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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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).