By blanketing the oil-rich Xinjiang with troops, China’s rulers may have subdued the Uighur revolt, which began in Urumqi, the regional capital, and spread to other heavily guarded towns like Hotan and Kashgar, the ancient cultural center whose old city is to be razed and redeveloped to help drain supposed jihadist swamps. But this deadliest case of minority rioting in decades — along with the 2008 ethnic uprising across the Tibetan plateau — shows the political costs of forcible absorption, shattering the illusion of a monolithic China and laying bare the country’s Achilles’ heel.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party had gone to unusual lengths to block any protests from flaring during this symbolically important year marking the 60th anniversary of its coming to power.
For example, the 20th anniversary of “June 4,” the date of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of prodemocracy protesters, went by without any incident because of heavy security in Beijing. A security siege in Tibet similarly ensured that the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan national uprising against the Chinese occupation and the Dalai Lama’s consequent flight to India passed off peacefully. A confident Beijing then provocatively observed March 28 — the 50th anniversary of its declaration of direct rule over Tibet — as “Serf Emancipation Day” with a national holiday, as if it just realized it liberated Tibetans from serfdom half a century ago.
Against that background, the Uighur rebellion — in the 60th-anniversary year of the Chinese annexation of Xinjiang — is a rude jolt to what is now the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy. Tibet, which was forcibly brought under Chinese rule in 1950, remains tense since last year, with foreign reporters still barred from traveling there.
The policies of forced assimilation in resource-rich Tibet and Xinjiang — at the crossroads of Asian civilizations — began after Mao Zedong created a land corridor link between the two rebellious regions by gobbling up India’s 38,000-square-km Aksai Chin, part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Aksai Chin provides the only accessible Tibet-Xinjiang route through the Kunlun mountains.
Aksai Chin began coming under Chinese control in the 1950s through furtive encroachment, before Mao consolidated and extended China’s hold by waging open war on India in 1962. A year later, Pakistan ceded to China a 5,120-square-km slice of the Kashmir territory held by it.
Today, about 60 percent territory of the People’s Republic comprises territories that historically had not been under direct Han rule. China, in fact, now is three times as large as it was under the last Han dynasty, the Ming, which fell in the mid-17th century. Territorially, Han power thus is at its zenith, symbolized by the fact that the Great Wall was built as the Han empire’s outer security perimeter. Xinjiang and Tibet, by themselves, make up nearly half of China’s landmass.
The Manchu assimilation into Han society and the swamping of the locals in Inner Mongolia have left only the Tibetans and the Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang as the holdouts.
But the events since last year have come as a painful reminder to the Chinese leadership that its strategy of ethnic and economic colonization of the traditional Tibetan and Uighur lands is stoking deep unrest. While government efforts to spread Han language, culture and commercial power have bred local resentment, economic development in those regions — largely geared at exploiting their resource wealth — has helped marginalize the natives. While the locals get the menial work to do, the Han settlers hold the well-paying jobs and run the show, overtly symbolizing an equation between the colonized and the colonizers.
More importantly, the very survival of the major non-Han cultures in China is now threatened. From school-level indoctrination and forced political reeducation to Draconian curbs on native farmland and monastic life, Chinese policies have helped instill feelings of subjugation and resentment in Tibet and Xinjiang.
To help Sinicize the minority lands, Beijing’s multipronged strategy has involved five key components: cartographically altering ethnic-homeland boundaries; demographically flooding non-Han cultures; rewriting history to justify Chinese control; enforcing cultural homogeneity to help blur local identities; and maintaining political repression.
Demographically, what Beijing is pursuing is not ethnic cleansing in these regions but ethnic drowning. This strategy to ethnically drown the natives through the “Go West” Han-migration campaign is tantamount to cultural annihilation. A first step in that direction was the cartographic reorganization of minority regions. In gerrymandering Tibet, Beijing placed half of the Tibetan plateau and nearly 60 percent of the Tibetan population under Han jurisdictions in the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. Tibet’s cartographic dismemberment set the stage to ethnically swamp the Tibetans, both in the separated parts and in the remainder Tibet deceptively named the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The Tibetan and Uighur languages already are disappearing from local schools. Rapid Sinicization of their pristine environment, however, has only sharpened the Tibetan and Uighur sense of identity and yearning for freedom. After all, if current trends continue, Tibetans and Uighurs will be reduced within decades to the status of Native Americans in the United States.
Reliable information on the casualties and continuing arrests in Xinjiang is hard to come by. At the first sign of trouble in Tibet or Xinjiang, Beijing cuts off local Internet and cell-phone services and imposes a security lockdown through curfews and virtual martial law. Few believe the official death toll in Xinjiang. After all, Beijing has insisted only 13 people were killed in spring 2008 in Tibet despite the Tibetan government-in-exile documenting some 220 Tibetan deaths.
Significantly, there are important parallels between the Tibet and Xinjiang violence. The ethnic uprisings in both regions erupted after authorities tried to disperse peaceful protesters in the local capital — Lhasa and Urumqi — where Han Chinese now outnumber the natives. In both regions, the protesters vented their anger on Han settlers. And just as Beijing was quick to link the Dalai Lama to last year’s Tibetan insurrection, it blamed the Xinjiang bloodshed on exiled Uighur leaders, specifically the Washington-based Rebiya Kadeer, helping to lift her from relative obscurity to international prominence. An ex-businesswoman, Kadeer, however, is no advocate of violence, although she spent six years in a Chinese jail and two of her sons are still imprisoned in Xinjiang.
While Beijing was quick to clamp down on information about the events in Tibet and Xinjiang, it applied media-management lessons learned in Tibet to its handling of the news on Xinjiang. One lesson was that it had to go beyond suppression of facts to information spin to tone down coverage of the developments. So, as opposed to the way it shut out the media from Tibet, it readily let foreign journalists to the violence-scarred Urumqi for stage-managed tours.
But as in Tibet earlier, the Chinese propaganda machine focused on portraying the dominant Han settlers in Urumqi as the hapless victims, with the state media showing no images of Han attacking Uighurs or security personnel employing brute force. Indeed, presenting restive, disadvantaged minorities as ungrateful, violent races resistant to the Han civilizing influence has been integral to the regime’s repression.
Alas, the central plank of the Chinese system remains uniformity, with President Hu Jintao’s slogan of a “harmonious society” designed to undergird the theme of conformity. Little surprise Hu’s public response to the Uighur unrest was to ask local authorities to “isolate and deal a blow” to the troublemakers rather than seek to address the causes of the festering discontent. Brutal repression is a sure recipe for more unrest.
While India celebrates diversity, China honors artificially enforced monoculturalism, although it officially comprises 56 nationalities — the Han nationality (which, according to the last census in 2000, accounted for 91 percent of the total population) and 55 ethnic minority groups. China seeks not only to play down its ethnic diversity, but also to conceal the cultural and linguistic cleavages among the Han majority, lest the historical north-south fault lines resurface with a vengeance.
The Han — split in seven or more linguistically and culturally distinct groups — are anything but homogenous. The major languages in China other than those in minority homelands include Mandarin, Hakka (spoken in several southern areas), Gan (Jiangxi province), Wu (Zhejiang province), Xiang (Hunan province), Yue (mostly Guangdong province), Pinghua (an offshoot of Yue), Southern Min (Hokkien/Taiwanese) and Northern Min.
Yet the CCP has used the myth of homogeneity to fan Han nationalism. This myth, originally designed to unify the non-Manchus against the Manchu Qing Dynasty, was invented by Sun Yat-Sen, who led the republican movement that took power in 1911. The subsequent imposition of the northern language, Mandarin, helped establish a lingua franca in a diverse society but, almost a century later, it is not Mandarin but the local languages that remain commonly spoken.
Today, thanks to the greater self-awareness flowing from advances in information and communications technologies, the Hakka, Sichuanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fujianese, Swatow, Hunanese and other communities officially classified as Han are reasserting their distinctive identities and taking pride in their cultural heritage.
China’s ethnic problems won’t go away unless the rulers stop imposing cultural homogeneity and abandon ethnic drowning as state strategy in minority lands.
After the 2008 Tibetan uprising, 2009 will go down as the year the Uighurs revolted. With next year marking 60 years of Chinese occupation of Tibet, the spotlight will stay on China’s internal challenges. And with economic growth slowing and domestic unrest growing at about the same rate as China’s GDP, these challenges indeed extend to the Chinese heartland.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.