The Magazine

The Empire Strikes Back

China tries to suppress its minority problem.

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By ROSS TERRILL
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While the Chinese state often appears masterful in its dealings with the non-Chinese areas of the People's Republic of China (PRC) like Xinjiang and Tibet, it also seems alarmed at the volatility of its vast semi-empire.

Two weeks ago a false rumor about the rape of two Chinese (Han) women by Muslim Uighurs in a toy factory in the southern city of Shaoguan hit the Internet. In the resulting fights several Uighurs, who had been lured like many thousands to the non-Muslim south by work at high wages, were killed. Soon Xinjiang, the homeland of the Uighurs, which borders eight nations and is 2,000 miles from Shaoguan, was in turmoil. Hundreds were dead, and thousands of lives were derailed. President Hu Jintao rushed back from the G-8 summit in Rome to assert his authority.

In Urumqi, the capital of Xin-jiang, Han bystanders said they were attacked without provocation by Uighurs. Han groups retaliated. Both sides received scraps of information from the toy factory by cell phone and email (until Beijing cut off all such communications). Events spun out of control when People's Armed Police fired on protesters, and rioters torched cars and shops. Predictably, troublemakers jumped in, police were attacked, and age-old resentments flared.

One cannot fault the Chinese police's actions in Xinjiang. Mostly they tried to keep order between Han and Uighur in a parlous situation. Given the passions on both sides, it may have been impossible for security forces to avoid deaths. We can, however, fault the underlying approach of Beijing to Xinjiang, its largest autonomous region.

None of the western half of the PRC--Inner Mongolia in the north, Tibet in the south, and Xinjiang between them--was historically Chinese. The Chinese dynasties always had trouble dealing with Muslim areas, more even than with Tibet. The emperors were unfamiliar with Islam. An emperor could not enter a mosque since he wasn't a Muslim. Islam implies a realm hidden from the state's gaze, a worry for the emperors as it today is for Hu Jintao.

Xinjiang is larger than the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Italy put together. As recently as 1944 it was the separate state of East Turkistan. This desert land of mosques and oil is as different from east China as Japan is from Bangladesh. Thanks to Stalin, in 1949 it became part of Mao's new Chinese empire: secular Han ruling Uighurs and other Muslims.

Cecil Rhodes once remarked that to avoid civil war, you must have empire. This is China's approach in Xinjiang (and Tibet). Han wear the uniforms and give the orders, minority languages have been phased out of schools, and mosques are treated as hostile zones.

Zhao Ziyang, the number two figure in the Chinese Communist government in the 1980s--he fell from power during the Tiananmen crisis of 1989--once asked Deng Xiaoping's son: "How come when we're so nice to those intellectuals, they turn round and oppose us?" Beijing today can't understand why affirmative action and the many concessions given to Uighurs bring only further defiance. But Muslims in western China want something hard for Beijing to give: space to be themselves, to disappear into a mosque for the hour of Friday prayers, to write a nihilistic poem or an essay that says Marxism is mistaken.

While the development of the west has never matched the speed and success of that in the coastal areas, Xinjiang has advanced economically. The government says GDP in Xinjiang leaped from $28 billion in 2004 to $60 billion in 2008, and that life expectancy has doubled over the 60 years of the PRC. The trouble is that Xinjiang society is Chinese-style apartheid. The pain of Han-Uighur tension outweighs the pleasure of rising incomes. Economic success recasts but does not remove empire.

We can begin to understand Beijing's imperial cast of mind by considering that Chinese school children are told Xinjiang has been part of China for two millennia since the Han Dynasty (false: only the Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911, incorporated Xinjiang into China). In one spectacle at the Beijing Olympics, "minority children" were dressed in the costumes of Xinjiang, Mongolia, Tibet, and so on, but every child was Han.

On two trips to Xinjiang in recent years, I found a tense and strident atmosphere. Radio and newspapers spoke of Mao Zedong Thought, class struggle, and the danger of enemies undermining the unity of the PRC. One day in the oasis city of Turfan I heard a radio message in Mandarin Chinese: "Every friend of ours in religious circles [i.e. restive Muslims] should recognize that only the Chinese Communist party represents the interests of the people of all ethnic groups."

Deng once said in a moment of insight: "The loudest thunder comes from dead silence. We are not afraid of the masses speaking up; what we do fear is ten thousand horses standing mute." The sullen silence of repressed Uighurs can mislead. Deng knew it, Hu knows it.

When I went to cross the western border of Xinjiang into Kazakhstan, every inch of my luggage, papers, clothes, and toilet gear was inspected by Chinese immigration officials. In triumph one declared, "You have taken our local newspapers!" He pulled out from the rubble of my luggage newspapers from Xian and Shanghai. "You should know with your experience that it is illegal to take local [non-Beijing] papers out of China." He folded the two newspapers under his arm, my passport inside them, and disappeared for an hour. The train had to wait. A rule from the Mao era, long disregarded in eastern China, was being used against me. Mother China watches especially closely in Xinjiang.

The present crisis began, not with demonstrations against the government, but with Uighur and Han trashing each other. Social group came up against social group. "They don't speak Chinese!" Han cried of Uighur "rapists" in the south. "They steal!"

The Chinese government quickly publicized the Urumqi riots, contrary to its longstanding practice, believing that pictures of the confrontation and carnage would arouse Han feeling on the government side. True enough, racial emotions surfaced. Uighur "are all terrorists," some Han shouted. "They're spoiled like pandas," said a woman irritated with the preferential treatment that Uighurs have received from Beijing.

The Han and Uighur truly dislike each other. Emotions run deeper than between Han and Tibetan or between Han and Mongol and argue against any hope that economic development will work its magic.

But there's larger trouble for Beijing. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and other Muslim countries have been displaying sympathy for their brothers in Xinjiang and being rebuked by Beijing as a result. Last week Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan said, "The incidents in China are, simply put, a genocide. There's no point in interpreting this otherwise."

On top of this, there may be different views in the politburo about how to handle ethnic unrest. President Hu's career was shaped in non-Han areas, and his sensitivity to minority issues helps explain his unprecedented departure from an international summit to handle a domestic crisis. Under Hu, national security white papers from the military openly mention independence for Xinjiang and Tibet as threats to China. But his recipe for "stability"--guns plus propaganda--is not necessarily shared by every senior colleague. Some of the Communist rising stars below the politburo wonder if a non-Han empire is a liability to China's modern image and smiling international stance.

Still, without a major international dispute or a party split, Hu may well pull off the Communist melting pot strategy in Xinjiang (and Tibet). Muslims may be softened by growing prosperity and Xinjiang integrated internationally by the new rail, road, and pipeline links. Modernization may overcome apartheid.

Yet even so, at some point the new China must throw up a political system that allows minorities more latitude. The PRC is more populous than Europe and South and North America put together. In the United States, Mormon, Puerto Rican, Wall Street titan, Southern Baptist, Hawaiian hippie, Harvard professor, Amish grandma, Californian anarchist--thousands of such varied types coexist decade after decade. All are peas in a pod at election time or before a judge; each person is merely, and proudly, a citizen in the United States of America. The diversity is not lethal; in fact each election with the result accepted by all parties cements a unity deeper than the diversity. America's cacophony and fundamental stability are both missing in Xinjiang. Federalism is what China needs to gain true unity and stability. But it cannot come until the rule of law arrives first.

Ross Terrill is the author of The New Chinese Empire (Basic Books) and the biographies Mao and Madame Mao (both Stanford).