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01-10-09, 00:36
Negotiating Minority Rights In China

by Rachel DeWoskin


July 20, 2009

The last two weeks have seen a bloody escalation in civil strife in the Xinjiang region of China, resulting in the nation's worst violence in decades.

On July 5, Turkic ethnic Uighurs led a protest in Urumchi over the killing of two Uighurs in a factory brawl 10 days earlier in Guangdong. Both the factory fight and the protest took place against a background of years of charges of racism, injustice and repression of Uighurs by the Chinese government. The protesters razed businesses and set fire to vehicles, and Han Chinese retaliated with machetes and steel bars.

On July 11, police killed two Uighurs who they allege were attacking another Uighur. Since the violence began, the official report is that 192 people have died, and countless more have been injured.

The plight of the Uighurs, many of whom are practicing Muslims, is the plight facing all Chinese minorities: how to preserve cultural, religious and linguistic heritages while simultaneously participating in China's reform, education system and modernization. This dynamic can pit neighbor against neighbor as well as generations against each other.

After decades of Han immigration into Xinjiang, Uighurs make up less than half of the remote region's 20 million inhabitants, a population that includes over 40 other ethnic minority groups. Most of those groups have lived together for decades under Chinese government rule. The tensions in Xinjiang are not simply a bipolar opposition between Han and Uighur, nor is ethnic animosity the single defining characteristic of the region.

Chinese officials argue that outsiders have used the factory violence to increase hatred and separatism. One official, in an interview with the New York Times, compared the strife to "an issue between husband and wife. We have our quarrels, but in the end, we are like one family." In this metaphor, of course, divorce is not an option.

Tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese, as well as between Uighurs and the government, are marked by an ongoing fear that the influx of Han into Xinjiang threatens not only the livelihoods of Uighurs, but also their cultural, linguistic and religious identity.

Uighurs speak a language close to Turkish, but education in Xinjiang takes place in Mandarin, Chinese. Religious practice in Muslim populations does not fit comfortably within a communist state, where official ideology trumps all other systems of belief.

The Chinese government's policies toward minority populations, including the Uighurs, are complex and somewhat paradoxical. Conceptually, the state encourages the preservation of minority cultures and encourages the growth of their populations. For example, they allow Uighurs exemptions from laws including the one-child policy: Uighur families are permitted to have three children, while Han families may have only one child.

The caveat to preservation of minority identity is that minorities must fit harmoniously into the overall structure and fabric of One China. And China's fundamental idea of a well-ordered society includes unity of thinking and behavior, exemplified by literary metaphors of chorus dancers and schools of minnows.

So the extreme example of minority malfeasance in China is "separatism," and the reason promoted by the state for any kind of violent reaction to minority unrest is that foreign influence and agitators are promoting a separatist movement. As we know from Taiwan and Tibet, the vast majority of Chinese oppose interference in China's internal affairs and anything that challenges the unity of China; this line of argument legitimizes any actions the leaders feel are necessary.

And the Uighur struggle for identity survival turned violent and attracted the global media's attention right at a moment when a campaign to impugn the reputation of Muslim protesters is easy to wage because Muslims are being demonized by Western powers worldwide. Of course, simultaneously, many Western forces are also eager to demonize their rising competitor, China.

The world has always been beset with racial and cultural conflicts. The distinct characteristics of the Xinjiang situation need to be considered to anticipate its outcomes.

This vast territory, representing one-sixth of China's landmass, was and remains the traditional homeland of the Uighur population. And while they are not being physically removed, they face the removal of much of their culture from their lives.

The path to a new stability will be neither smooth nor short; it will require recognition by all of us of the total and equal humanity of each person, ethnicity and group. For everyone to find a way into the modern world, we need governments to open doors, but not push people through them.