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The New Rules: Urumqi is not Tiananmen, and Xinjiang is not Tibet

July 15, 2009

Thomas P.M. Barnett | http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/author.aspx13 
Jul 2009

For those in the West eager to uncover another Tiananmen-like 
crackdown by Chinese authorities last week in the Xinjiang provincial 
capital of Urumqi, the true story disappoints, even as it points to a 
potentially far-more-destabilizing social phenomenon: the emergence of 
race riots inside allegedly homogenous China. Note that President Hu 
Jintao's embarrassingly rushed departure from the G-8 meeting in Italy 
was not provoked by Sunday's riots by angry Uighurs, but rather by 
Tuesday's even uglier revenge riots by even angrier -- and better-
armed -- Han Chinese.

The makings of this unrest should strike us Americans as painfully 
familiar. The influx of settlers from the East left the poorer, less-
educated indigenous people feeling crowded out and discriminated 
against in their homeland. The suddenly tougher economic times 
exacerbated the resulting ethnic tension, despite government efforts 
to paper over the social anger with enlightened affirmative action-
style programs. Finally, the implied sexual threat to the dominant 
majority served as the match for the outbreak of vigilante "justice."

If the narrative sounds like a mélange of plots from American "old 
West" and civil rights-era movies, that's because many of the same 
dynamics are in play -- with Xinjiang substituting for the role of 
Texas or California: too valuable in natural resources for the central 
government to give up, but often too hard to control in terms of its 
frontier tensions and mob violence.

Han Chinese have streamed into China's westernmost province, Xinjiang, 
since the 1949 communist revolution, with the flow increasing 
dramatically in recent years. Today, as the 60th anniversary of the 
People's Republic approaches in October, the Han make up just over 40 
percent of the province's 21 million residents. For now, the 10 
million native Uighurs, who are predominantly Muslim and Turkic 
speakers, hold a slim majority at just under 50 percent.

As the demographic correlation of power shifts, the resulting 
accusations by the Uighurs are unsurprising, and go something like 
this: The Han get all the best jobs and best opportunities, while 
suppressing our culture and language. Xinjiang was a better place to 
live before all the Han started pushing in. If we don't stand up, they 
will simply swamp us!

The caustic comebacks from the Han sound like they were cribbed from 
some Chinese version of Archie Bunker: Why should we give preferences 
to the Uighurs? They don't even bother to learn Chinese -- in China! 
They're also lazy, and will steal if you don't keep an eye on them. 
And that, after all the tax money we've wasted trying to give them a 
better, more modern life! Those people in Urumqi got what they 
deserved, especially after Uighur migrant workers raped that woman in 
Shaoguan. Uighurs cause trouble wherever they go in China. We simply 
shouldn't have to put up with it anymore!

That the Web-distributed story alleging the rape of a factory worker 
in Guangdong province turned out to be untrue just goes to show you 
how deep the tension runs in Xinjiang: Despite decades of living 
together in relative peace, both sides instinctively believe the other 
side capable of the most egregious crimes.

Naturally, in this interconnected media age, the tension has been 
elevated to an international scale, with Beijing blaming the initial 
riots on outside instigators -- namely, the World Uyghur Congress 
headquartered in Washington and fronted by a 62-year-old grandmother 
who once served time in a Chinese prison for her political activism. 
For her part, the alleged "mastermind," Rebiya Kadeer, claimed that 
China's leaders engineered the resulting revenge riots. Neither 
accusation strikes me as particularly credible.

Instead of floating conspiracy theories, both sides need to confront 
the fundamental truth that, as the Han surpass the Uighurs in sheer 
numbers in Xinjiang, racial tensions will continue to spontaneously 
boil over with greater regularity. Despite government efforts to 
promote "social harmony," the Han and Uighurs still live in different 
worlds, with language representing a huge barrier between them. 
Moreover, unlike the far-more cosmopolitan and freewheeling East 
Coast, Xinjiang's economy is dominated by state-run enterprises, whose 
labor practices tend toward the Dickensian.

I will give the Chinese authorities some credit here, though. Compared 
to the media crackdown surrounding the Tibetan protests last year, the 
government is exhibiting a stunning level of transparency this time 
around. Yes, the Internet was clamped down on, but foreign journalists 
have been welcomed, and news conferences by officials have been 
frequent. Frankly, compared to the promises of "severe punishment" 
from China's top leaders, the behavior of the local officials -- and 
Chinese military troops and police -- has been appropriately 
moderating, if sometimes clumsy.

There are no simple answers here, just a lot of new rules for China as 
it continues to integrate itself with the larger world. But you can 
forget about "Free Xinjiang!" for all the same reasons why "Free 
Tibet!" is a chimera. Simply put, there is no historical logic for 
founding impoverished, interior-landlocked independent nations, 
because wherever we do find them in this world, they tend to be failed 
states.

Instead, we can expect Beijing to maintain a strong grip on Xinjiang, 
and for that strong grip to continue to elicit significant resistance 
from a soon-to-be-minority local population that feels its unique 
identity slipping away. All I would tell the Chinese leadership is 
that they better continue improving their mitigating -- and even 
accommodating -- responses to such blowback.

Why? Because as China's economic networks continue to expand around 
the planet, this sort of local friction will become an ubiquitous 
problem, subjecting Beijing's allegedly sophisticated "soft diplomacy" 
to far greater tests -- and far more unpalatable political adjustments.

Thomas P.M. Barnett is senior managing director of Enterra Solutions 
LLC and a contributing editor/online columnist for Esquire magazine. 
His latest book is "Great Powers: America and the World After 
Bush" (2009). His weekly WPR column, The New Rules, appears every 
Monday. Reach him and his blog at thomaspmbarnett.com.
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