China's borderlands: the need to rethink

Dibyesh Anand
14 July 2009

The Chinese elite seeks routinely to perpetuate a myth that outsiders too are often willing to collude in, one that portrays China as a gigantic monolith. The high-profile events and anniversaries that punctuate this period in China's history - the Beijing Olympics in August 2008 and the sixtieth birthday of the People's Republic of China in October 2009 among them - are moments when the myth reaches its peak of official expression. Dibyesh Anand is an associate professor of international relations at London's University of Westminster. He is an expert on majority-minority relations in China and India and the author of Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination (University of Minnesota Press, 2008)

Also by Dibyesh Anand in openDemocracy:

"Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind" (1 April 2008)

It is at such very moments, however, when the signals of monumental celebrations to come are becoming routinely interrupted by uncomfortable reminders that China is in fact a far from monolithic society. The protests in Tibet in March 2008 and now in Xinjiang in July 2009 remind both China and the rest of the world that millions within the country are unwilling to join the party.

These disruptive interventions in the frontier regions of modern China provoke a range of reactions. There are two dominant ways in which such protests are perceived - as ethnic conflict masterminded by inimical outside forces, or as a revolt of suppressed minorities against an authoritarian state. Each has its limitations and is detrimental to the interests of people in China.

The modes of perception

The ethnicity lens deployed by the Chinese state and media in Xinjiang (as in Tibet) shifts the blame from the government to the recalcitrant minorities and hostile outsiders. Han Chinese migrants and the government are represented as victims of the violent extremism of the ungrateful minority separatists. The danger with this lens is that it does not encourage critical reflection on how certain policies (such as encouraging Han immigration) contribute to alienating the minorities in the first place. It prevents a rethinking of how the government can effectively involve minorities in policy-making and implementation instead of considering them as passive subjects or active irritants. It leaves unquestioned - and thus unaddressed - the prejudices, stereotypes and hatred that exist amongst different ethnic groups, including Han people. Instead of treating the cause of the wound, it accepts the wound as natural and tries to manage it.

The ethnicity lens also fuels a backlash from the majoritarian Han community. The result is that very soon the tensions, animosity and violence become tit-for-tat and acquire a lethality beyond the state's control. In the long run, it is Han chauvinism instead of minority nationalisms that poses the greatest threat to the viability of a multiethnic China. The state, after all, can use its coercive might more easily against minorities than against the majority.

The ferocity of attacks on Han and Hui Chinese in Xinjiang on the first day of the protest was not due to an ancient hatred. It is an understandable, but unjustified, reaction against people who are seen as the face or the agents of the state. The state, instead of unconsciously stoking greater inter-ethnic rivalry and coming down heavily against the restive minorities, should calm the situation by ordering an independent and impartial inquiry into the relevant incidents. If the violence was started by protestors or provoked by the police, the culprits should be legally held to account. The state should use the media to make it clear to the people that it is willing to listen and not to distort the complexity of the situation. Why start by blaming the separatists? Why not start by promising a thorough investigation? Why not assure Han, Uyghur, Hui alike that China will protect all equally irrespective of their ethnicity?

Also on Xinjiang in openDemocracy:

James Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Henryk Szadziewski, "Kashgar"s old city: the politics of demolition" (3 April 2009)

Yitzhak Shichor, "The Uyghurs and China: lost and found nation" (6 July 2009)

Henryk Szadziewski, "The discovery of the Uyghurs" (10 July 2009)

Kerry Brown, Xinjiang: China's security high-alert (14 July 2008)

The other dominant way of seeing the eruption of protests in the borderlands is as the desperate resistance of downtrodden minorities against an overweening state. This is reflected in the familiar tendency in the west to reserve cynicism for Chinese claims while accepting at face value the picture of human-rights abuse by exiled politicians or activists. There is every need to recognise the violations take place in China, especially in the border regions; but it would be refreshing too if this were accompanied by some appreciation of the difficulties faced by a rapidly modernising China in balancing state stability with social harmony. Instead of painting every event in stark terms and focusing exclusively on the sufferings on co-ethnic people, activists and (especially) exiles could also help shape a more constructive discourse and better outcomes by seeking to calm things down in periods of great tension and violence.

There is something, after all, even more important than human rights; that is, humanity itself. By insisting that more Uyghurs have been killed, parts of the diaspora engages in a numbers-game which dehumanises all (Uyghur as well as Han). There are many reports of sympathy for Uyghurs in certain Muslim-majority countries, especially Turkey. But why sympathy only for Muslim Uyghur victims and not Han victims? What, other than a warped sense of morality that privileges ethnic or religious solidarity over humanity, explains the Turkish prime minister's reference to genocide in China when set against his denial of the Armenian genocide? Outsiders need to reflect on their own politics and the selective (im)morality of sympathy.

Before outsiders adopt the trigger-stance of lecturing China, they would do well to consider that in many respects China is quite tolerant of cultural plurality, sometimes more so that some European democracies (note, for example, the hostility toward the hijab in France or Germany). Cultural difference is not only accepted but also promoted to a limited extent, even in the sensitive border areas; but there is no room for political disagreement. When minorities appropriate cultural symbols for political purposes, the Chinese state - not without justification - gets paranoid. This paranoia is the product of a postcolonial condition where a global and national identity is asserted in the face of hostility from (still) more powerful western countries.

The open solution

The riots, growing ethnic tensions, increasing minority nationalisms as well as Han chauvinism also point toward an uncomfortable possibility: that a non-communist democratic China may not necessarily be more accommodative of minority interests. "People power" is not always progressive and liberal. The west, in its zeal for democracy-promotion, should not forget that democracy is an ideal over which no one geopolitical entity has an exclusive purchase. People struggle over it in different ways. Foreign interference often backfires.

China is not a monolithic civilisational state; it is a modern construct that brings together a diverse set of peoples. People within China now need to reimagine China differently for their own sake; paternalism of the majority and exclusivism of the minorities has to go. The only durable solution to the current crisis is an acknowledgment by the government that there is a serious problem in Xinjiang and that it does not favour one ethnicity over another. This has to be followed by an open, frank deliberation with various groups of people, including the exiles. The government can make it clear that everything except ethnic exclusivity and independence is on the table. It should invest more energies in understanding and dialogue and less in rejecting the exiles as separatists.  A more open and relaxed China may prove to be a more stable China. This can make China a genuinely multiethnic global power.

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