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Han Chinese

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China: Trouble in the Colonies

14 July 2009

China: Trouble in the Colonies

By Gwynne Dyer

“The incidents in China are, simply put, a genocide. There’s no point in interpreting this otherwise,” said Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan last Friday. He was talking about the deaths of at least 184 people in the recent street violence in Xinjiang, the huge province that occupies the north-western corner of China.

A majority of Xinjiang’s people are Uighurs who are Muslims and speak a language closely related to Turkish, so Erdogan’s comments were bound to appeal to his audience in Turkey. The Chinese government, predictably, condemned his charges as “irresponsible and groundless.” The Chinese government was right – but also terribly wrong.

It wasn’t a genocide. The deaths of 184 people, for whatever reason, do not constitute a genocide. Erdogan was claiming that there had been a genocide against the Uighurs, but three-quarters of the people killed in the riots were Han Chinese.“Genocide” is a word that should only be used very precisely, and Erdogan owes Beijing an apology.

Even if the Chinese authorities exaggerated the number of Han dead and understated the Uighur death-toll, as Uighur nationalists abroad claim, there is no doubt that this violence started as an Uighur attack on Chinese immigrants. However, Beijing owes the Uighurs more than just an apology, for it is Chinese policy that drove them to such desperate measures.

The Chinese authorities genuinely believe that the development they have brought to Xinjiang has been for the Uighurs’ own good, even if it has also brought huge numbers of Han Chinese immigrants to the province. But they are certainly not distressed to see this sensitive frontier province that was 90 percent Uighur and Muslim sixty years ago become a place where a majority of the residents are instinctively loyal Han Chinese.

More importantly, they lack the cultural imagination to see that this process will be profoundly a lienating for the Uighurs. It may sound preposterous, but most of the men who rule China simply could not come up with an answer to the question: “Why don’t they want to be Chinese?” So if there are anti-Chinese riots in Xinjiang, it must be “outside agitators stirring up our Uighurs.”

That is how Beijing explained the riots to itself and to the nation. As Xinjiang’s Communist governor, Nur Bekri, said in a televised address, exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer “had phone conversations with people in China on 5 July in order to incite [the violence].” Beijing explained the even bloodier anti-Chinese riots in Tibet in March of last year in exactly the same way, except that that time the outside agitator was the Dalai Lama.

What’s more, most Chinese believe it. They have been schooled to believe that Xinjiang and Tibet have been an integral part of their country since time immemorial. They also believe the Uighurs and Tibetans who live in those places are (or should be) profoundly grateful for the development and prosperity that have come to their provinces as a result of their membership in the Chinese nation.

The gulf of incomprehension is so vast that it is reminiscent of the gap between the Russian and non-Russian inhabitants of the former Russian empire before the collapse of the old Soviet Union in 1991. Almost all Ru ssians believed that the non-Russians were (or should be) grateful for all that had been done for them, and even resented the fact that they got more investment per capita than the Russians themselves. As for the non-Russians, they took their independence as soon as they could.

The truth is that the Chinese empire first took effective control of Tibet and Xinjiang in the same period when the Russian empire was conquering the other Central Asian countries. Whatever vague claims to “suzerainty” Beijing can dredge up from the more distant past, they do not convince the Uighurs and the Tibetans themselves, who would cut loose from China instantly if they got the chance.

; It’s called decolonisation, and China is the last hold-out. The only way it can ensure a different final outcome to that of the other empires is to swamp the local people with Han Chinese immigrants – and that, oddly enough, is the principal result of its “development” policies. The development creates an economy that the local people are not qualified to work in, and Chinese immigrants come in to fill those jobs instead.

The Tibetan Automous Region still has a large Tibetan majority, but in Xinjiang the Uighurs are already down to 45 percent of the population, while the Han Chinese are up to 40 percent. The Uighurs feel that their country is disappearing in front of their eyes, and they are right.

So they attack innocent Chinese immigrants, which is shameful but all too understandable. Chinese mobs attack them back, which is equally shameful and equally understandable.

It is already ugly, and it’s probably going to get a good deal uglier. The repression needed to hold down Xinjiang and Tibet may lead to increased repression in China in general, and it will almost certainly lead to more violence in the colonies.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“The gulf…could”; and “So they…understandable”)

Uighurs, Terrorism and the Olympics

4 August 2008

Uighurs, Terrorism and the Olympics

 By Gwynne Dyer

“Safety is our top concern,” said China’s Vice-President Xi Jinping in late July, pointing to the deployment of 100,000 troops around Beijing and the surface-to-air missile batteries that protect the main stadiums as proof of the regime’s determination to ensure that no terrorist attack would disrupt the Olympic Games. But it couldn’t stop two equally determined Uighur militants from killing sixteen Chinese police and injuring another sixteen in an attack on a border post near Kashgar.

True, Kashgar is in the far north-western province of Xinjiang, 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) from Beijing, but if two men armed only with hand grenades and knives could do that much damage there, what is to stop others from doing it in Beijing? Certainly not surface-to-air missiles.

The best way to prevent terrorist attacks is to remove the grievances that often motivate them, and to penetrate the terrorist organisations with informers. China hasn’t done very well on either front. In Xinjiang as in Tibet, it has inundated the local population with a wave of Han Chinese immigrants who live essentially separate and far more prosperous lives, and created great resentment as a result.

The number of Chinese immigrants in Tibet and Xinjiang is so great that they threaten to turn the original populations into a minority — in Xinjiang they have already done so — and that is bound to stir fears of cultural and linguistic extinction in the colonised population. That was the real reason for the explosion of anti-Chinese violence in Tibet earlier this year, and it has been the motive power behind Uighur separatist movements in Xinjiang for twenty years now.

Ironically, the reason for the huge influx of Han Chinese immigrants is a ham-handed effort to quell separatist sentiments in the two provinces. Most Chinese believe that their country has ruled both Tibet and what used to be called East Turkestan since time immemorial, but in practice they only came under direct Chinese control in the mid-18th century, around the same time that the British were seizing control of India.

So if Beijing doesn’t want its western territories to go the way of British India eventually, then it must find a way to bind Tibetans and Uighurs to China. The solution, Beijing reckoned, was lots of development and rising prosperity, which would reconcile both Tibetans and Uighurs to Chinese rule.

Maybe it would have, too, if the subject peoples had actually shared in the prosperity, but they didn’t. Educational levels and technical skills were gravely lacking in the indigenous populations, so the real (although probably unintended) effect was to draw in millions of Chinese immigrants who did have the necessary skills. And it was they, of course, who got all the good new jobs.

In 1945, ninety percent of Xinjiang’s population were Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people who are closely related to the other Muslim populations of Central Asia. (Indeed, the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Uzbeks of northern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan can actually understand each other’s languages.) Now the Uighurs are down to eight million out of nineteen million: less than forty-five percent of the population and falling fast.

As in the case of Tibet, there has been very rapid urbanisation, but most of the native population lives in ghettoes that are little better than slums, with no hope of getting the good jobs that are monopolised by Chinese immigrants. The difference between the two regions is that in Xinjiang there have been sporadic terrorist attacks against Chinese people and interests since the early 1990s.

Tibet is isolated by geography, culture, religion and language. It has no strong affinities with anywhere else, which largely explains its relative political passivity between the big 1959 revolt and this year’s disturbances. By contrast, Uighurs have strong historical, cultural, religious and linguistic links with the other Central Asian groups — all of which got their independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

That example, of course, was very seductive, and so a wide variety of Uighur separatist groups have carried out occasional terrorist attacks both in Xinjiang and in China proper over the past two decades. The rise of “Islamist” terrorism latterly has given them a more coherent ideology than mere nationalism, and also some useful contacts in the more distant parts of the Muslim world. They have only killed a couple of hundred people in twenty years, but they remain a serious headache for the Chinese regime.

In all that time, Beijing has not succeeded in penetrating and breaking up the Uighur groups who are waging this violent separatist campaign. Part of the reason is doubtless that these groups are small, numerous and fragmented, but they are also increasingly difficult for the Chinese intelligence services to penetrate because they have become more and more Islamist (as opposed to merely nationalist) in their ideology.

So could Uighur separatists, or even Tibetan ones, carry out a terrorist attack in Beijing during the Olympics? Of course they could. Nothing too spectacular, of course. No hijacked airplanes crashing into stadiums. But two men with grenades (or two women, for that matter) could do a lot of damage, and even 100,000 troops would need some luck to stop them.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 12. (“The number…now”; and “In all…ideology”)

Tibetan Independence

15 March 2008

Tibetan Independence

By Gwynne Dyer

The monks who marched through Lhasa on 10 March to mark the anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 did not want to wreck China’s Olympic year, but they knew that Chinese troops would be less likely to shoot them this year than most. And so it proved: the monks were arrested, but the crowds of Tibetans who gathered on the following days to demand their release were not harmed.

The dilemma facing the Chinese troops was that if they didn’t shoot, the crowds would inevitably grow bigger, for most Tibetans dream of independence and fear that the mass immigration of Han Chinese to Tibet is a form of cultural genocide. By Friday, 14 March the crowds had become so bold that it was they who turned to violence, attacking Chinese civilians in Lhasa and looting and burning Chinese-owned shops, banks and hotels.

The Chinese news agency Xinhua says that ten people were killed in Lhasa on Friday. The Tibetan government-in-exile says that eighty were killed, and accounts by foreign tourists in Lhasa support the higher figure. But so far, by most accounts, the victims have mostly been Han Chinese settlers killed by angry Tibetans.

This doesn’t fit the simple foreign narrative of peaceful protesters and wicked Chinese, but nationalism, whether Tibetan or Fijian, is not an inherently tolerant and peaceful phenomenon. Foreign troops who hold their fire are still foreign occupiers, and innocent Chinese civilians who were encouraged by their own government to come and set up businesses in Lhasa are still unwelcome foreign agents of cultural genocide.

All the players are sticking to their scripts. China insists that “the recent sabotage in Lhasa was organized, premeditated and masterminded by the Dalai clique” (the Dalai Lama is Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader). Qiangba Puncog, the puppet chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, vows that “The plot of the separatists will fail.” They have to say that, as otherwise they would have to admit that Tibetans don’t want to be ruled by China.

The Dalai Lama insists that he is not seeking Tibetan independence from China, but only more autonomy for Tibet’s culture and its Buddhist faith. As the violence in Tibet intensified, however, he had to harden his line. “Ultimately, the Chinese government is clinging of policy, not looking at the reality,” he told the BBC on 15 March. “They simply feel they have gun – so they can control. Obviously they can control. But they cannot control human mind.”

Foreign governments urge China to “exercise restraint,” but they carefully avoid questioning Beijing’s right to rule Tibet. And with the unrest spreading to ethnically Tibetan regions of neighbouring Chinese provinces — hundreds of monks from Labrang monastery marched through the town of Xiahe in Gansu province on 14 March — the time may soon come when Beijing decides it has to crush all dissent by force regardless of the impact on the Olympics.

Force will succeed, as it has before. The 1959 uprising was crushed, the 1989 demonstrations in Tibet were crushed, and the current unrest there will be crushed as well. Tibet’s only chance to recover its independence will come if and when there is a change of regime in China.

China did not traditionally seek to expand beyond the boundaries of the Middle Kingdom, an agrarian society that lived in the north Chinese plain and the river valleys of southern China. The non-Chinese territories that now make up the western third of the country — the deserts and oases of Muslim Xinjiang and the high plateau of Tibet — were not conquered by Chinese, but rather swept into the same Mongol empire that conquered China itself in the 13th century.

Since the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty ruled from Beijing, Tibet came to be seen as a Chinese possession, but the subsequent (ethnically Chinese) Ming dynasty took little interest in it. When another foreign nation of mounted nomads, the Manchus, conquered China in 1644, they too brought Tibet under Beijing’s rule — and when the Manchu dynasty was finally overthrown in 1911, Tibet again slipped from China’s control. For the next forty years, Tibet was effectively independent.

The Chinese Communists seized power in 1949, and invaded Tibet the following year on the argument that “what was once ours is ours forever.” So long as they hold power in Beijing, they will also hold Tibet — but an interesting analogy comes to mind. For the history of the Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — is not very different.

They fell under the rule of the expanding Russian empire in the 18th century, but regained their independence after revolution overthrew the Tsarist regime in 1917. They lost it again when the Soviet Union invaded them in 1940 — but got it back when the Communist regime in Moscow collapsed in 1991. And the main motive for their drive for independence was fear that their languages and cultures were being submerged by a wave of Russian immigrants.

As with the Baltic states, so too with Tibet. If there is ever a change of regime in Beijing, then a window of opportunity will open — and Tibet will have a couple of years to establish its independence before a new government emerges in Beijing that feels compelled to hold onto it in deference to Chinese nationalist sentiment. But that window is not open now.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“All the players…mind”)