The Uyghur minority in China: an uncomfortable reflection


In my experience, most Americans, including those of Chinese descent, are not aware that the Tibet is far from a unique case; in fact, just north of Tibet, an autonomous region known as Xinjiang, populated by a Turkic people called the Uyghurs. So why are Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys so concerned about Tibet, yet so ignorant of Xinjiang? I’ll let my girlfriend Megan, herself a Han Chinese, explain with some words from a political science paper she wrote last quarter:

westerners are more likely to consider Tibetan Buddhism as a mysterious oriental spiritual doctrine, and feel sympathetic to it. To the contrary, Islam is often condemned to some negative stereotypes, such as militancy and fundamentalism. Those images cause the majority of westerners to hesitate before supporting Uyghur separatism.

Ouch! I believe that she, as they say in Internet parlance, pretty much “pwnd” the West with that dry remark right there.

If you listen to a news outlet like NPR or BBC, however, you may be a bit more familiar with Xinjiang lately, as the ethnic unrest in that territory has forced them to pay attention to it. My jumping-off point happens to be a story by Anthony Kuhn that NPR ran last night, entitled “Unrest In China Highlights Plight Of Ethnic Minorities.”

The American narrative

The first part of the story uses the semi-anonymous testimony of a Uyghur man, Mohammed, to assert that Uyghurs are in fact second-class citizens in their own homeland. You see, Han Chinese are the 90% majority in China, it’s just that with over a billion citizens of the People’s Republic of China, there are still plenty of non-Han, officially classified as one of the 55 “ethnic minorities.” In the last few decades, the PRC authorities decided that they would “develop” Xinjiang (and Tibet) by importing Han people into those regions, because it worked so well when Great Britain imported Protestant English and Scots into Northern Ireland, right? These population changes, of course, ensure that the situation will remain intractable for some time, even in the currently-unlikely event of political independence for either territory.

Of course, Kuhn does not provide any of this background. He does describe the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to minorities as “hard-line,” but only offers one, somewhat peculiar, alternative:

But there is debate beyond the rhetoric. For years, critics have suggested a re-examination of China’s Soviet-style system of “autonomous zones” and affirmative action for Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities.

Retired Nanjing University professor Wang Yingguo argues that these policies have actually made it harder for minorities to develop a Chinese identity.

“The general trend of the Chinese nation has been for assimilation. But the establishment of these autonomous zones has created an artificial separation between races and locked in their differences,” he said.

This is the point in the story where the American journalist starts to talk more about his own culture than the one he’s interviewing. I am going to be guilty of the same thing here, but I’m interested in articulating the parallels, as I think we can learn much more about the problem this way.

To identify, or not to identify

My theory is that when American journalists cover a story about minority unrest in China, there are really two kinds of reactions that they may offer. The first, and perhaps the most common, is to give one’s own country a good pat on the back and say “good thing it’s not like that here.” Commenter Jon gao, probably a PRC citizen and ethnic Han, reflexively responds to the story as if it was in fact written from that perspective:

Why these FREEDOM loving “journalist” never mentions that most of the killing was done by Uighurs terrorist to Chinese passerbys. They killed Han and Uighurs and Hui people. And while some “peacefully” rioting on main streets and public square, others started killing in the back alleys!

In fact, Kuhn’s story is not of this nature. He makes absolutely no claims as to “who started it,” preferring a studied ambiguity about the facts. In fact, this article takes the opposite position, which is to subtly acknowledge the feeling of familiarity. Ironically, Jon goa’s response evokes this feeling inadvertently, although I’ll have to return to that later. Kuhn’s sense of “recognition” comes out in his choice of Wang Yingguo as his expert. Wang helpfully explains that the problem of inequality among cultural and ethnic groups is caused by the very recognition of certain groups as distinct. If only we were to assert not only that there is one China, but that there is also just one type of Chinese, all the problems will disappear.

The fantasy of sameness

Why is this familiar? Well, in 2003, conservative activist Ward Connerly was able to get Proposition 54 on the ballot in California. Had it passed (it didn’t), the state government would have been prohibited from collecting any data on racial identity. Connerly, like Wang, posited that different racial impacts are in fact created by the recognition of racial difference.

Now of course, race, ethnicity, and all such things are more than a little arbitrary, especially from a biological standpoint, but it’s a fine trick to ignore what has beome the historical reality of difference and of different treatment. Were we to stop tracking the different outcomes that ethnic groups experience, people who support efforts like Prop 54 could claim that those different outcomes had been eradicated, while those who suspect otherwise would no longer be able to prove otherwise.

Personally, I believe that ignoring the problem does not constitute a solution, whatever else you might say about it, but it’s hard to deny that these ideas have a certain popularity in the white American populace, especially the more right-leaning variety. So, in choosing a solution that is so familiar to us, Kuhn ultimately identifies the white majority in America with the Han majority in China.

Idealizing the victim

He’s not the only one who does so, in fact. What commenter Jon gao, quoted above, doesn’t realize is that when I read his comment, that sense of entitlement deja vu just got stronger. I imagine it’s quite likely that he is not simply “making things up.” I don’t know if this is a worldwide tendency, but in the West at least, we have an unfortunate need to hold blameless a group that they recognize to be the subject of unjust treatment; for instance, some white liberals and leftists fall into the trap of idealizing people of color as saintly victims, rather than acknowledging them as complicated, flawed human beings like themselves. Some Uighyurs may well have committed atrocities; what this reminds me of is a report I read about Tibetan violence (subscription required, alas), alluded to in Kuhn’s NPR story, in The Economist, which made me one of the few Westerners aware that last year’s violence between Tibetans and Han authorities was two-way and not merely top down. Recognizing that things are not clear-cut might help us Westerners not look so hypocritical to the Han folks. On the other hand, the Economist report was so rare because that journalist was, by coincidence, one of the few foreign journalists lucky to be on the spot before the CCP authorities closed off access. When the Tibetan exile groups are freely talking while the PRC government tries to act like nothing’s happening, it’s clear that it’s not just Western bias that might have led to lopsided accounts! This clearly is not an isolated problem.

Erasing historical context

That said, his reaction is familiar because that’s where it stops. Some “minorities” committed violence, that’s all we need to know. Their actions are described without context, while the reactionary individual, with his dominant perspective, sees his own group as blameless… perversely, forgetting the crackdowns of the past justifies the need for new, harsh crackdowns.

Is this familiar? Well, we haven’t had “riots” on this scale in a long time. Instead, our racial conflict usually plays out on a more complicated stage. In the United States, racial hysteria is constantly used to pass new “tough-on-crime” laws that lead to mass numbers of black men being incarcerated, devastating entire communities. Questioning these policies means that you are soft-on-crime, a bleeding-heart liberal out of touch with reality.

Affirmative action?

Interestingly, this leads into one (but hardly the only) key element in which the Chinese and American situations are quite different. You see, China has both a neo-imperial attitude of exploitation (Megan told me that growing up, she was told that the minerals were taken from the Uyghurs, who didn’t need them, and given to the Han in the east who did need them, something that at least made sense to her as a child) and an affirmative action policy! (Surprisingly, Kuhn didn’t give Wang a chance to rail against that). This seeming contradiction is baffling… at first. My research on this subject led me to a surprisingly thorought and insightful article from Knight-Ridder Newspapers, the core of which is this:

But just as in the United States, China’s affirmative-action policy is controversial, divisive and, some argue, unsuccessful.

It is also, to Western eyes, flawed. That is because the policy is not based on any philosophy of equality, or any desire to “celebrate differences.”

Instead, the Chinese people, for the most part, remain completely at ease with racial stereotypes. Affirmative action here does not mean re-evaluating the Han belief that all minorities are “backward, primitive barbarians” who need the help of their “Han older brothers” – to quote some cliches.

China’s policy is purely pragmatic. The idea is to give the minorities just enough power, education or economic success to keep them quiet. As opposed to empowering minorities, it is meant to encourage assimilation and the creation of a peaceful, unified and essentially Han country.

Once you understand this, it all starts to come together, even this entirely bizarre, and for an American, particularly counterintuitive “doctrine” (with the caveat that I haven’t entirely been able to verify it)

a government mandate in 1984… says: “for criminals with minority backgrounds, insist on ‘catch fewer and give less capital punishment (than their Han counterparts), and in practice, practice more leniency towards them.” (5th mandate from the Chinese Communist Party, 1984) (中共中央1984年第5号文件:”对少数民族的犯罪分子要坚持’少捕少杀 ‘,在处理上一般要从宽”。)

The blogger who brings this up, identified as berlinf does so in order to “prove” that actually the majority Han are second-class citizens in “their own” country, a sentiment that might also sound familiar to Americans (but more on that later). It shows, at least, that our governments use very different strategies to further majority interests at the expense of the minority; carrying out crackdowns through the criminal justice system would be somewhat redundant when “real” crackdowns, of the type that our government likes to avoid in order to keep its “human rights” rep (the source of so many accusations of hypocrisy from nations like China), are a viable option.

The tyranny of the minorities?

But what about “the Han as oppressed people”? This blogger is not the only one who feels that way. Back to the Knight Ridder article:

A Han-Chinese Ningxia government official, China’s version of America’s angry white man, complained of watching minorities with less experience and “less talent” leapfrog over him to better, more prestigious jobs because of their minority backgrounds.

“Of course it is frustrating,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “I can’t move up even though I am very qualified. Sometimes the Hui who are promoted aren’t qualified at all, but I have to listen to their orders.”

It’s somewhat surprising that the article makes the parallels quite so explicit. One note: the Hui are actually a group ethnically similar to the Han, but with a traditionally Muslim culture. Mentioning them may in fact muddy the waters, as Megan tells me these folks have much better prospects than the denizens of the “autonomous regions.” Yet the blogger who mentions the criminal justice “favoritism” has no problem muddying the waters, proposing that unfair treatment of the Han has somehow led to the conflict in Xinjiang.

How to explain this? Well, I have a crazy theory.

Orchestrating resentment

As you probably know, in the United States, affirmative action was created by the left, but exploited by the right in order to stoke white resentment… actually, a more accurate statement would be that it was stoked in order to create a new justification for white racial hostility, specifically by endowing them with a sense of victimization “routine” that would replace (or augment) the sense of open, and justified, racial dominance.

But what about China? Could it be that the government there actually instituted affirmative action policies, at least in part, in order to add just a tint of racial resentment to the existing feelings of racial superiority in its own majority Han populace? Was this done in order to squelch any chances of all but the slightest minority of Han feeling any doubt as to the rightness of the oppression brought down upon its most “recalcitrant” minorities?

It seems ridiculous, but consider the reactions to recent events; many Han respond to Western critical reporting of the Xinjang situation by asking, in effect, how can we be oppressing them when the law is written to benefit them and (since race is a zero sum game) therefore punish us?! This is what berlinf says, and as stated, he’s not alone. A Han commenter from Urumqui, the Xinjiang capital, declares this on a New York Times blog:

Everybody knows that China has one Child per Family policy. Well, that only applies to Han Chinese. For Uighur, Tibetan, and ALL other minority group, this policy does not apply. Obviously, there is NO equal opportunities for the majority Han Chinese. I hope this is what you intended to say.

And so on.

Conclusion: broader insights

I imagine it can never be proved that the CCP did this deliberately, and in fact, it’s not necessary to. The point is that the PRC can continue to exploit the Uyghurs while using every possible strategy to convince an already-receptive, dominant Han populace that such efforts are unavoidable. Meanwhile, in ways both more benign and more insidious, white Americans follow similar paths of logic to condone the exploitation and oppression of blacks and Latinos by the police and the justice system. Even those who have an unproblematic investment in the status quo can’t help but inadvertently allude towards the similarities.

Han Chinese (and probably not just Han) often regard Western coverage of their “internal problems” as unfair and biased. This is complicated in that they are often both right and wrong, in that they may be defending wrongs that should not be defended, yet they are right to criticize the Westerners for only seeing the wrongs commited by others. The parallels may not be perfect, and I may have strained them a bit here or there, but my goal is to set a basis for acknowleding our own shortcomings without letting that become an excuse for the shortcomings of others.


One thought on “The Uyghur minority in China: an uncomfortable reflection

  1. i think its a good thing. i dont think the chinese government treats them super bad. i think the uyghurs as a whole like being considered chinese. the majority of uyghurs see themselves united with the “han” people there are just a few uyghurs that are very radicial and very loud they are the ones that started the riots recently the only reason the chinese government cracks down on them is because the chinese government hates religion. they think that religion stops innovation and technological advances. but thats just the backward thought process. thats my 2 cents.

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