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Mahmud — Not Just Another Mainland Tourist in Hong Kong

A Uighur jade trader gets a rare chance to visit Hong Kong and has a taste of the freedom he does not enjoy back home.

Image Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Image Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The Chinese government has intensified its political and religious control over China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, where terrorist attacks allegedly perpetrated by Muslim Uighur separatists have killed scores of people in recent months. Even outside their Xinjiang homeland, Uighurs who work and travel in other areas of China still face suspicion and sometimes outright discrimination. Hong Kong journalist Jun Mai profiled Mahmud, a pseudonymous Uighur jade trader, who visited Hong Kong as a tourist in June 2014.

The original Chinese version appeared on June 22, 2014, in the Ming Pao, a Chinese-language newspaper based in Hong Kong. Foreign Policy publishes a translated version of the article below, with permission; the article has been edited for clarity. 


Waiting at the Lo Wu immigration checkpoint from Shenzhen to Hong Kong, Mahmud stood out in the line of mainland tourists with his light-colored hair and prominent nose. When an officer suggested he should go to the counter for foreigners, he fished out a marine-blue-covered entry permit and said: "I’m Chinese too." But unlike most of the other Chinese tourists in line, Mahmud was alone. None of his fellow Uighur friends had been granted a tourist permit to Hong Kong.

A man in his early 40s, Mahmud is a successful jade trader from the city of Hotan in southern Xinjiang. He has clients all over the country, and speaks Mandarin like a Han Chinese, whom Xinjiangers, like people in Tibet, refer to as "mainlanders."

Hotan is known for its jade, but the city is also branded as the home of "terrorists," whom the state media have blamed for the many attacks in the restive region and beyond. Mahmud’s background poses problems when he travels around China, especially when he checks in at hotels. "No vacancy," he is always told, even as Han guests stream in. Mediation is needed from his Han friends, some of them local officials, to get Mahmud a room card.

However, being Uighur has also earned him awkward praises from unlikely quarters. "You guys did well," Han taxi drivers have told him numerous times, referring to a recent bombing or knife-wielding attack. "It’s OK to kill officials, but don’t kill innocent people." Mahmud will usually reply: "You can go tell them yourself. I didn’t do it."

Mahmud said he wanted to see the world. But in Hotan, sometimes labeled the "base camp of the Xinjiang independence movement" by state media, passports have become a luxury. Obtaining a passport requires the permission of many agencies, including the police, village-level government, and prefecture government, among others. It’s an unwritten rule that in order to get a passport, a bribe must be given to all the officials, both Uighur and Han, handling the application. A passport can cost $11,000 to $13,000 in bribe money in Hotan, with at least $3,000 going to the village chief. By comparison, a mainlander only has to pay around $30 to process the application. When a Kazakh friend boasted about a lucrative business of importing Russian jade to the Chinese market, Mahmud could only feel envious. His mother has wanted to make a pilgrimage to Mecca for a long time, but so far this has proven impossible. 

The trip to Hong Kong was Mahmud’s first out of mainland China. He got his Hong Kong permit through a friend of his brother’s who was a cadre at the local government office in Hotan. "I paid $25. No more," he said in a furtive manner. Mahmud’s colleagues at his company are trying to move his hukou, or household registration record, to Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, hoping that removing his connections to Hotan would make things easier for him.

Mahmud uses WeChat, China’s most popular mobile messaging app, and his account profile carries a rare word: Uighur. The word is written using the Latin alphabet, but it’s not English, said Mahmud; it’s "our original language." Like Turkish — to which it is related — the written Uighur language used to use a Latin alphabet. After Mahmud started the fourth grade, a new Arabic alphabet was introduced in schools to replace the Latin one. Mahmud believes that the abrupt change was intended to separate the Uighur language from its Turkish cousin. Whenever Mahmud pays a bill with his China UnionPay credit card, he still signs his name starting with a letter "M," instead of a Chinese or Arabic character. "I prefer writing this one," he said.

Before coming to Hong Kong, Mahmud had never met other Muslims, except for those in China or from neighboring Central Asian countries. In Mongkok, Hong Kong’s bustling shopping district, Mahmud and I went into an Egyptian restaurant, which looked slightly Mediterranean and was located beside a Chinese takeaway restaurant serving pork. Mahmud was highly suspicious and mumbled to himself, "Are they real Muslims or fake ones?" He decided to use an Islamic greeting to test the water: "Assalam Alaykum!" The owner had no difficulty uttering the countersign, "Wa alaykum assalam!" Mahmud was relieved.

"We are Muslims from Egypt. Where are you from?" the owner asked. I translated the question into Chinese and answered for Mahmud, "Xinjiang." The owner went on, "Your ancestors are the Turkish people. At the time of the Ottoman Empire, we were of the same country." Mahmud just smiled and nodded.

I later learned that Mahmud went to the mosque at Tsim Sha Tsui, another district of Hong Kong, twice in two days, but wasn’t able to talk to the Muslims there. He couldn’t speak any English. My plan to take him to meet other Hong Kong Muslims at the Chungking Mansions, a building in Tsim Sha Tsui where foreigners from the Middle East and Africa often gather, seemed infeasible, so I decided to give him the standard mainland Chinese tourist package he asked for: Shopping in Mongkok. He had gone there himself the day before, but couldn’t buy anything. Mahmud couldn’t understand English, and the salesmen’s Mandarin Chinese, spoken with a heavy Hong Kong accent he was hearing for the first time, didn’t make sense to him either.

After I translated for him in an accent more similar to that used in northern China, Mahmud soon became the astute businessman he is. An electronics chain had a promotion of selling discounted shavers to those who bought cellphones. Mahmud bought a phone immediately, figuring it was a good idea to get the shaver as a package deal. He did math like a mainlander: The shaver is around 30 percent cheaper in Hong Kong, and there’s another 20 percent discount, considering the exchange rate of renminbi to the Hong Kong dollar. It occurred to me that growing a big beard, a traditional practice among many Muslims, was banned in certain areas in Xinjiang, so he did need a good shaver.

Hong Kong struck him as a free place, Mahmud said, citing the posters he’d seen at tourist spots of the Tiananmen Massacre and the Falun Gong religious sect, which is banned in the mainland. Mahmud’s education ended at junior high school, but he reads a lot of history novels by Uighur authors. He remembers many major historical events in Xinjiang by year: when it was governed by the Qing Dynasty, when by the nationalists, when the communists, and when "by ourselves." He has hundreds of books at home, mostly history books, he said with a certain pride. "But lots of the good stuff was censored."

Like some of his friends, he believed his phone was wiretapped, as he could sometimes hear his own voice in a call. His SIM card was bought in Hotan, and registered with his ID card. Fewer of his Uighur friends are using smartphones recently, he said, as police could retrieve calls and chat records even if they are deleted. That means extra risks, as "spreading rumors" online was outlawed in China and could result in detention, and a long prison term if it involves "inciting ethnic tensions."

He said he now finds people around him less trustworthy, even fellow Uighurs. Four years ago, Mahmud met another jade merchant from Xinjiang. Like Mahmud’s other Uighur friends, this man stayed with Mahmud for a few days in Beijing, sharing hotel rooms and dinners. Soon after the man’s departure, Mahmud saw him in Urumqi. This time, the man was wearing a police uniform. Mahmud snuck away unnoticed. A more bizarre incident occurred to one of Mahmud’s female relatives, who taught kids in the neighborhood the principles of Islam. One day, a Uighur woman with no hijab came by and offered to join the classes. "I know nothing, but I want to learn about Islam, too. I want to be a good person," she said. She ducked out after two weeks in the class. A few days later, a squad of security officers raided the place and locked everybody up. They were let go after paying $850 per head for attending unauthorized preaching. 

"Until these two incidents, I didn’t believe those kinds of things," Mahmud said of the conspiracy theories circulating among Uighurs. Now, whenever state media reports a terrorist attack in Xinjiang, Mahmud’s first reaction is, "It’s definitely not the way they say it is." He even thinks the Uighur theft gangs, another source of Uighurs’ bad reputation among Han, are "with the cops." He said, "They are always let go after paying a fine. How is that possible?" Like predominantly Han cities in the east, Xinjiang suffers from such theft gangs, he said. The gangs were known for using kidnapped children to steal and in Hotan, it was common to hear about someone losing a child.

Mahmud looks at his watch a lot when shopping in Mongkok. "I missed the time for prayer," he said. "But it’s more flexible when I’m traveling. I can make it up later." Like other mainland tourists, Mahmud stays cheap in Hong Kong. His hotel room was barely 100 square feet and cost less than $80 a night. The farthest wall is one step away from the bed. Going to the bathroom takes two steps.

There he prepared for prayer, amid plastic bags of from electronics shops and Tommy Hilfiger. All he needed was a small prayer rug with a marking pointed towards Mecca. As he repeated kneeling, reciting, and prostrating, Mahmud looked relaxed. At least he was not frowning, like he did when he talked about his hometown Hotan. 

Mahmud could have stayed in Hong Kong for a week, but he was gone within three days. Ramadan would begin in 10 days, and he wanted to be home for the fasting. Muslims practice fasting differently, depending on how religious they are. For Mahmud, it means skipping lunch and eating after sunset. But at least he is able to fast — unlike the rest of his siblings, who have jobs in different government departments or other organizations in Xinjiang where fasting is banned. Still, from time to time, they do it "secretly," as Mahmud put it.

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