Xinjiang, Tibet, beyond: China's ethnic relations

Temtsel Hao
27 July 2009

The ethnic protests and clashes in China's westernmost region of Xinjiang on 5-6 July 2009 and the following days have caused around 200 deaths. The deadly violence, mainly between the Uyghur (and Muslim) population and the Han Chinese - but also involving the security forces killing some protesting Uyghurs, in circumstances that are not yet clear - has shocked and polarised public opinion across China. They have also focused renewed attention on the sensitive and complex theme of the relationship between different ethnic groups in the People's Republic of China.

Temtsel Hao is a journalist based in London, working for the BBC World Service

Also by Temtsel Hao in openDemocracy:

"Dharamsala: forging Tibetans' future" (29 April 2009The argument can be heard on either side of the divide in Xinjiang that the political arrangements in the region don't match its socio-economic circumstances. Uyghurs are unhappy with the tokenism of "nationality policies", and demand more participation and more of a share in the Xinjiang economy and its social proceeds; Han Chinese are unhappy with what they see as official favouritism towards the Uyghurs, and seek to remove the guarantees of autonomy and special treatment that Uyghurs (and other ethnic minorities) are supposed to benefit from.

A balance of favour

The events of early July 2009 - which mainly, though not exclusively, occurred in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi - reflect the deeper processes of rapid economic growth and social transformation during in the 1990s and 2000s. In particular, the national policies of China's leadership in opening the economy, creating new labour-market mechanisms, and encouraging internal-migration flows have had profound effects in this region (as elsewhere).

These processes have accompanied China's historic shift from a centrally planned to a market economy, which has made it the manufacturing centre of the world. Many have benefited, but there have also been great problems, including new development gaps - between urban and rural areas, coastal regions and inland/frontier areas, and prosperous and poor in the same places. In addition, there are huge insecurities: many people in China have lost the assurance of a lifetime job and the social safety-nets that they enjoyed a generation ago.

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" (9 July 2009)

Kerry Brown, "Xinjiang: China's security high-alert" (14 July 2009)

Dibyesh Anand, "China's borderlands: the need to rethink" (15 July 2009)In Xinjiang, this "uneven development" has in the eyes of many Uyghurs become institutionalised along ethnic lines to their disadvantage; the result has been that they have been increasingly marginalised in the region's economic life (see Kerry Brown, "Xinjiang: China's security high-alert", 14 July 2009).

The Uyghur intellectual and scholar Ilham Tohti - who was detained in the wake of the Urumqi events - has offered two examples. First, the Xinjiang production and construction corps is an all-embracing institution that brings together the communist party, government, army, farms, and factories; it has taken the best farmland in Xinjiang and diverted rivers from the upper streams to its further advantage. Second, Xinjiang has been supplying oil, coal, gas and cotton to more developed Chinese regions, yet locals have to pay higher prices for some of those products than are charged in inland Chinese areas.

Ilham Tohti argues that China's Xinjiang policy is worse even than "colonialism". When foreign capital comes to china or other less-developed countries, local people at least have the chance to be "exploited" in "sweatshop factories". But when China establishes state farms, businesses, and oil companies on its own territory, it imports large numbers of Chinese workers to the area concerned. Uyghur workers have in the main not been absorbed by state factories in Xinjiang; some though have been sent 4,000 kilometres away to work in factories in Guangdong province, where the deaths of two of them in a conflict with Han Chinese workers on 25-26 June 2009 played a role in the outbreak of the violence in Urumqi (see Henryk Szadziewski, "The discovery of the Uyghurs", 9 July 2009).

An ideological disguise

Chinese communist forces entered Xinjiang in 1949 and disbanded the republic of East Turkestan. Since then, under successive systems of effective local independence and regional autonomy, China has created a facade of equality between the "nationalities". In practice, however, the new China continues to implement some elements of an older "frontier strategy": that is, using large-scale Chinese emigration to consolidate the strategically important regions across its western frontier (see "China and its Continental Borders", China Perspectives [2008/3]).

Human Rights Watch estimates that Han Chinese in Xinjiang composed 6% of the entire regional population in 1949, but had become 40% by 2007. The current figure does not include either members of the Chinese military and their families, or unregistered migrant workers. In addition, the aforementioned Xinjiang production and construction corps is the largest ever of its kind; its control of farms, mines, factories, towns, schools, hospitals, police and courts makes it in effect an independent kingdom transplanted into Xinjiang (and, significantly, it is praised by Chinese media as a "deterrence to guarantee the state's unity"). 

The establishment of Chinese immigration and dominance in Xinjiang, however, took place under the disguise of an ideology that was at once "supranational" and "socialist". In the communist doctrine of "proletarian internationalism", nations and national sentiments - whether of the Chinese or non-Chinese peoples - are regarded as temporary, destined to disappear into a nation-less communist commonwealth at a higher level of development.

Also in openDemocracy on Tibet:

Tenzin Tzundue, "Tibet vs China: a human-rights showdown" (15 August 2006)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2009)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet" (28 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power" (28 March 2008)

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

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

openDemocracy, "Chinese intellectuals and Tibet: a letter" (15 April 2008)

openDemocracy, "Tibet scholars and China: a letter" (22 April 2008)

Chang Ping, "Tibet: looking for the truth" (8 May 2008)

Fred Halliday, "Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

Woeser, "The Fear in Lhasa" (10 March 2009)

Tsering Shakya, "Tibet and China: the past in the present" (18 March 2009)

Temtsel Hao, "Dharamsala: forging Tibetans' future" (29 April 2009) The supranational policy and this associated ideology were equally against local ethnic nationalisms and manifestations of Chinese chauvinism, the latter including the oppressive policies toward non-Chinese peoples pursued by (for example) the pre-1949 Chinese warlords, the Manchu dynasty, and the Kuomintang. The legitimacy of Xinjiang's integration into China is based on the claim that the common interests of the toiling masses of Chinese and non-Chinese alike made unnecessary any demands for national self-determination by local non-Chinese peoples.

An ethnic revival

Since the late 1980s the supranational emphasis of Chinese nationality policy and theory has increasingly collided with the effects of China's market-reform policies. The older official ideology has little purchase on the emergent social realities, and the state's response has been to swerve to the right by emphasising statist cohesion and the idea of an all-inclusive Chinese nation. These notions need legitimacy, which is met in part by theories that have emerged to compete for prominence - among them the "Zhong Hua nation", the "descendants of Yan and Huang", the "people of the dragon", and other quintessences of "Chinese culture" and "Chineseness".

The period when China's official ideology has swung rightwards has coincided with the country's acquisition of tremendous economic strength and political influence in the international arena. The perception of a rising China is acutely felt at home. In particular, it acts to reinforce Han Chinese ethnic identity and nationalist sentiment; this in turn influences the internal ethnic relationship, by heightening the sense of insecurity felt by non-Chinese minorities facing economic marginalisation and cultural assimilation (see Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt", 4 April 2008).

Two more positive factors intensify the process of a sharpening of ethnic identity in regions such as Xinjiang. First, many people in Xinjiang share close ethnic affinities with those in the five central Asian and majority-Muslim states - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. These states, which emerged out of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, represent a powerful reminder to the Uyghur in Xinjiang of their distinct identity and potentially different political loyalty in relation to their Han Chinese neighbours.

Second, the past two decades have witnessed the spread of new communication technologies such as the internet and the mobile phone. These have facilitated new forms of discourse, organisation and information flows on the part of the Uyghurs and comparable peoples. The connections between people in Xinjiang and those across the border or in the wider diaspora are an important part of this (see Yitzhak Shichor, "The Uyghurs and China: lost and found nation", 6 July 2009).

At the same time, the creation of online networks also creates the possibility that false or malicious rumours can have nefarious effects in the real world; the Guangdong violence and that in Urumqi were characterised by the online fanning of hatred between Han Chinese and Uyghurs.

Much of this online orchestration of prejudice exploits pre-existing ethnic stereotypes. It is important to recognise here that these can work both ways. For example, at the national people's congress in Beijing in 2004, I witnessed the then Xinjiang governor Ismail Tiliwaldi react with visible irritation to a formulaic question from a Hong Kong journalist that invited his comment on the large number of common crimes allegedly committed by Uyghurs in Chinese cities. Tiliwaldi reminded the questioner of the need for balanced reporting, and added that ethnic population-exchange went in both directions.

The huge number of Chinese people who have migrated to Xinjiang in recent decades include many who have been through China's own prison system; some too are survivors of the many large state prisons scattered across Xinjiang's Gobi desert). Indeed, from the Manchu dynasty to 1949, Xinjiang played a role not unlike colonial-era Australia to Britain, as the enforced destination of many of its convicts. Members of local non-Chinese minorities complain about the high proportion of convicts among the Chinese immigrant population.

The emergence of deep divisions along ethnic lines - even when they fall, as they usually do, very far short of violence - suggests that much more than cosmetic repairs and propaganda spins will be needed if the fundamental problems in areas such as Xinjiang are to be addressed.

A quiet end

Today, many Chinese regard the old system of nationality-based regional autonomy as a proven failure. They criticise what they perceive as the central state's excessively benign policy towards ethnic minorities, claiming that this extends even to treating people as above the law. They blame especially the so-called "two restraints and one leniency" policy announced by the CCP in 1984, which enjoins leniency in restraining and prosecuting crimes committed by members of minorities.

These attitudes fuel nostalgia for the "good old days" of the 1950s, when Xinjiang was under the iron reign of General Wang Zhen - notorious for his merciless handling of ethnic and religious affairs, including the massacre of large numbers of minority people. Even Mao Zedong criticised Wang Zhen for his "ultra-left" zealotry and later removed from his Xinjiang post.

Wang Lixiong recounted his personal experience in Xinjiang in his book Our West Region is Your East Turkistan. He encountered the sharp contrast of views expressed by the different nationalities about General Wang Zhen and to the Chinese warlord Sheng Shicai,who had ruled Xinjiang in the 1930-40s. The ethnic minorities in Xinjiang regarded Wang Zhen and Sheng Shicai as ruthless mass-killers; some even called Wang Lequan, the current Xinjiang party boss, "Wang Shicai". But most Chinese in Xinjiang see Wang Zhen and Sheng Shicai as national heroes who expanded and consolidated Chinese territory.

These attitudes influence political beliefs. Many influential Chinese figures - including Qian Xuesen, and other leading intellectuals and dissidents - have asked the Chinese authorities to re-examine the "favouritist" nationality policy. Some even have called for the cancellation of the existing nationality-based autonomous regions, and returned Xinjiang to its status as a Chinese province. The American model of "melting-pot" assimilation is widely regarded as the solution to China's ethnic problems.

Wang Lixiong too has more recently argued that China can do without the system of nationality-based regional autonomy, as long as individual rights are guaranteed under a democratic system. He says: "If individual rights are guaranteed, naturally the rights of ethnic groups consisting of individuals can be guaranteed; hence the nationality-based regional autonomy is no longer needed" (see Asia Week interview with Wang Lixiong, in Woeser's blog). 

An impossible problem

A wider view, however, suggests that there is little empirical evidence in international history for the view of Chinese dissidents that democracy is something of a miracle solution to ethnic conflicts. Dibyesh Anand wisely comments that a "non-communist democratic China may not necessarily be more accommodative of minority interests" (see Dibyesh Anand, "China's borderlands: the need to rethink", 15 July 2009).

In theory, China historically incorporated non-Chinese regions not via the will of leaders or by naked conquest, but by forging agreements with local ethnic elites - either radical (in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia) or conservative (Tibet). The basis of these agreements is a compromise between Chinese communist goals and non-Chinese nationalist demands for national autonomy or liberation. The pacts include the "seventeen-point agreement" and many other directives promulgated by Chinese communists and local non-Chinese communist and nationalist collaborators around 1949. The legitimacy of the nationality-based regional-autonomy system derives from these agreements (see James A Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang [C Hurst, 2007]).

In another words, the major ethnic minorities of the autonomous regions consider that they joined the People's Republic of China in 1949 as groups - with their elites (revolutionary or conservative as the case may be) as their political representatives in the new system.

But after 1949, the ethnic elites within the system were gradually purged and replaced by more obedient ethnic cadres, who became the only legitimate representatives of their groups left within the system. China's lordly policy toward non-Chinese nationalism means that non-Chinese minority cadres have more worries than their Chinese counterparts about defending local interests (see Tsering Shakya, "Tibet and China: the past in the present", 18 March 2009).

Now, sixty years on from 1949, the nationality system may serve a legitimation purpose for China as a multi-ethnic state - but in practice it has lost its original meaning. China is at a crossroads: after decades of capitalist reform,  state control - including the nationality system - is in deep tension with forces of unrestrained economic change.

In this respect, the call for American-style assimilationism to deal with non-Chinese minorities represents support for a market-forces solution: one that (it is argued) tends to break down regional and ethnic barriers, and replace ethnic relations with individually-based economic relations. The logic is that as a result the state's core character would change from a multi-ethnic one into a homogenous nation-state.

A tough choice

The way Chinese authorities have responded to the Xinjiang riots has been criticised by both the Chinese public and Uighur exile groups. It is Chinese authority's supranational (even ostensibly "neutral") stance - seeing the riots not as an ethnic incident but as a political one - that is scorned come by Chinese (for the "official" position, see Fu Ying, "Unity is Deep in China's Blood", Guardian, 13 July 2009).

For the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and other non-Chinese minorities, the great concern is how far Chinese authority can resist increasingly populist opinion and retain this limited neutrality. The answer to this question will affect how far and how much non-Chinese minorities can identify with the state. As China's society becomes more loose and state power recedes, government policy is more and more subject to social influences.

The Chinese authorities face a tough choice over how they maintain the state's legitimacy and deal with ethnic relations (see Tsering Shakya, "Tibet and China: the past in the present", 18 March 2009). If they seek to respond to growing Han Chinese ethnic nationalism by accelerating assimilation of non-Chinese groups, this would provoke the minority-nationalist causes with which the Chinese state found some accommodation in 1949: national self-determination and national liberation. But if they seek to amend and improve existing multi-ethnic arrangements to improve inter-ethnic relations in autonomous regions, they risk severe problems with Chinese business interests and popular opinions.

China has no easy way out. The fires of Lhasa, and now Urumqi, cannot be extinguished without the most intelligent and sophisticated policy mix. But even that might not be enough. Several genies are out of the bottle, and flying free. Welcome to the 21st century, China.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData