Xinjiang – the limits of nationalism? by foarp
July 8, 2009, 8:43 pm
Filed under: China

[Cross-posted at FOARP]

First off I’d like to thank Matt for allowing me to blog-sit whilst he’s away in France. When he first approached me to stand in for him I came up with a list of possible post topics, but last weekend’s events in Xinjiang, where more than 156 people have now been killed in ethnic violence, have blown these to the four winds and will no doubt dominate posts over the next few days.

Whilst the immediate cause of these disturbances appears to be what was perceived as an inadequate response to the killing of two Uyghurs in a factory riot more than 2,000 miles away from Xinjiang (itself sparked by the posting of a rumour on the internet, as one Chinese Tweetnik put it, a better example of the ‘butterfly effect’ cannot be found) the roots of this conflict extend much further into the past. The Chinese claim to Xinjiang stretches back as far as the establishment of garrisons in the region by under the Han dynasty, pre-dating the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans. Whilst the Chinese presence in the area has ebbed and flowed along the Silk Road over the years, they have never entirely left the region but also, until relatively recently in historical terms, never entirely dominated it.

In contrast to the trade-driven expansion of the Han, the Uyghurs arrived in the region as nomads amid the shifting sands of Central Asia some time before the 4th century AD, and established their first Khanate during the 8th century. At the same time the region was and is populated by many other peoples, from the Kazakhs to the Zungars, and Uyghurs nowadays make up only a bare plurality of the region’s population, with the Han a close second. Since the Chinese de-facto control over the region was re-established following the Second World War the region has rarely been entirely peaceful, but the reasons for this are complex.

Whilst the Muslims of Xinjiang are no less oppressed than the Muslims and Christians in any other part of China, the regular outbursts of violence in Xinjiang as compared to other Muslim-majority regions requires explanation. The first and foremost cause is the distinct ethnic identity of the Uyghur, whilst Muslims in other parts of China are either ethnically Han or can pass as Han, the Uyghur remain a visible minority to whom the worst characteristics and stereotypes are applied. Outside of Xinjiang the Uyghur constitute a poor minority who seemingly make their living through the running of kebab stalls and Xinjiang-themed restaurants. Perhaps driven by poverty or alienation, some drift into petty crime, and it is the stereotype of Uyghurs as pick-pockets and violent knife-wielding thieves that is most prevalent in China today. Otherwise respectable Chinese lawyers, teachers, professors, and accountants think nothing of repeating these stereotypes in polite conversation, or of loudly complaining about the positive discrimination policies applied to all ethnic minorities in selection for university or government positions, and this attitude informs Uyghur-Han relations both inside and outside Xinjiang.

Added to this should be the absolute failure of the nationalist rhetoric adopted by the Chinese government in the wake of the tacit abandonment of communism to make any significant impact on the Uyghur. Whilst the Muslims in the rest of China are mainly the descendent of merchants and share the language and history of the majority, the Uyghur have their own separate history. Talk of the “genius of the Chinese race” has little appeal to them, nor does the characterisation of China as a happy family in which the Han and the Uyghur are “brother races” convince. Attempts to assert the Uyghur identity through the revival of traditional customs have only been haltingly accommodated by the Chinese state. The definite streak of misogyny in Uyghur culture as compared to the relatively socially liberal, modern, and feminist attitude of the Han majority is also a significant factor.

Finally, Xinjiang’s position as a border region drives conflict. A battleground during the ‘Great Game’ of the 19th century, and then a definite candidate for Soviet expansion for much of the 20th century, it now lies in the heartland of the war on terror. The large-scale settlement of the region through military colonies known as bingtuan from the Sixties until the Eighties was carried out to counter the Soviets, and government propaganda across China still urges people to go west “where the people and the Motherland need you”, which, joined with Xinjiang’s status as a California-like place of opportunity, which drives Han migration. It is for this reason that the Chinese government will not act to accommodate Uyghur sentiment, or in anyway risk its hold on the region, and since the policy of marginalisation and settlement is going to continue, so will these occasional outbreaks of violence.


3 Comments so far
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… it is the stereotype of Uyghurs as pick-pockets and violent knife-wielding thieves …

This remind me of a little episode when I visited Chinese Turkestan back in aught four. I was speaking to a Uyghur about relations with the Han and he said something to the effect of: “They think of us as backwards people carrying around knives. All we carry around are cellphones”

Comment by Younghusband

If not for the fact that I have encountered Uighur thieves trying to lift items out of my bag before, I would of dismissed the stereotype against them as thieves. Instead, I have became a mere stereotype myself of yet another Han claiming Uighur to be petty thieves. And for the record, I also witnessed the police releasing the thieves right after being detained.

At the end of the day, actions of a group create a stereotype. There are plenty of negative stereotypes against Chinese people and many of them are more or less true. If this is to be changed, it would take a lot of effort starting with admission of a problem. Chinese government can’t admit its failures and as the result the world condemns it. The Uighur community should face up valid criticisms of its own culture as well.

Comment by yes1

Stereotypes are no less stereotypes for containing a grain of truth. Petty crime is, as far as I can tell, more prevalent in the Uyghur community, but so is joblessness and poor education, despite positive discrimination. It would be wrong to say that every problem in the Uyghur community is the result of Chinese government policy, their treatment of women, for example, is entirely a result of traditional Uyghur culture. That said, government policy has not prevented any of this, and has by all reports created most of it.

Comment by foarp

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