Xinjiang blows up by mattsteinglass
July 7, 2009, 8:44 pm
Filed under: China

We’re unlikely to continue getting as much information out of Xinjiang as we got out of Iran during the election demonstrations. The Chinese authorities are much better at controlling internet access. Twitter has already been blocked. On the other hand, the authorities have taken the unusual step of organizing a tour by Western reporters in order to present their side of the story. As this stunning report by The Guardian’s Tania Branigan makes clear, that journalists’ tour didn’t go quite as expected — the journalists encountered crowds of Uighurs protesting that their husbands and children had been locked up.

One dramatic difference between the Uighur and Iran protests is, obviously, that the Uighurs are a minority within their own ethnic territory due to Han in-migration. 40% of Xinjiang’s population were Han Chinese as of the 2000 census, with 45% Uighur; the city of Urumqi, where the riots took place, is 75% Han. These types of ethnic clashes between populations of similar size tend to lead to long-running, smoldering violence and tension without any kind of resolution, in most countries in the world (including democratic ones — see Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, and so forth). Where there is a hegemon that can prop up one side, as in Xinjiang, the perspective is probably for decades of periodic violence, with the indigenous side ultimately losing. In Vietnam, similar demonstrations and riots took place in 2001 and again in 2004 by ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands. They were largely ineffective, and led to years of a successful two-pronged effort to repress any autonomous political organizing and block refugee streams into Cambodia while simultaneously recruiting more ethnic representation in governing bodies to siphon away support.

For that matter, the moral valence of these kinds of interethnic struggles is very ambiguous. On the one hand, ethnic majority hegemony in autocratic states like China tends to be heavy-handed and repressive; recent decisions to lay waste to much of the Old City of Kashgar and replace it with typically disgusting modern Chinese development are outrageous to the sensibilities of both Uighurs and anyone with a modicum of taste or intellect. On the other hand, ethnic separatism does in fact tend to lead to extended violence and usually to the creation of an indigenous ethnic political class that is every bit as stupid, corrupt and autocratic as the external hegemon was. And that’s true even in cases like Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians constituted 90% of the population. In a heavily mixed region like Xinjiang, ethnic separatism seems like a genuine recipe for disaster. It’s also clear that autocratic states like China lack the safety valves of democratic self-representation that can defuse ethnic conflicts. But given that China isn’t likely to stop being autocratic anytime soon, that observation doesn’t get one very far.


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