Ethnic stife puts remote region in China in spotlight
Calla Wiemer is a visiting scholar at UCLA's Center for Chinese Studies. Her op-ed was published on July 9 in the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Suddenly, the world’s attention is on Xinjiang in remote western China. This is a welcome development, as it will help to mobilize the kind of change that needs to take place, though it is unfortunate that ethnic strife has had to exact such a terrible cost to life and limb for the region to garner outside interest.
Those who would bear witness to the situation in Xinjiang have long faced barriers to access. I myself have been unable to get a China visa for six years. My offense was to write a chapter on the economy of Xinjiang for an academic volume on this “autonomous region.”
Ethnic unrest has been a persistent feature of Xinjiang life under communist rule. But eruptions of violence have always been quickly contained, and passed with little outside notice. This time is different. And when “the whole world is watching,” as the Vietnam War protest cry went in 1960s America, a movement can gain traction.
What makes Xinjiang so volatile is a simmering resentment by the native Uighur people against repression by the Han majority. Uighurs in many respects are denied the opportunity to live the life they desire. They are inhibited in the practice of their Islamic faith. They are limited in their access to economic opportunity. And, not unlike their Han Chinese counterparts, they are denied basic freedoms of expression and assembly.
China’s ethnic-minority problems are deeply rooted, and resolving them will require change of a systemic nature. China is not a society that embracespluralism. Difference is seen as a threat and littlequarter is given to alternative points of view or ways of life. The government controls many aspects of people’s lives and livelihoods, and local officials have a great deal of power within that context, power that is subject to abuse whether toward Han or toward minorities. But minorities suffer more under a system where prejudices can weigh on official behavior. This in turn brews resentment among those systematically victimized. An acrimonious dynamic builds and festers. This can happen with minority groups anywhere, but in China there is more scope for those who have power to abuse it. And there isno voice for those who have grievances.
Han Chinese will point to many special preferences given to minorities — for example, in getting into university or gaining positions in government.Some fault the Uighurs themselves for lacking the wherewithal to succeed economically under China’s market reforms. But Uighurs were some of the most enterprising people in all of China back in the mid-1980s. They fanned out across cities along the eastern seaboard to change money, open restaurants and engage in trade. The curb market in currency trading was so dominated by Uighurs in those days that foreigners referred to it as the “Bank of Xinjiang.”
More recently, Hans have migrated to Xinjiang in droves seeking economic opportunity. But part of the reason Han Chinese are so successful in Xinjiang is that Uighurs are blocked from competing. My Xinjiang work originally focused on cross-border trade with Central Asia. Uighurs have a hard time getting visas and licenses, and generally working in a system controlled by a Han-dominated government, so Hans from outside Xinjiang have been able to move in and occupy this niche.
The Chinese government has blamed the recent riots on Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur woman living in exile in the United States. Ms. Kadeer denies any involvement in the events. But, she is a factor in why the world is now watching, and that is a contribution of sorts. She is being spoken of in the same breath as the Dalai Lama, who has long given global visibility to the plight of Tibet. With her autobiography published in English in May, the Uighurs finally have an appealing figurehead.
Beijing brands Ms. Kadeer — and anyone else who presents a suspected threat — a “separatist.” I’m told by sources inside the Chinese government that I have also been labeled a separatist. Let us consider the situation realistically. Xinjiang is a deeply landlocked region. All its mineral wealth will do the natives no good if they cannot bring these resources to market. The people of Xinjiang need a good relationship with Han China in order to survive. At the same time, many Hans have spent their lives in Xinjiang and the place is their home too. Separating Xinjiang from China is not an option.
So how are the tensions to be resolved? The problem is systemic and the solution will have to be systemic. That is a long-term and wrenching proposition. It calls for a more open society where different viewpoints can be accommodated in the political process and grievances can be addressed through the legal system. Fortunately, there are Han voices advocating for change in this direction as well. Many people of all ethnicities are making great sacrifice for the cause. The world should be watching and offering its support. And academics like me should be welcomed to do research.
Published: Tuesday, July 14, 2009