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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Ethnic Conflict Prevention Xinjiang China: A critique

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In his article Ethnic Conflict Prevention in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region: New Models for China's New Region” author Dru Gladney ( Professor of Asian Studies and Anthropology at the University of Hawaii.) makes some glaringly naive assertions about the political and social situation in Xinjiang China as it concerns primarily the Uygur people.

The article attempts to analyse the ethnic situation with particular attention to the Uygur majority whom in his words he describes as the “restive Uygurs” He then goes on to offer models that are available to the Chinese to alleviate and prevent rising ethnic tension and violence.

The good professor shows a very shallow understanding of the situation as it concerns the Uygur both in Xinjiang and in diaspora.

Firstly as to his assertion that the Uygur are “restive”. It would depend I suppose on the definition of the term “restive” which in my mind means intractable or resistant of control. It can also mean fidgety due to lack of rest. If it is the former this has negative connotations for those unfamiliar with the situation, that is, that the Uygurs, as a whole, are actively and even violently resisting the Han Chinese and PRC Central Government. This assertion is patently incorrect and will mislead readers as to the mindset of the Uygur people.

The Uygurs as a whole are not intractable nor restive in the sense the article implies. A casual observer would take away from the article the feeling that the Uygur are on the verge of mass rebellion, waiting for a banner to follow to rise up in violence and bloodshed. Yes, they resent Han immigration into Xinjiang but no more or less than any peoples who for 2,000 years have enjoyed pre-eminence culturally and numerically in their native land. Are the European Americans not “restive” over Hispanics are the Australians not “restive” over Asian immigration? And the latter two have not experienced going from a 74% majority to a 49% minority in 50 odd years despite doubling their own population.

These are figures that no one who has not experienced such rapidity of change can comprehend. Of course there are grumblings and resentment, that is only natural. Yes, some actively shun association with Han Chinese to the point of refusing to get into a taxi with a Han Chinese driver. These are just the same little “protests” carried out by millions of people around the world daily. Yes, they resent the apparent economic disparities between Han and Uygur but they are not in absolute terms worse off, they are relatively worse off, there is a difference.

The author mentions the lower levels of literacy and the lower life expectancy and other social/welfare indicators of Uygur people lag behind compared to the Han. Again this is misleading at least in context. He fails to mention that yes whilst this is true the situation with all social/economic and welfare has improved markedly since 1949.

He then goes on to paint a picture of a growing, vocal and well organised international campaign on behalf of the Uygurs particularly on the Internet. He ventures a figure of some 25 active organisations and states the cities they operate from. Impressive? The facts are quite different. He mentions active operations in Australia and Melbourne in particular. I run three websites in Australia concerning the Uygur and Turkic peoples of Central Asia. One is a group I started in the naive belief that I could help new Uygur arrivals to this country. I have not once been contacted in any shape or form from any Uygur Organisation in Australia nor have I run across any Australian website other than my own despite countless hours of research. As for other organisations growing and becoming more vocal and organised the good professor must never have gone to Google and searched on the term Uygur. You have the Uyghur American Association which is still active but much less so than several years ago. Uyghur UK Association is out of date. East Turkestan National Conference hardly a hive of activity, East Turkestan National Freedom centre Washington – gone, Taklamakan.org, East Turkestan Information Centre, Uygur.Org all either one, inert or but shells of old information. As well, the activity in the Uygur discussion groups, even Uygur language ones, have few posts. Essentially the Uygur internet/cyberspace campaign that he speaks of peaked in 1999 and has been in rapid decline ever since. In one of my articles I call the Uygur Natioanlist websites the “rotting hulks of the Uygur Independence Movement.


The professor then goes on to propose several models to relieve ethnic tension in Xinjiang, to wit the Alaskan, Hawaiian, Australian, Scotland and West Bank models (the last one obviously for some scare mongering). It is incredible to believe that an expert could put forward the raft of models he has. His Alaskan, Hawaiian and Australian models relate to indigenous peoples whose histories cultures and circumstances are in no way analogous to the Uygur situation.

The Australian aborigine at the time of European arrival were a semi nomadic stone age culture, the Innuits and Hawaiians were also not that greatly advanced on the Aborigine at the time of the arrival of their European colonists. These peoples were deprived of their very existence not necessarily through violence but through deprivation of the homelands, their traditional livelihoods. Their ability to thrive and prosper and to live the lifestyle they had been used to had been irrevocably taken away from them by a foreign culture. This is not so with the Uygur.

The Uygur are an established civilised people by world standards. They once ran a great empire. Their legacy to the world in arts, culture, governance, trade and other areas is great and goes back at least to the 8th century.

They are not a peoples whose way of life was totally robbed by a strange and foreign culture. They still trade and conduct business much as they have done for 2,000 years. They still farm, they go to mosques they dance the Dolan, they still write. In other words they still continue, essentially, the culture they have been developing back from the 8th century. The difference is now they have cultural and economic competition in their land.

But this competition is not unknown to them, it is not a strange and foreign culture to them. The Uygurs have fought with and against the Han Chinese since 100 BCE. They have been dominated and subjugated by them for centuries and at one time even considered invading them much as the Mongols later did. They have traded with them, they even were a major player in the introduction of Buddhism.

This is in no way similar to the Aborigines, Innuits or Hawaiians. The Uygur do not want welfare, handouts or thousands of acres of barren land. They want to maintain their cultural integrity and to play a significant part (and not necessarily the only part) in the government and future of their homeland and to maintain within reason their cultural identity.

The professor also puts forward the Scottish model and rightly so, but, for two reasons. Firstly, when the Scottish model was introduced the Scottish people were far and away the majority ethnic group in Scotland and remain so to this day. In Xinjiang, however, some observers now believe that the Uygur do not even have parity with the Han let alone when the other ethnic groups are factored in. Even if a moratorium on migration to Xinjiang were put in place today they would never regain their majority status.

The second consideration is that Scotland economically has not and does not have the attraction of Xinjiang in terms of under developed resources and economic opportunity nor did it have the strategic importance. No Englishman particularly cared if the Scottish had a degree of autonomy because no one wanted to go there. That is not being facetious that is just the facts from an economic viewpoint.

No, the Scottish model on the surface looks appealing but could not operate in the manner the Professor envisages, maybe if it had been implemented in 1949 but not now. The professor is leading from an assumption that the Uygur have some right to “own” Xinjiang. That may have been true but they are now dispossessed. And they unfortunately will never have that right again.

The last model, the West Bank model, is ludicrous at best and scare mongering at worst

Yes, once again there are some superficial similarities in the two scenarios but a little investigation and analysis would reveal to any reasonable person that a West Bank scenario would never occur in Xinjiang.

The professor essentially implies a scenario where al qaeda or the Taliban will strike a banner and a disillusioned Uygur people will rise beneath it resulting in a Central Asia “West Bank”.

Firstly, the Uygur are not and have never been Islamic fundamentalists. Their brand of Islam bears no similarities to that of the Taliban or al qaeda in fact it is highly secular. Secondly, they are a Turkic people not an Arabic people as the other two are. Thirdly, even at the height of the Taliban, even with the catalyst effect one would expect from the decline of the Soviet Union and the setting up of the Turkic Republics, even given their physical proximity to Afghanistan there still have been no conclusive linkages of any great import between them. Yes those organisations trained some militant Uygurs (1,000 odd were rounded up in Afghanistan) yes they may have supplied some minor economic support to a minuscule minority but given the foregoing it is obvious that the majority of Uygurs have no truck with these organisations. As the professor rightly points out the Uygur people, as a whole, have not resorted to, or supported, the use of violence and terrorist activities to achieve an end. So what would change in the foreseeable future. If they were ever going to do it then between 1991 and “September 11” would have been the time but they did not. This analogy quite frankly, like a lot of so called “informed comment” on the Uygur situation, is facile.

Something needs to be done in Xinjiang that is without question. The Uygur are the descendants of the original owners. As to their rights to ownership today that is one only Solomon could decide. But it this very question of ownership that is muddying the waters and blocking the way forward. Ownership implies restitution or compensation a trap the professor falls into with some of his models and one that quite a lot of people fall into.

Should the goal of the Uygur be restitution? Do we wave a wand and move out the Han en masse some who now are second and third generation themselves? Do we write a blank cheque or dismantle the Han supplied infrastructure and ship it back to them on the railroad they built and return on Donkeys.

Should it be monetary compensation for the “stolen land”? How hard to implement an Australian or Alaskan model with 8 –10 million Uygurs (1 million in diaspora who have been away from their homeland for up to 40 years)?

Or, do we accept the situation and strive to develop a model where the Uygur can retain and re invigorate their unique culture? Where they are educated and trained to do the jobs the Han are now doing so they can participate fully in the development of Xinjiang and the resultant economic flow on. A model where they are assured rights at least equal to Han Chinese.

If pre 1949 was a good time to do something, if 1991 to “September 11” was an opportune time to do something than perhaps, with the Olympics and the opening up of China, now is a good time to do something.

Let us not allow journalists looking for a sensation beat up some Kashgar taxi drivers comments or ill informed “experts” looking for publication or the Uygurs in diaspora, who do like the Europeans in exile post 1945 did when they sat in foreign lands and plotted the downfall of the Soviet Union, to dictate or drive the future of Xinjiang. Let it be the Xinjiang Uygur and the Han, each giving up something small to gain something large.


Stephen Sullivan
Sydney Australia