It is usually the case that ethnic and religious conflict turns out under analysis to be economic and political conflict. The oppression of one group by another almost always has to do primarily with profit and control, and these are the issues that push ordinary people to the point of violence. This is the case with the recent rise of ethnic violence in far-western China. Han Chinese are migrating into Tibet and Xinjaing, with predictable push-back from the native populations. The migration is essentially economic, including many examples of the classic story of the young man seeking economic opportunities far from home. However this migration has been greatly augmented by Chinese government settlement policy. Although China's economy continues to grow, a drop-off in exports has led to sharp rises in unemployment. In order to avoid unrest in Chinese areas, the western regions are being used as a safety-valve to redistribute idled workers. China also wants to firm up control of Xinjiang as it plans to develop oil and gas pipelines from central Asia and exploit other important natural resources in the region.
What warrants some critical attention is 1) the Chinese government's role in settling Han Chinese in these areas as a matter of policy, 2) the Chinese government's refusal to accept responsibility for the consequences of these policies in favor of anti-Western demagoguery, and 3) the problem that ordinary Chinese, at home and abroad, have in overcoming a centuries-old mindset formed by foreign exploitation in order to grow up and accept the responsibilities of a great power.
It is clear that we are living through an epochal time in Chinese history. All Chinese, as well as the Chinese government, must understand that this means that China and the Chinese will be coming under much more criticism in the years to come, both internally and externally. A thicker skin will have to be developed. Americans (like me) are exceedingly familiar with this phenomenon. The most basic fact of life pertinent to this discussion is that the strong person can bear to hear criticism, the weak person cannot. There is no clearer proof of weakness and insecurity (not to mention wrongfulness) than an inability to confront criticism from others.
The specific problem confronting the Chinese government is ethnic violence in Tibet and Xinjiang. These two regions together constitute far-western China. Neither area has historically been inhabited by Han Chinese. They are ethnically, linguistically, religiously and historically non-Chinese areas. I will discuss Tibet, where China's crimes are much graver, in future posts. Chinese conquests, native revolts, and reconquests date back about 250 years in Xinjain ("Uyghuiristan," more accurately). A little bit of historical background helps one gain a sense of the situation, but I will keep it brief.
The first Chinese invasions of East Turkistan, or Uyghuristan, occured in the mid-1700s. Then as now Chinese policy was frankly expansionist, and Chinese settlements were built on conquered Uigher lands in the late 1700s. However China lost control of Uyghuristan through a series of revolts in the early 1800s and for most of the 19th century the country was under Uigher rule. In a scenario common throughout the Far East for centuries (and to this day), the Chinese minority was the focus of native hostility as they tended to be successful merchants and to resist cultural and linguistic assimilation (similar to traditional perceptions of Indians in East Africa and Jews in Central Europe). In 1863 there was a genocidal anti-Chinese rampage that killed over 7,000 Chinese. China reconquered Uyghuristan in 1877 and the new province was given the name "Xinjiang" (meaning "new frontier") for the first time in 1884. However after the fall of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century Uigher leaders reasserted themselves, effectively triangulating with the Russians who have long contested this region with the Chinese. The East Turkestan Republic was declared in 1933.
In 1943 a Chinese Communist delegation visited the country, but fearing a plot the government ordered all Chinese communists killed; Mao Zedong's brother Mao Zemin was one of the victims. The Red Army defeated the forces of the Eastern Turkestan Republic in 1949. Maoist attempts at cultural genocide of the Uighers in the 1960s (part of "The Great Leap Forward") led to massive Uigher refugee flows into Soviet-controlled areas in 1962. In recent years there have been significant ethnic riots, with large but uncertain numbers of deaths, in 1990 and again in 1997, when police roundups during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan led to a series of riots and bombings. The East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) has existed for many years but suffered a severe setback after 9/11 when the US government accepted and cooperated with the Chinese description of Uigher nationalists as "terrorists." In fact a number of Uighers were held for years at Guantanamo Bay.
The present disturbance originated in Urumqi, the largest city in Uyghuristan, which has been part of the enormous Chinese construction boom of recent years and which subsequently now has an Han Chinese ethnic majority. Apparently stories about ethnic violence among workers in China's Guangdong province led to an outburst of Uigher-on-Han attacks in the city, followed by counter-attacks by gangs of Hans. The government admits to approximately 200 deaths, but has worked hard to cut off internet and other communication access to the area. Journalists have been allowed to interview Han victims in hospitals, but not Uighers. Uigher sources, predictably, claim that China has understated the extent of Uigher casualties.
Another city to watch, though, is Kashgar, the center of Uygher culture. Here cultural genocide on a scale approaching the destruction of the culture of Tibet is occurring while you read these words. The old city, the world's best-preserved example of traditional Central Asian "Silk Road" Muslim culture, as well as the center of contemporary Uygher culture, is being bulldozed away. A small Disneyland-style area will be preserved for tourism. Meanwhile aggressive settlement, far exceeding anything the Israelis have done in Palestine, will insure that the Uygher culture is exterminated forever. Kashgar is closed to outside communication, foreigners found there are driven to the airport and sent away, local people found with foreigners face imprisonment and possibly death.
Finally, there is the issue of Chinese demagoguery in response to criticism of Chinese imperialism in Muslim areas. The Chinese government (I draw a sharp distinction between the Chinese government and the Chinese people) has for years blamed unrest in Uygheristan on local nationalists, using the familiar language of "terrorism." Now, however, the perception that there is a conflict between China and Uygheristan must be downplayed, so there is a return to blaming sinister foreigners (read the US and the "West") for the "problems." Just as in the US, this propaganda is primrily aimed at a domestic audience, as no outside observer would agree that anyone other than the Chinese government itself is responsible for cultural genocide and ethnic settlement in Uygheristan. How ironic that the rationale given for foreign plots is that the area is rich in resources and the likely route of energy pipelines: that is the reason that China is destroying Uygheristan!
The US is guilty of the same hypocrisy in Iraq and the Middle East in general: if you are going to go to violence in order to assure your access to valuable resources, perhaps each power has as much right as another to struggle for survival in this way. But it is better to have the real motives on the surface, in the discussion. In Iraq and Uygheristan, the issue is oil. National governments will continue to practice the diplomatic and rhetorical dark arts, but ordinary people can be expected to rise above their provincial sympathies and try to see things clearly. Too many Americans are not up to this challenge, but the problem is worse among Chinese.