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The Uyghurs and the Tibetans -- Struggling Against Chinese Colonialism

July 8, 2009

by Eric Scheihagen - July 7, 2009

The news over the past few days that large-scale rioting has taken place in
Urumqi is a reminder that the Tibetans are not the only people who are not
happy with Chinese rule. But to understand the situation in either place it
is necessary to be clear on a few background facts. Historically, Tibet and
the Central Asian region sometimes known as East Turkestan (known to the
Chinese as "Xinjiang") have been inhabited by the Tibetans and Uyghurs
(sometimes spelled "Uighur") respectively. Neither of these peoples is
Chinese; their languages, customs, cultures and religions are completely
distinct from China's. So why does China rule them now? First, it might be
helpful to get an idea of the extent of China proper. A look at a historical
map of Ming dynasty China shows that Chinese territory in the Ming dynasty
did not include Tibet, Turkestan, Mongolia, or the lands that now make up
northeast China. This is because these lands were not inhabited by Chinese.

But in the 17th century, China was conquered by the Manchus, a non-Chinese
people from the northeast, who set up the Qing dynasty. The Manchus were
regarded by the Chinese as foreigners, though over time they eventually were
assimilated by their subjects. In the first decades of Manchu rule, they
expanded their empire far beyond China, conquering Mongolia, East Turkestan
and Tibet. These territories were imperial possessions, just as India was an
imperial possession of the British, Central America was an imperial
territory of Spain, and so forth. The main thing these regions had in common
with China was that they were all part of the same empire.

In 1912, after a long period of decline, the Qing dynasty fell and the
Republic of China was proclaimed. The ROC laid claim to all the territory of
the Manchu empire, despite the fact that much of it was not Chinese. The new
government was unable to enforce its claims, so most of the non-Chinese
regions became independent. However, they maintained their questionable
claims of sovereignty over all the empire, so when the ROC government was
forced out of China to Taiwan and the People's Republic of China was set up,
the PRC in turn claimed all of the same empire (except Outer Mongolia, which
their Soviet allies forced them to recognize as independent).

Unfortunately for places like Tibet, which had been a de facto independent
country for several decades by this time, the PRC was able to enforce its
claims militarily, conquering all of the non-Chinese areas that had once
been part of the Manchu empire except Outer Mongolia.

Are the Chinese claims to sovereignty over these places justifiable? One way
to answer that is to ask whether other imperial claims are justifiable. Did
Britain have the "right" to rule India, Malaysia, and all its other imperial
possessions? Did the French have the "right" to its colonies in West Africa,
Indochina, and so on? Did Russia have the "right" to rule Poland, which it
did throughout the 19th century? Most people now would agree that
imperialism and colonialism as practiced by the Europeans was wrong, and all
of those countries were justified in struggling for independence. So is
Chinese rule in historically non-Chinese areas justified? China runs these
places, which they "inherited" as part of an empire, in exactly the same
exploitative fashion that the Europeans ran their colonies. In some ways
Chinese rule is even worse, as the Chinese government, aside from actively
trying to suppress local culture, is using the vast population of Chinese to
swamp the local people by encouraging the Han (as the ethnic Chinese are
called) to move to these places in large numbers to make money. Most of the
money from economic development in places like Tibet and East Turkestan goes
into the pockets of Han Chinese, so the local people see that not only have
they lost their independence, but their homeland is being turned into a
Han-majority region in which they will be an impoverished minority with a
culture that is slowly withering away. It's no wonder that some of them are
inclined to riot.

In the case of Tibet, China tries to blame any rioting on the Dalai Lama,
despite the fact that he has bent over backwards to emphasize his opposition
to violence and his willingness to settle for autonomy rather than
independence. In East Turkestan, China blames all violence on Islamic
fundamentalists and "terrorists." This is a particularly disingenuous effort
to lump Muslims struggling for independence for their own homeland with
al-Qaeda terrorists like Osama bin Laden. Some Uyghurs were indeed captured
by American troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan and imprisoned in Guantanamo,
but the US has since determined that they were not a danger to it. In fact,
their only enemies are the Chinese government, which will happily torture
and execute them if it gets its hands on them. But the point to remember is
that the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Uyghurs in
Guantanamo and those who rioted in Urumqi have something in common -- they
are all victims of old-fashioned imperialism and colonialism at the hands of

The Chinese like to claim that these "malcontents" are exceptions and most
people in Tibet and East Turkestan are happy with Chinese rule. If that is
the case, why are they so afraid of letting people speak their minds about
it? If a desire for independence is indeed a minority opinion, then they
have no more to fear from it than the US government has to fear from the
Alaskan Independence Party. More likely, the Chinese know or at least fear
that, given the chance to speak freely, most Tibetans and Uyghurs would
support independence.

So the question for the rest of the world is, should we acquiesce in Chinese
colonial rule in Tibet and East Turkestan, or should we support the Tibetans
and Uyghurs in their desire for the same independence that has been granted
to most European colonies around the world? Will we be bamboozled by Chinese
assertions that these areas are historically part of China and so their
colonial rule is justified? Will we be fooled by claims that the rioting
Uyghurs are al-Qaeda-allied Islamic terrorists instead of fighters for
independence? Will we just sit back and watch as the Chinese government once
again crushes a challenge to its rule? Or will we call on the Chinese to let
the Tibetans and Uyghurs decide their own future and the future of the lands
that were theirs long before the Chinese came? As individuals, if enough of
us speak out against Chinese colonialism in Tibet and Turkestan and call on
our elected leaders to take a similar stand, perhaps we can put enough
pressure on China for it to see that it cannot continue to maintain its
empire through repression, and that if it truly wants to be a world leader,
it has to respect the rights of all the people in its territory.
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