Xinjiang and China, tragedy foretold

China's official mindset towards its troubled, majority-Muslim region is flawed. Many outside views are simplistic. A new book makes the case for a deeper understanding to help avert disaster. 

Kerry Brown
11 July 2015

China's policy regarding ethnic-minority issues has always been problematic. In the early years after the People’s Republic of China was created in 1949, its guiding ideas were largely borrowed from the Soviet Union. These were framed in talk of different cultural and language rights, and a benign multiculturalism based on social equality, though China never went as far as importing the theoretical right of individual "Soviet socialist republics" to secession (which, in the seven decades of the USSR, only the foolhardy or doomed ever tried to pursue). An important influence was Sun Yat-sen’s articulation in the 1920s of five major groups (Han, Mongolia, Tibetan, Uyghur and Hui Muslim) making their way, eventually, towards some kind of cultural unity.

These days, ethnic policy in China is dominated by a sometimes fierce debate between moderates and the so-called second generation of thinkers, led by scholars like Beijing University’s Ma Rong, and Qinghua’s Hu Angang. For the latter, the whole architecture of autonomous regions and special rights for China’s fifty-five ethnic minorities needs to be eradicated. In their view, the country is on a journey towards an idealised super-unity along the lines envisaged by Sun Yat-sen. Their critics, including prominent academics like Hao Shiyuan of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, have effectively accused them of promoting Han chauvinism under another name, with Han constituting over 92% of the current national population.

All this hovers in the background of a lucid and up-to-date book by Nick Holdstock - China’s Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State - which focuses on the problems of one of the most contentious and increasingly restive of China’s five autonomous regions, Xinjiang. This north-west region, constituting almost a fifth of China's total landmass, matters on several levels. The most obvious is its tangible resource value: Xinjiang is a source of over a third of the country’s crucially important coal and gas. Beyond this, it is a strategic buffer with the central Asian region and Russia, as well as sharing borders with Pakistan and (for a mere 14 kilometers) Afghanistan.

Xinjiang has been a great strategic centre for centuries. This role is now being revived by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping's, idea of a new "silk road", unveiled in 2014. Such attention may lead many of the native Uyghur Muslim population to wish that (despite the title of Holdstock’s book) they were more "forgotten" than they are. But their region is becoming increasingly significant and they are not remotely likely to be left alone.

Nor is this just because of Xinjiang’s strategic and economic value, but, in ways Holdstock’s topical study makes clear, also because it is a cultural and ideological battlefront. This was most vividly revealed by the uprising in Urumqi, the regional capital, in 2009, and has been confirmed by repeated tension and occasional violence since (see "Xinjiang: China's security high-alert", 14 July 2009). The great question for the ethnic-minority policy championed by second-generation thinkers is simple: just how far can everyone eventually become ethnically "Chinese" without recourse to any other descriptor?

In the abstract, it sounds straightforward. But in the concrete, things look different. For most in Xinjiang, it would entail being absorbed into a stark concept of generic "Chinese" ethnicity that would have to be so wide enough as to meaningfully accommodate (for example) use of a non-tonal language with cursive script rather than tonal Mandarin in characters, worship in mosques, non-eating of pork, and observation of Muslim holy days and religious rites. But how realistic is this outcome? Would Uyghurs - or any other ethnic group - really be comfortable falling under a "Chinese" rubric of this kind without feeling like they had lost something of themselves?

An absent dialogue

The evidence Holdstock assembles in his book doesn’t give much foundation for optimism. He shows a region where the relationships amongst Uyghur communities, and between them and various Han and other groups, is complex, often fractious, and where divisions are, if anything, deepening. He rightly challenges the dominant, Manichean, portrayal amongst some media outlets of division along crudely ethnic lines between resentful, unified locals and "outsiders". But his experience of living in Xinjiang and recently visiting the area produced little unequivocal evidence of the forging of a bold new harmony.

This militates against the Beijing government's mindset, committed to the idea that economic development and (even more contentiously) heavy immigration into the region will ensure that all problems will become manageable and, eventually, diminish and fade away. The series of post-2009 incidents - national as well as local - has compounded this sense of latent crisis. The region remains tense and unpredictable, and its turbulence has leaked out to other areas in China.

Much of the outside world is sympathetic to Beijing's view. On this issue key groups in the United States have, since the attacks of 11 September 2001, made an effective compact with Beijing, largely recognising its claim that some Uyghur groups are terrorists and need to be eliminated. But as Holdstock shows, the loose application of the term "terrorism" too easily elides explosions of frustration in the region which have social and economic roots with events that have a much sharper secessionist political purpose. The result is to ignore the feelings of many Uyghur who feel they have been excluded from the economic benefits their resources have delivered.

The pity for China and the outside world is that there is not a higher quality, more informed dialogue about the sorts of issues Xinjiang raises. Chinese policymakers might find it worth listening to the experience of those in other countries who are trying to wrestle with social cohesion and relations between ethnic groups. And some foreign observers might be wise not to leap to judgments in attempting to understand the complexities of the region. But at the moment, a combination of official defensiveness in China and politicisation of agendas outside means that dialogue on this crucial issue barely exists. It is to be hoped that Nick Holdstock’s book and others like it will stimulate precisely this sort of dialogue. Without it, a real, and lasting, tragedy is threatened: for the people of Xinjiang and of China, but also those of the region and the wider world. 

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