How Fortune Deserted a Uyghur Wheeler-Dealer

Tursunjan Turhon made millions selling cloth in the 1990s, but today, he lives in poverty.

Li Dong is a freelance writer based in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Today, Tursunjan Turhon cuts a less majestic figure than at the height of his fortune two decades ago. Like many Uyghurs of his generation, he has been left behind by a national government that realized too late that ethnic assimilation is key to social harmony in the far west. Gut instinct and a sharp mind enriched him and his family two decades ago, but they are now of little use in a rapidly developing economy that demands educational qualifications alongside good business sense.

Tursunjan, a friend of mine, is from the city of Artux in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China’s far west. Artux, located in southern Xinjiang, was a key relay station on the Silk Road during the Han dynasty — which dates back to the second century B.C. — and is still home to a great number of Uyghur merchants today. Dressed in tatty farmer’s garb and mumbling words in limited Mandarin, Tursunjan doesn’t seem like someone who has roamed half of China in pursuit of money, traveled through Central Asia for 17 years, or made millions in the 1990s. His ambition today, however, is merely to find a job that pays more than 3,000 yuan ($433) a month.

Tursunjan turned 43 this year. When he was 20 years old, he traveled with his fellow villagers to the southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, where he sold dried fruit from his hometown. Later, he bought smuggled video recorders and resold them for profit on the streets of Guangzhou. Unable to speak Mandarin, he haggled with customers by typing out prices on cheap calculators. Later, Tursunjan returned to Xinjiang and began selling clothes wholesale. He bought the previous season’s clothes from the fashion-conscious south and resold them in his somewhat less chic home province.

Two decades ago, Tursunjan began roaming Central Asia in search of business. Border trade flourished between China and the Central Asian countries after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. He sourced furs in Tashkent and skins from Ashgabat — the capitals of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, respectively — and sold them to dealers in China. At that time, a cut of sheepskin could be bought for only 1.6 yuan in Turkmenistan and resold for 40 to 50 yuan in Khorgas, on the China-Kazakhstan border. That business alone brought Tursunjan hundreds of thousands of yuan in profits.

As the Central Asian economies collapsed in the 1990s, Tursunjan saw opportunities to make money off the wild price differences emerging for the same products in each country. Police corruption was also rampant, allowing local truck drivers to clear customs for a commission of $1,500 each time.

Such arrangements, however, sometimes got Tursunjan into trouble. Once, he hired a truck, unaware that the driver was illegally shipping the horns of Mongolian gazelles alongside Tursunjan’s own cargo. When border police uncovered the horns, the driver blamed everything on his client. Kazakh police kicked Tursunjan to the ground and put a rifle to his head. He remembers pleading with them: “I’m Chinese! I have a wife and son here! I didn’t break any laws; just let me go!” But the police only cared about arresting and extorting money from him. Despite his innocence, Tursunjan was imprisoned for three months and lost 1 million yuan’s worth of cargo.

The economies of the Commonwealth of Independent States — which include Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as seven other former Soviet republics — rebounded in the latter half of the 1990s. That convinced Tursunjan to settle in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he sold cloth both retail and wholesale. His business made him millions of yuan, he married a local woman, and they had a son together.

In 2014, Tursunjan was found to have overstayed his visa; he was deported back to China and told not to return for at least five years. During that time, many of his clients mysteriously went missing and did not remunerate him for goods that had already been delivered. Tursunjan was left with no business, no money, and no family.

His fall from grace was compounded when, back in Artux, Tursunjan tried to apply for poverty aid, but the village cadre said that his frequent trips abroad and his history of financial success disqualified him. Yet his lack of professional qualifications also prevented him from applying for bank loans that could have breathed new life into his business. His family’s vineyard was constantly buffeted by poor weather, while the 2,500 yuan he earned each month from his security job at the local supermarket went up in smoke after he fell off his scooter and broke his wrist.

Tursunjan says he wants to go back into business and clear the debts he still owes to his previous cloth suppliers in China. His ambition is to set up a private company specializing in border trade. When I ask if he has approached the Chinese embassy in Tashkent for assistance in recouping unpaid client invoices, he says glumly that the embassy is busy enough handling the affairs of state-run enterprises and other large Chinese firms. Private merchants like him are not lucrative enough to be dealt with individually.

Tursunjan has since remarried and has a daughter, and he is making an effort to learn Mandarin. In addition to his native Uyghur, he has picked up a little Russian, the lingua franca of Central Asia. Many Han Chinese people came to visit Tashkent while he was living there, but Tursunjan could not converse with them. Once, a Han customer approached the neighboring merchant at the market, and Tursunjan was asked to interpret. But Tursunjan did not know a word of Mandarin, and his neighbor simply laughed, saying, “Why can’t you speak your mother tongue if you’re Chinese?”

In the unregulated economy of the ’90s, Xinjiang’s rural dwellers were able to get ahead in life despite their lack of education, resources, and Mandarin proficiency. Today, those who have fallen on hard times have no safety net to fall back on and few prospects to look forward to. In recent years, the local government has encouraged greater interaction between Uyghurs and Han in Xinjiang and has invested in village housing, health care, and education across the region. These measures are intended to assuage poverty and prevent largely uneducated villagers like Tursunjan from falling victim to extremist thinking.

Today, most rural Uyghur children can expect to gain a strong command of both Mandarin and their local language. Free education is available for 12 years, from primary school to high school, ensuring that Tursunjan’s daughter in China will never come up against the same language barriers her father has faced. While Tursunjan’s past is comprised of freewheeling tales of derring-do, his daughter’s future will likely follow the more conventional path of school, college, and a stable job. For her father, though, life has come full circle, and he has ended up back at the sharp end of the poverty he once managed to escape.

(Header image: A Uyghur man walks down an alley in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, July 29, 2014. Kevin Frayer/VCG)

Originally published at www.sixthtone.com on January 11, 2017.