Saturday, March 3, 2012

The “Uyghur Question”: A Racial Answer

Yet another violent incident has occurred in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as a result, reportedly, of a rampage by Uyghur youths. The incident, which has left up to twenty people dead, occurred in Kargilik (Yencheng) a predominately Uyghur town 249 kms northwest of the southern city Kashgar.

Initial reports cite sources as claiming that several Uyghur youths, responding to racial abuse from Han Chinese, set upon them with knifes and clubs killing at thirteen. Security forces  responded and subsequently 7 Uyghur youths were killed and two arrested. 

This is now one of four violent incidents that have occurred in Xinjiang since major riots tore apart the capital city Urumqi in 1997 leaving 197 people dead and 1,721 injured. The others being two in Kashgar, one in Hotan and another in Pishtan, all which occurred in 2011.

There are common threads now quite evident in these incidents.

  •  Firstly, in all of them, including Urumqi, it is apparent that they are as a direct result of racial tension between Uyghur and Han Chinese. Apart from Pishtan, where there was a religious angle, religion, per se, has not been an issue, nor has politics of separatism. In these racially inspired incidents it has been Uyghurs who have first resorted to violence which resulted in the consequent deaths of both innocent bystanders and most of the alleged perpetrators. 
  • Secondly, in all incidents there has been, seemingly, extremely heavy and what could be called overkill responses from Chinese security forces including, it has been alleged, ex-judicial executions of cornered suspects. 
  • Lastly, Urumqi aside, all have occurred in the southern area of Xinjiang, an area that until the railroad reached Kashgar in 1999 and was extended to Hotan in 2010, was almost exclusively Uyghur dominated.

Racial tension in Xinjiang

The Uyghur, being a Turkic people and Islamic, are culturally and racially very distinct from the Han Chinese who are the majority ethnic group in China and predominate in government at all levels. 

Racial, territorial, religious and economic tensions have always existed between the two groups going back two millennium. Their history has been marked by incidents and periods of extreme violence from both sides. Neither is without guilt in this area however, it is only fair to say, that the Uyghur have, historically, come off second best in the contest.

It was not until the Qing Dynasty exerted full control over the region, that is known today as Xinjiang in the eighteenth century that the Han population began to increase markedly. Prior to this period, from 60BC when the Han Chinese claim dominion, Han control over Xinjiang was tenuous, to say the least, and fluctuated wildly as to degree. 

This process of in-migration has intensified post the communist takeover in 1949 and has exponentially exploded since the 1970's when the economic value of Xinjiang began to become more apparent and widely known. Since 1949 the Uyghur's percentage of the population has decreased from 95% to under 49% and continues to decrease at a very rapid rate.

We have seen since the Qing Dynasty, but more notably since the Communist takeover, a significant and very rapid change in the racial make-up of Xinjiang; the Uyghur going from a position of numerical predominance to one of minority in their “own land”. As well, their relative economic position has decreased markedly as traditional industries decline in popularity and the Han, with greater capital and management expertise, not to mention government support and encouragement, predominate in economic matters. 

For the Uyghur to be confronted and to have to contend with such a racially, culturally and economically distinct people, and to face such change in so short of a time span  is hard for many to fully appreciate especially in terms of it's effect on the combined psyche of the people.

The Blame Game

Who and/or what is to blame for this rapidly deteriorating situation in Xinjiang? A situation that will only get worse and be punctuated increasingly by such violent incidents we have witnessed since Urumqi 2009.

Xinjiang poses a very large question, not only for the Uyghurs, the Beijing regime and the Han Chinese generally but also the world at large. The question as to how to resolve the “Uyghur Question” can only be answered with a true understanding of what is the essential problem that has lead to this post 2009 violence spiral which, unfortunately, will continue to escalate unabated if left unaddressed.

I have briefly touched on the historical context. There has always been and there will always be a degree of enmity between the Han and the Uyghur. For many reasons this is unavoidable. It is the nature of the beast and it derives essentially from racism.

Much has been said, particularly from the regime, that these problems are separatist and religious based. That is, that there exists within Uyghur society a section bent on separating Xinjiang from China and developing an independent Islamic state. These religious based separatists, terrorists or  whatever nomenclature the Chinese wish to use are, according to Beijing, the root of all ethnic unrest in Xinjiang.

The Uyghur view on the other hand ( and here we must be careful *) is that these problems stem from the inequalities that have been exacerbated and magnified with the post 1949 surge in Han numbers and relative demographic share. That the Uyghur in “their own land” have become second class citizens, denied a fair piece of the economic and political cake by both the regime and the Han “immigrant” population.

The “Uyghur question” however is not about Uyghur separatism nor Islamic terrorism, for these things exist only as a basis for Beijing propaganda. Nor is it only about the destruction of “Uyghur culture”, which whilst undoubtedly occurring, seems to reside as an overriding issue in the romantic minds of some western observers. The "Uyghur Question" boils down very simply to race and it is racism on both sides that is at the root of the “Uyghur Question” and fundamental to it's resolution.

Both sides are equally to blame. Let us look at this latest incident as a bellwether and attempt an analysis.

We have a situation where apparently a group of Uyghur youths were racially abused by some Han Chinese as a result of what is probably some mild dispute in a normal market day interaction. In what can only be seen as a gross over-reaction, and a serious criminal offence, the Uyghurs have resorted to extreme violence leading to death for what most likely was a minor altercation. The security forces equally have resorted to extreme violence shooting dead eight Uyghurs some, obviously dangerous no doubt, but at the end of the day only armed with knifes and not all possibly the prime offenders.

Was this incident about religious terrorism or separatism? No. Was this incident about cultural degradation or economic inequality? No. Does one kill someone else in a  normal situation in a backwater town because one has a couple of more Yuan than the other? I do not believe the Uyghur to be like that.

I hear nay-sayers citing “built up frustrations” or “boil over emotions” but this can not excuse what apparently was brutal murder by the Uyghurs involved. It is pure and simple racism, the hatred of one race for another, in this case hatred of the Uyghur for the Han and the overkill shown in the response by security forces hatred of the Han for the Uyghur. As I have alluded, this is not a recent phenomena dating post Qing or 1949, it is historically entrenched and it is a two way street.

The response of security forces in this incident, and the 2011 ones in Kashgar and Hotan are primarily as a result of this same inherent racism exacerbated by the unrelenting barrage from Beijing constantly casting the Uyghur as bloody terrorists, religious extremists and separatists. The average Han has been brainwashed to believe this, whether intentionally or not, by Beijing. The security forces, the young policeman at the pointy end, too, are not immune to this brainwashing and over react to situations and do so with no thought or fear of investigation or punishment for their over reactions.

Uyghur-Han Relations - The Future

One can not wave a magic wand and make racism disappear. It can however be ameliorated.

 Affirmative government action in the likes of South Africa and the United States are proof of this. Leadership on this issue must come from a government and therein is the problem with China for the government is part of the problem. For whatever Machiavellian reason or just blind self righteousness Beijing will not take ownership of the ethnic problem in Xinjiang nor admit complicity in it. Until it does voluntarily, which is highly unlikely, or, is forced to by some real pressure from world opinion the “Uyghur Question” will not be resolved but only get a lot worse resulting in much death on both sides.

*I have purposely parenthesised as an aside because the greater majority of what we are hearing about in situ Uyghur sentiment arises from Uyghur “exile” groups and western media who tend to churn out formulaic responses to such incidents. With no disrespect to their respective views and motivation, I for one treat them with similar credence to how I view Beijing-speak. That is, to a degree, heavily biased.

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