Jonathan Lipman on Ethnic Tension in China

Thursday, July 16, 2009 - 12:00

Questioning Authority asked Jonathan Lipman, Felicia Gressitt Bock Professor of Asian Studies and professor of history, to explain the recent violence against the Uyghur people in China. Author of Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China (1998), he has studied this subject for many years. It’s a long and fascinating tale…

QA: Who are the Uyghur and Han people of China?

JL: To start with, "the Han people" and "the Uyghur people" do not really exist. They are constructions that we (and the Chinese state and the folks in question) all use to try and make generalizations about groups of people who are actually quite diverse and internally contradictory.

Uyghurs range from intellectuals with Ph.D. degrees to illiterate farmers, from engineers to chefs to stall keepers in the bazaar. Would you expect all those folks to agree about anything? Probably not. How much less so "the Han people," supposedly a "unified ethnic group,” living from Siberia to the tropics, from dire poverty to ostentatious wealth? All news stories using these constructions contain, by definition, serious falsehood and overgeneralization.

The conventional definitions are roughly these: the approximately 11 million Uyghur people live in the oases around the Taklamakhan desert, and more recently in northern Xinjiang. They are Muslims, speak a version of eastern Turkic (now called “Uyghur”), and live primarily by agriculture and small-scale commerce. Their culture and language appear very similar to those of Uzbeks, who live on the other (western) side of the Pamir mountains. The Han are the “culturally Chinese,” a vast amalgam of over one billion people who live all over the world but trace their ancestry to “the Chinese culture area,” which now stretches from the Mongolian steppe in the north to the South China Sea. Though they speak many mutually incomprehensible languages (“dialects”), literate Han all use the same nonphonetic ideographs (“characters”) to write, creating a common literary heritage of great depth.

QA: What is the history of the Xinjiang area, where much of the Uyghur population lives?

JL: China currently claims that the area now called the "Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region" has been part of China for 2,000 years and that its inhabitants, about 45 percent of them now called "Uyghurs" (or Uighurs, in the People's Republic of China spelling), are members of "ethnic groups," all of which are "Chinese" by virtue of living in China. There is very limited truth in these claims. Xinjiang did not exist as a unified or China-ruled entity until 1759, when that huge part of Central Asia, then ruled by a Mongolian people called Zunghars, was conquered by the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty and incorporated into their empire. The region--which included one of the world's worst deserts, some of the world's highest mountains, and a thinly scattered population mostly Muslim and Turkic-speaking--had never been entirely incorporated into a China-based state before, and its political connections lay primarily over some very high mountains (the Pamirs) in Ferghana and the rest of Muslim Central Asia. For scale: Xinjiang is three times the size of France and has a population of 20-25 million.

After a series of rebellions, and a Muslim state, separated Xinjiang (which means "New Dominion" or "New Frontier") from the Qing in the 1860s and 1870s, a reconquest gave the Qing another opportunity to govern there. They made Xinjiang a regular province of the empire, which they ruled (badly) until the dynasty fell in 1912.

For the first half of the twentieth century, Xinjiang did not belong to any Chinese central government that could rule it effectively. Rather, a series of warlords, all culturally Chinese, ruled over a rebellious, violent, seething society--mostly Turkic-speaking and Muslim--pieces of which broke away from their control sometimes, usually to meet with brutal suppression and reunification. The Soviet Union took a hand in much of this turmoil, as (occasionally) did Great Britain. Few culturally Chinese people (most of whom would now be called "Han") went to live there, and those who did tended to stay in the northern part of Xinjiang. The armies that enabled these warlords to rule the region consisted primarily of Chinese-speaking Muslims (now called "Hui"), an intermediate group who partake of both Muslim and Chinese cultures and may be found all over China.

QA: What has been the relationship between China and Xinjiang since the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949?

JL: Since 1949, a much more intrusive, modern state--the People's Republic of China (PRC)--has incorporated Xinjiang much more effectively, a state ruled from Beijing and tolerating much less local autonomy (despite the name "Autonomous Region") than its predecessors. For example, all of the PRC, which is as large as the U.S., constitutes a single time zone. When the sun rises in Beijing at 7 am, it's officially 7 am in Xinjiang, though the sun will not rise there for another three hours. Folks in Xinjiang hate that, because it means that their children have to go to school in the dark (all Chinese schools must open at the same time) and government offices open before dawn. Some adjustments have been made, but decisions made in distant Beijing have much more power in Xinjiang than they ever have before.

The most obvious change in Xinjiang since 1949 has been demographic. When the PRC was founded, Xinjiang's population was 95 percent Turkic-speaking and Muslim (including people now called Uyghur, Qazaq, Tatar, Uzbek, and some others). The population now, many times larger, is about 45 percent Chinese ("Han"). That feels, to many Uyghurs, like an invasion, a colonial enterprise designed to deprive them of their homeland. To some other Uyghurs, it represents modernity, a way out of poverty and backwardness into the world of the Internet, science, and globalization. To some other Uyghurs, it doesn't matter much, because they continue to farm the land as their ancestors did. The Uyghurs, no matter what some uninformed reporters say, are not and never were either nomads or pastoralists. Some do keep flocks, but on farms, not usually on nomadic pastures. Only in the past 30 or 40 years have some of these oasis-dwelling folks moved up into the mountains to herd, and their numbers are small.

The demographic change has been accompanied, obviously, by deep and conflictual cultural change. The languages of opportunity and success in Xinjiang before the twentieth century were Turkish (indigenous), Persian (literary/religious), and Arabic (religious). In the nineteenth century, Russian became important, mostly because the rest of Central Asia came under Russian rule. In the twentieth century, however, Chinese has become the language of social mobility in Xinjiang, and this is especially true since the end of the Maoist era in 1978. By cutting off the local populations (however they are defined ethnically) from contacts across the frontiers, the PRC has tried to turn Xinjiang decisively eastward, toward cultural China (called the "Central Plain" or "the interior"). Of course, that "cutting off" can never be complete, since the PRC wants the profits and markets created by transborder trade with Central Asia, Russia, and Pakistan. So there has been tension in the region for several decades regarding who can cross the borders, for what purposes, and what they can and cannot do while outside the PRC.

Education, too, has been profoundly affected by Beijing's policies, which have gradually, with many starts and stops, moved toward assimilationist goals--making sure that local folks learn Chinese before they start learning English, for example, or not allowing any secondary or college-level courses to be taught in Turkic languages. Here I would suggest Arienne Dwyer's excellent monograph, The Xinjiang Conflict, published by the East-West Center, Washington, in its Policy Studies series.

Another important area of cultural conflict lies in the realm of religion. Though all Uyghurs are Muslims, by definition, their practice of Islam varies tremendously, from pious and orthopractic imams to atheistic members of the Chinese Communist Party, who would never go near a mosque. Islam is legal and constitutionally protected in the PRC, but that has not prevented state authorities (including some Uyghurs) from surveillance of Islamic activities and harassment of any public sector employees who practice religion openly. Male schoolteachers, for example, have been prohibited from wearing mustaches (seen as “Muslim”) or attending prayers, while female students have been punished for covering their heads or wearing skirts that are “too long.” Mosque services, especially the Friday congregational prayers, are closely watched to ensure that children under 18 do not attend. Uyghurs dissatisfied with these policies have accurately observed that Chinese-speaking Muslims (Hui) have not been subject to such stringent state interference in religious life. Some Uyghurs (by no means all) feel that by constraining Islam and allowing massive Han migration to Xinjiang, the PRC intends to obliterate their cultural identity.

QA: What has brought about the recent conflict and crackdown against the Uyghurs?

JL: Obviously, it has a lot to do with the history I've just narrated. The proximate cause, however, lies outside Xinjiang. Since the beginning of the reform period in 1978, controls on mobility (which were draconian under the Maoists) have been eased in the PRC, so many Uyghurs have left Xinjiang and gone to the coastal cities, some to make kebabs in the marketplace, some to engage in illegal currency exchange businesses, some to work in factories, some to go to college or university, and more. Some of the Uyghur factory workers, way down in Guangzhou (about as far from Xinjiang as New Mexico is from Philadelphia), got into trouble with fellow workers, and a number of them (according to some stories) were killed. As usual, no arrests, no punishments (even administrative) for the perpetrators or the officials responsible. So the folks back home in Xinjiang got understandably upset, and some thousands of them marched in demonstrations against both the killings in Guangzhou and the government's (lack of) reaction to them. The armed police opened fire, and hundreds (some say thousands) of people have been killed and wounded in demonstrations and street brawling. Some local Han say they had it coming, that they should shut up and enjoy the benefits of the harmonious society created by the PRC and the Communist Party. Other Han deplore the violence but consider the Uyghurs to be semi-barbarians, superstitious (that is, Muslim), and not very bright, who need to be educated into the light of Han culture and modernity. Others think of all Uyghurs as thieves and drug dealers who should be locked up in any case. Almost all Han I have ever met (with a few remarkable, eccentric exceptions) agree that Han have every right to be in Xinjiang, as citizens of the PRC, and that they "belong" there as much as any Uyghur does.

Some of this should sound very familiar to you. Native Americans, Latinos, and African Americans have been handled in this way in the U.S. at various times by various levels of government. Indeed, the best American analogy for the Uyghurs is probably the Navajo. Imagine a Navajo looking down on Phoenix or Tucson. That's a Uyghur, looking at Kashgar or Aksu, which used to be "his" and are now "theirs." You can join the Han-led modern state and society (some do), or you can fight them (some do), but it is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore them. I once heard a Uyghur greybeard describe the Han people getting off the train in his native town, to seek work there as construction laborers or shop assistants, as "a goddam locust plague." So much of the resentment that boils up--not surprisingly, among young males more than any other segment of the population--stems from that history.

QA: Is the Communist Party crackdown on the Uyghur harsher than last year's crackdown on the Tibetans?

JL: In terms of numbers of dead, probably. The two regions are structurally similar--a kind of contiguous colonization of frontier zones by a powerful, modernizing, overwhelmingly populous state. The differences lie in location (desert vs. high plateau), economic significance (important trade routes and natural resources vs. isolated wilderness), and culture (Muslims vs. Buddhists). Uyghur friends have yearned, in my presence, for a Dalai Lama to lead them ("How come the Tibetans have Richard Gere and we don't?"), but because they are Muslims and "their" province has transport access to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Qazaqstan, and Russia, they get no sympathy or help from "the West." In fact, no one currently cares much about the Uyghurs, any more than the Europeans cared much about the fate of the Navajos. The Central Asian Muslim states, who could have been Uyghur allies, identified by language, religion, and culture, have been effectively and sure-handedly co-opted by China through the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO). Chinese diplomacy has very thoroughly neutralized the Uyghur diaspora, and 9/11 (with the Bush administration's condemnation of a tiny, ineffective Uyghur organization as "terrorists") gave China plenty of slack to deal brutally with any Uyghur(s) they didn't like. The U.S. imprisoned almost two dozen Uyghurs, arrested in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the most part, at Guantanamo Bay but, having decided that they pose no security threat, currently refuses to repatriate them (as the PRC requests) because they would almost certainly face dire punishment in China.

The current head of government in Xinjiang, a Han named Wang Lequan, has been there for a long time and regularly threatens to, then actually does, imprison, torture, and kill as many people as necessary to make all undesirable political activity by local folks stop. As one colleague put it many years ago, "Repression works."

QA: The Uyghurs occupy some oil-rich territory. Is this a factor?

JL: Certainly, the natural resources in Xinjiang (some oil, more natural gas, minerals) do matter. But "the Uyghurs" do not "occupy" them, nor have Uyghurs been "moved" so that the "Han" could get to the resources. Conflict in this area revolves around some Uyghurs' perception that the resources of Xinjiang belong to "us," not to "them," and that "they" are stealing "our" wealth to enrich themselves and China. That the contemporary Uyghurs somehow have proprietary rights to the mineral wealth of northern Xinjiang (which was never part of "their" statelets but tended to be ruled by Mongols or Qazaqs) is a standard argument, but it has little historical validity.

QA: Is there more suspicion of the Uyghurs in the wake of 9/11?

JL: No, the PRC has always been suspicious of the Turkic-speaking Muslims who used to form the majority of the population of Xinjiang. As noted above, 9/11 gave the state an opportunity to suppress Uyghur associations and activism, because they seemed to have been given carte blanche by "the international community" (read, the U.S.) to deal summarily with anyone they felt like identifying as a "terrorist, splittist, or illegal religious activist."

QA: Is the West responding appropriately? What should Western governments be doing at this point?

JL: That depends entirely on what you think the U.S. (or Germany or France or Italy or Japan, all of which somehow belong to "the West") "should" do about the destruction of indigenous cultures all over the world. We destroyed, and are destroying, a fair number ourselves, so we can hardly ride a high horse on this issue. China's territorial integrity (national sovereignty) demands that we keep hands off their domestic conflicts, and most countries in the world will respect that. Should they? Is this Kosovo, that we "should" intervene? How? If not, should we boycott Chinese goods, thereby bankrupting Wal-Mart and Target and raising the prices of our own consumer goods into the stratosphere? Indigenous peoples generally don't stand a chance against the large, technologically sophisticated, overwhelmingly numerous societies that rule over them (think of Cherokee, Australian aborigines, or Inuit). Is that the appropriate analogy for the Uyghurs? Or the Tibetans? This point depends entirely on one's own judgment of "appropriate," and I cannot impose mine on you or your readers. With this question, we enter a realm of moral and political judgment. Both Uyghur activists and the PRC have created historical narratives justifying their own positions on Xinjiang—that it belongs to “us Uyghurs” or that it has “always been part of China.” Historians cannot satisfy you here, for the evidence allows no unambiguous answer.

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