President Hu Jintao’s abrupt departure from what was to be another demonstration of China’s growing importance in the world, the G8 summit in Italy, confirms what the fragmentary press reports have been telling us: that China’s public face of unity and growing prosperity cannot disguise the fissures of a contemporary imperial project that lacks a persuasive narrative or a workable political model.
To hear Beijing tell it, the trouble is down to one leader in exile and a handful of separatists. The evidence – first in the toy factory in Guangzhou where, in June, Han Chinese rampaged through a workers’ dormitory attacking Uighur workers; and this past week on the streets of Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region – is of ethnic hatreds fed by decades of colonisation and discrimination.
The violence has broken a cherished thread in Beijing’s contemporary narrative: that Xinjiang, like Tibet, has been part of that elastic and untranslatable entity we know as China for 2,000 years, and that its one million Kazakhs and ten million Uighurs are citizens, like any other, of the great motherland, united in a love of the party and, today, of the neo-Confucianism that Han China now wishes to substitute for Maoism as the state ideology.
Most Uighurs do not subscribe to China’s assimilationist state mythologies. Why should they? Like the Tibetans, when Uighurs travel
to the capital they are regarded with suspicion and hotels routinely deny them entry. (Even Uighur government officials have trouble finding lodgings in Beijing.) They know that they are suspected of acts of terrorism at home and abroad, subjected to special measures and repressive campaigns against everything from their historic memory to their language and religion.
The state project that Uighurs are expected to support continues to treat them, like the Tibetans, as backward peoples to whom the Han have extended the benefits of civilisation. Han Chinese saw the militia units (bingtuan), which spearheaded the Han colonisation of Xinjiang in the 1950s, as exemplars of heroic self-sacrifice, “opening up” the frontier, and the continuing ingratitude of the Uighurs and other minorities remains puzzling to many Han.
But the people of Xinjiang (the name means new frontier) see things differently. Only in very modern times has a Han Chinese government in Beijing attempted to rule over this distant part of central Asia. It was conquered in the 18th century by the Manchu, who had also conquered China, and the 19th and 20th centuries were punctuated by repeated uprisings and armed incidents. Xinjiang was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1949, after decades of local power struggles and the deaths, in a mysterious plane crash, of the entire leadership of the putative independent state of East Turkestan. Since then, there has been a continuing rumble of discontent, with intermittent serious episodes, some encouraged by the Soviet Union, others (in the Cultural Revolution, for instance) a reflection of China’s own chaotic politics.
Last year in London, at an emotional public event held to discuss the Tibetan uprising, an Uighur couple asked why Xinjiang received so little attention in the west. Like Tibet, Xinjiang suffered from state repression such as the “Strike Hard” campaign, launched in both regions in the 1990s. Like Tibet, Xinjiang has endured 50 years of state-directed Han immigration and suffered targeted attacks on its languages, religion and cultures, arbitrary detentions and the assassination in exile of prominent figures, and the exploitation of its rich natural resources. As an added injury, it has been China’s chosen nuclear testing ground, a programme that, the Uighurs believe, has left a legacy of contamination, sickness and death.
The answer to the couple’s question is a reflection of the limitations of western perceptions: there is no charismatic religious leader in exile to play the Dalai Lama role for the Uighurs; Xinjiang’s largely Sufi Islam lacks the appeal for the west of Tibet’s Buddhism; add to that the alphabet soup of resistance groups and factions since the 19th century and the result, for those who prefer their Davids and Goliaths clearly labelled, is a confusing story. But it was the US that gave Beijing licence to treat the Uighurs as it wished when, following the 11 September 2001 attacks, it added a Xinjiang grouping to its list of Islamic evildoers. Beijing rapidly adopted a similarly Manichean rhetoric: henceforth, all Uighur discontent would be a symptom not only of “separatism”, but of the contamination of global jihad.
It was a dangerous move for a country largely protected, until then, from radical Islam by its strategic relationship with Pakistan. Beijing has failed to make the case that Uighur terrorism (used to justify repression in Xinjiang) has been a significant threat.
What has happened, however, is that Beijing’s policies and China’s now relatively open borders have allowed increasing numbers of Uighurs to go abroad, where they form an increasingly vocal lobby for Uighur rights. The Chinese state, and the Han majority, blame the troubles on the malice of “outside forces ” and a leader in exile – in this case, the charismatic 62-year-old Uighur businesswoman, Rebiya Kadeer, now based in Washington, DC.
Kadeer was once the poster child of China’s ethnic policies and market reforms. She made a fortune in the first wave of economic liberation in the 1990s and was elevated to national prominence as a delegate to the National People’s Congress. But Kadeer proved insufficiently “loyal” to the assimilationist policies of Beijing: a department store she owns in Urumqi became a cultural centre for Uighurs, and she used her wealth to support education and culture at home, enough to arouse the suspicion, then the hostility of Beijing.
She was finally imprisoned on charges of betraying state secrets. Only if Beijing comes to understand that people like Kadeer are a symbol of what is wrong with Chinese policy, not the cause, will there be hope of a better relationship between Beijing and its unhappy far west.
Isabel Hilton is the editor of Chinadialogue.net