurban commented that the national symbols were important in order “to give the feeling to everyone that ‘we are Uyghurs, we are strong.’” 

Playing for the United States team, Rouzi said, “When I heard the national anthem I felt very emotional and proud. I also felt freedom for the first time in my life. I could never have had this feeling in China. For me, it felt like victory over Chinese injustices. The tournament taught me the importance of unity and the football helped me understand leadership, communication and responsibility.”

One of the coaches added, “the most emotional thing we got... is not playing the game and competing; it was seeing each other, being one unified team and showing strength.” For the record, the Dutch team won the tournament, Sweden came second and Germany third. On the back of the tournament’s success, Qurban said that a second is in the planning stages.

An issue that arose at the tournament was the possible establishment of an East Turkestan national team. The desire to achieve this appears strong among some exiles. A quick look through YouTube brings up simulated games between East Turkestan and China using gaming software. Fifa membership is a coveted part of international recognition for new states and is sometimes sought before membership of other international bodies. This kind of recognition for any East Turkestan team would be out of the question under current Fifa rules, but competitive football for any ‘national’ team is still possible. Games have been played between territories such as Tibet, Northern Cyprus, Kurdistan, Somaliland, West Papua and Darfur under the auspices of entities like the Non-Fifa Board. 

The Tibetan team may provide a good template for Uyghur exiles seeking to make a political statement to the Chinese government while utilising football as a way of keeping a distinct Uyghur identity. According to the Tibetan prime minister in exile, Lobsang Tenzin, “For the exiled Tibetan, sports would be a medium to establish international relations, make political declarations and to exhibit the skills and aspirations of the Tibetan people.” The Tibetans have successfully drawn Chinese government ire, with Chinese officials requesting teams turn down Tibetan requests for games. When Greenland agreed to play Tibet in a friendly in Denmark in 2001, the Chinese Embassy in Copenhagen was adamant that none of the symbols of Tibetan independence be present at the game. While the next possible step for Uyghurs in exile is the establishment of a ‘national’ team that would provide a larger platform for national identification, while being a thorn in the side of the Chinese government, the main impediment is funding. This has been a problem dogging many unrecognised ‘national’ sides, including the Tibetans.

The future of the Uyghur people will not be determined only the football pitch. Uyghurs face an array of cultural pressures that will be contested in schools, homes and mosques across their homeland while the Uyghur plight in China is presented with an additional challenge in the form of the state. Given the curbs on freedom of speech and the political restrictions, as well as the dire consequences for opposing the Chinese authorities, Uyghurs in China have little choice other than to absorb the state-imposed version of their identity. Much in the same way that jokes and poetry played an important role in relieving the tensions of repression among people living in the Soviet Union, Uyghurs express their opposition to their predicament through furtive singing of subversive songs and whispered telling of seditious stories.  Sport, and particularly football, is another one of those outlets for the Uyghurs. However, it may, through support of local teams, also present an opportunity to build community with Han Chinese through a shared experience that offers a different version of ‘us and them’ and allows Uyghurs occasional space to assert the value of their own identity. 

In exile, Uyghurs hold the torch for their culture in a different way, insomuch as many of the Uyghur youth have become disconnected with the homeland of their parents and are becoming assimilated into their host cultures. As a second-generation immigrant myself, I can attest to the difficulties in resisting those pressures. For the Uyghurs however, this identification of the youth with the culture of their parents may in the long run be the best chance of survival for a non-Chinese state version of their complex society.  Football has proved a successful way to connect young people to ensure this survival and to develop a generation of advocates willing to one day reassert Uyghur culture free of the Chinese state back into their homeland. 

Despite the political overlay, the game among the Uyghur, as elsewhere, is still largely played or watched for recreation. While Uyghurs in China or in the diaspora may have to resist the assimilative policies of the Chinese government or the forces of a homogenising world, it might just be that their love of football will serve as a powerful means of holding onto their distinct and storied culture.