In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

China’s Battle Against Terrorism

Posted by smeddum on July 12, 2009

Sunday 12th July

I am currently reading Jenny Clegg’s brilliant new book “China’s Global Strategy – Towards a Multi-Polar world”, and I will write a review shortly.

One of the excellent points that Jenny makes is that the absence of substantive discussion in the West about China’s historical background, its actual level of development, and the difficulties of ruling such a vast country, then Sinophobic mythology has built up that draws more heavily on “Yellow Peril” images from the colonial era than it does on the reality of modern China. What is more, many from the Western left either do not counter this Sinophobia, or actually collude in it.

Louis Proyect’s recent article is a frankly disgraceful example, but rather than exchange a polemic with Louis, let us refute his arguments by looking at the concrete situation today in Xinjiang province.

The Sinophobic reading of the situation there seems to be that the Chinese government are Han chauvinists, suppressing national minorities, persecuting the Islamic religion, and seeking to swamp Xinjiang with Han settlers. But this analysis simply doesn’t accord with the facts.

Firstly, historically the Chinese state has not been built on ethnicity, but on a Mandarin speaking civil bureaucracy, where Mandarin provided alingua franca for an ethnically, socially, religiously and linguistically diverse society. Secondly, since the Communist party of China coming to power in 1949, they introduced a nationalities policy that created certain rights and privileges for minorities that met the criteria – for example the right to promote their own language, and in modern China, the very significant complete exemption from the one child policy.

Islam is not in any way persecuted or repressed in modern China. Nowadays in China there are ten national minorities, including the Hui and Uyghur, with a total population of 18 million, whose faith is Islam. There are some 30,000 mosques served by 40,000 Imams and Akhunds. Islamic Association of China is an independent organisation promoting the interests of Muslims. Islamic organisations in China run their own affairs independently and can set up religious schools, publish religious texts and periodicals, and run social and welfare services.

Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China protects freedom of religious belief as a basic right enjoyed by all citizens, and religious institutions enjoy the rights to own and dispose of property, and to proselytise. Currently Buddhism is enjoying a major revival across China, without any government interference.

It is true that during the Cultural Revolution, there was repression and oppression of all religious faiths – but this has been consciously reversed for thirty years now – and most significantly, the campaign against religious institutions was much more moderate in the Autonomous Regions, like Xinjiang and Tibet than in the main urban centres.

The Hui national minority, who are Muslim, often Turkic peoples, but who speak Mandarin, are integrated into every aspect of life in the People’s republic, and have often played prominent roles, for example Hui Liangyu was Vice President. It is interesting that systematic racist attacks against Hui have characterised both the riots in Tibet last year, and the recent violence by Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang has been part of China since the mid eighteenth century, when its main significance as a poorly populated mainly nomadic region was as part of the land-route between the Middle Kingdom and Europe. The urban centres were built by the Chinese, while the indigenous population were rural, ethnically diverse and often nomadic.

During the early part of the twentieth century, when China was dismembered by colonialists, and invaded by the Japanese Empire, Xinjiang fell under the sway of the warlord Sheng Shicai, (who really was a Han chauvinist, suppressing the Uyghur and Kazakh peoples).

There was a short lived Soviet republic between 1944 and 1949, also known as the Three Districts Rebellion, that reacted to the chauvinism of Sheng’s warlord regime by seeking to drive the Chinese out altogether, but this republic was concentrated in the Kazakh parts of Xinjiang, while the Uyghurs were predominatently under the rule of the Chinese nationalist KMT. The existence of this mini-state was also only possible as the USSR supported it as a buffer between themselves and the Japanese.

In 1949 the East Turkestan Republic agreed to join the People’s republic – somewhat pressurised by Stalin who is believed to have assassinated their government leaders, and the KMT ruled parts of Xinjiang surrendered to the People’s Liberation Army.

The importance of this background is to understand that there is no modern history of a Uyghur nation state, the relative autonomy of Xinjiang can only be understood as the unravelling of stable government under the colonialist onslaught of China, and the rise of warlordism. Xinjiang has always been linguistically and culturally diverse, and the modernisation and urbanisation of the region has occurred entirely within the context of Chinese rule, and Han and Hui have always formed a large part of the urban population. It is not at all uncommon in pre-industrial societies to find the urban centres and the surrounding countryside having different languages and cultures, and in the case of the Chinese Empire the two were united under a Mandarin speaking bureaucratic class.

We need to be very cautious of Uyghur nationalist organisations mythologizing a fictitious pseudo-history of themselves as an oppressed nation. Most obviously, if there was any real intention to swamp the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, then the PRC would not exempt them from the one child policy while enforcing it for the Han.

The biggest area of misunderstanding relates to the “Go West” policy, formally launched in year 2000 as part of the tenth Five Year plan. This was a victory for the left within the Communist Party, to seek to overcome the growing regional inequality, and direct US$200 billion of capital investment into the underdeveloped Western provinces, including the Autonomous Republics of Xinjiang and Tibet. So for example, the previously very poor region of Tibet has achieved economic growth of 13.4%, and the oil and gas fields of Xinyiang have been opened up by improvements of transport infrastructure, But far from being a “colonialist” asset grab, these have involved a massive transfer of wealth and technology to the poorest regions from the Eastern coastal region.

Han migration has increased in Xinjiang, but whereas the Uyghur peoples mainly live south of the mountains of the Tarim basin, the Han migration has been into the previously largely unpopulated region north of the mountains. For example the Karamay region is almost 80% Han.

A further area of ethnic tension has been experience of those involved in the inward migration of Uyghur peoples to the Eastern coastal region, along with the 150 million other rural migrants, who have been sucked into the black economy, but where linguistic and cultural obstacles, as well as their semi-illegal status, severely disadvantage them. The recent violence seems to have been preceded by rapes and murders, and ethnic tensions in Guangdong.

There has been a longstanding Uyghur nationalist movement, that partly expresses legitimate grievances in ethnic rather than economic terms, for example over rural impoverishment, and the relative disadvantage of rural people as opposed to urban dwellers; the relative disadvantage of Uyghar speakers compared to Mandarin speakers in the job market and for social advancement is also a pressing grievance. But Uyghar nationalism has also been clearly linked with Islamist terrorism, and the desire to separate Xinjiang as an Islamic republic away from the PRC, despite the fact that the Uyghur represent only half the population of Xinjiang.

There have been a series of terrorist incidents, including the racist murders of Han and Hui, attempted suicide bombings on an airliner last year, and riots during the Olympics that left 16 members of the People’s Armed Police dead. Both the Chinese and US governments accuse Uyghur separatists of links with Al Qaeda.

The security crackdown by China in Xinjiang is therefore a decisive attempt to restore order, and prevent racial tensions from further developing. It is necessary to understand the imperative drive for China to achieve economic growth in what is still a developing country, where many people still live on a $1 per day. It is also necessary to understand the great historic achievement of defeating the Japanese, throwing out the colonialists and reuniting China as one country.

The division of China is simply non-negotiable for the government in Beijing, and they are correct in seeing the unity of the republic as an important precondition for their economic and political independence, which is itself necessary for developing and improving the living standards of their 1.3 billion population. But they clearly do need to rethink how the “Go West” policy is in practice impacting on the autonomous regions, where an understandable and commendable desire to pull these Western provinces out of extreme poverty has created the unintended side effect of increasing wealth differentials, and ethnic tensions.


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