Wednesday, September 24, 2014

CHINA: Where Minority Nostalgia is One Thing, Minority POLITICS Quite Another

A very European-looking
Uighur woman.
(Source: Robert Lindsay)
I heard her voice -- crystal clear, idiomatic Mandarin Chinese -- but when I turned to look at her I was in for a surprise. She had blue eyes and looked like she might be from Hungary. "No European speaks Chinese that well!" I thought. I glanced at the sign over the booth and saw Xinjiang Province Animal By-Products Import/Export Corporation. "Ah!" I thought. "Uighur . . . !"

(As I discovered in searching on the Internet -- particularly on the website of Robert Lindsay -- Uighur people can have a range of appearances, including but not limited to some looking like Europeans.)

It was a little thing, but that moment during one of my many trips to the Canton Trade Fair helped me remember the special status of Xinjiang, in Western China, and the people who live there -- the Uighurs.

What territory is "integral" to China?

Manchu (Qing) Conquest (Source: )
One of the lessons I remember from studying Chinese history in college is that the core area of China has remained pretty constant for the past several thousand years, but the control of the periphery has fluctuated from dynasty to dynasty, and from period to period within dynasties.

The final imperial dynasty -- the Qing -- marks its start from 1644, and the decades surrounding the founding of the Qing focused was on gaining control of the periphery -- including what we now call Xinjiang ("New Territory").

I also remember that Xinjiang was contested territory during the Republican period in China, e.g. during the 1930s. (See the article on the Xinjiang Wars on Wikipedia.)

Minorities in China

China has a minorities situation that is only slightly less complicated than that of the U.S. (And Americans need to approach any discussion of minorities in China with some humility, considering that we live on occupied land and that our society remains characterized by a high degree of institutionalized racism.)

China has a land mass roughly comparable to that of the U.S. Like the U.S., it has large areas in the west that consist of desert, grassland, and mountain; like the U.S., the Eastern portion of the country has the greatest concentration of the populace.

The peculiar feature of China is that its inland periphery -- west and north -- consists of land that has traditionally been inhabited by a relatively small number of people who are from a diverse set of ethnic groups, all of which are themselves distinct from the so-called Han Chinese. Han people constitute about 94% of China's population; traditionally they hail from the eastern 50% or so of the land.

"The sunlight of Mao Zedong Thought illuminates the road of the Great
Proletarian Cultural Revolution." (Note members of diverse ethnic
minorities in characteristic dress.) (Source:

At the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the leadership sought to institute a policy toward non-Han minorities that essentially recognized that (a) the country had to obtain the loyalty of its minorities, many/most of whom predominated in strategically important border areas; and (b) wherever possible, an accomodationist posture could be used to win people over.

Uighur ethnic minority:
Characteristic dress,
dance, and music
(Postage stamp, PRC)
The leading anthropologist in the country, Fei Xiaotong, was invited to lead a Central Institute for Nationalities, and guide policy that would indicate respect for minority cultures.

The Central Institute for Nationalities is one of a network of institutions and enterprises in China devoted to celebrating and shoring up the nation's ethnic minorities. Language, dress, customs, crafts, dance, music -- everything is to be studied, preserved, sustained.

(See the PRC postage stamp at right, illustrating Uighur culture, and the beautiful and extensive series of all 56 ethnic minorities of China on PRC postage stamps shown on the Windwing website.)

In short, ethnic minorities in China are supposed to be celebrated -- provided, that is, that the cardinal sin of challenging national territorial integrity never occurs.

Nostalgia, yes; culture, maybe. Sentiment? That gets touchy. And politics is off limits

I recall being at a presentation in Washington, D.C., about 20 years ago by the China scholar and policy analyst, Harry Harding. "Not to put too fine a point on it," he said, "but one suggests that a part of the sovereign territory of China is actually entitled to independence, it is perceived as a hostile act."

Violent conflict

In recent years, China has experienced numerous violent incidents that are linked to conflict with the Uighur community, including violent confrontations between police and ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, and violent attacks (bombings, people being struck by automobiles, stabbings, shootings) alleged to involve Uighurs and occurring in Xinjiang as well as other locations in China.

"Rioting breaks out after police confront an anti-discrimination protest by ethnic
Uighur Muslims in Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang region. This screen grab
is from video footage aired by CCTV, China's state television broadcaster.

We are reminded that there are now many Han Chinese living in the Xinjiang capital, Urumuqi -- as there are in the other main minority areas, such as Tibet -- and that there are also many Han Chinese police and soldiers in these places. It seems like a recipe for confrontation, misunderstanding, and anger, if not violence.

It is in this context that we learn that the leading scholar and advocate within China on Uighur affairs, Ilham Tohti, after many incidents of detention and harassment by the government of China, has now been tried and sentenced to life in prison. The government is punishing him for talking about and encouraging attention to, and discussion of, Uighur affairs; and it is sending a message to everyone seeking to assert rights for Uighur people and influence the future of politics in the places where the Uighurs live. (See "China sentences prominent Uyghur scholar to life in prison for 'separatism'" by Steven Jiang on

"Kill the chicken to scare the monkey."
According to observers, Tohti is a moderate voice. Doesn't politics and diplomacy call for the deft engagement with such figures, in order to find breakthroughs that accommodate everyone, rather than a scorched earth approach?

One answer that comes to mind: power holders in China are much more familiar with the idea of "killing the chicken to scare the monkey."  An action that may appear futile to people outside China is well-understood by people inside China as a way of "sending a message."

Another insight that comes to mind is from John King Fairbank's memoir, Chinabound: we forget at our peril, says the dean of U.S. scholars of China, that in Chinese political thinking it is always the state that holds a monopoly of political power.


September 24, 2014 - "Uighur Scholar’s Life Sentence Is Seen as Reining in Debate on Minorities in China" by Andrew Jacobs in The New York Times quotes scholar Wang Lixiong on the sentencing of Ilham Tohti: "Now that he’s gone, it will give radicals an example to show to their people that whoever is a moderate and still harbors illusions of improving ethnic ties should look at Ilham’s case for proof that it’s a dead end."

September 27,2014 - "Deadly blasts in China's Xinjiang reported" in Al Jazeera: "Forty 'rioters' were killed in China's Xinjiang region following a series of explosions last Sunday, the regional government has said after a four-day news blackout. . . . Six civilians, two police officers and two auxiliary police were also killed in the attacks in Xinjiang's Luntai county, with 54 civilians injured, the regional government's news portal Tianshan said late on Thursday."


For much greater detail on many of the facts touched on above, see the article on Xinjiang in the China Heritage letter of the China Heritage Project, Australian National University.

June Teufel Dreyer, China's Forty Millions: Minority Nationalities and National Integration in the People's Republic of China, details the history of China's minority policy.

Related posts

In the days and weeks ahead, we have an enormous opportunity to better understand how people in one of the most important places in the world think and operate. What would be truly valuable would be for us to convene many more conversations about the underlying issues, and the big emerging directions.

(See Empire, Chinese Style ("Why the Leung Face?") )

Despite the difficulties associated with engaging in effective solidarity with dissidents in China, it is important to make the effort. A fundamental tenet of all peace and justice activism is that if we have the power to speak we can do anything, and if "they" succeed in shutting us up, it's the beginning of the end.

(See What is the US Peace and Justice Movement Doing for Dissidents in China?)

"There's one thing you don't understand," he said. "What you are calling 'the best and the brightest,' the leaders in China call 'troublemakers.; A hundred thousand Ph.D.'s stay behind in the U.S.? Two hundred thousand? A million? Fine! Let them! There's more where that came from! China's got nothing if not people!"

(See Why Beijing Always "Wins")

China's rulers share something in common with the elite in the U.S.: when they get it into their head to undertake a project, nothing stands in their way: not mountains, not deserts . . . and certainly not people.

(See  Cadillac Desert (Don't Try This At Home) )