Nationalism, Tibetans and Uighurs in today’s China

Nationalism arouses solidarity and generates identity politics that threaten ethnic and religious minorities. Defining the “we” also defines the “they” — and the latter is inexorably marginalized.

Identity politics carry with them a high risk of sectarian or communal violence. State abuses of authority, and impunity for abusers, often transform grievances into a shared collective identity among victimized minorities, generating defiance, militancy and a cycle of violence.

China’s Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang, and Buddhist Tibetans, are resisting assimilation despite sustained efforts by ethnic Han Chinese. Both groups harbor strong resentments against Han-ification that sometimes erupt into violence — direct action that’s quickly suppressed by security officials.

The recent bombing in Beijing, attributed by the Chinese authorities to Uighur terrorists, has sparked a crackdown. According to U.S. historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the author of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs To Know” (2013), the Chinese Communist Party has recently been invoking the Yugoslavian nightmare — suggesting a similar unraveling could happen if it relaxes its grip.

That, though, won’t happen anytime soon, and the bombing at the hallowed ground of Tiananmen Square actually bolsters the CCP’s position as self-anointed protector of the nation.

Inescapably, the “rising China” story of expanding economic and political brawn weighs heavily on its ethnic minorities. The fundamental problem is that the dictates of Han nationalism don’t leave much space for anything resembling multiculturalism beyond a Disney-fied celebration of colorful costumes and quaint customs.

Chinese nationalism is all about Han nationalism. In a country that has lost its moorings while experiencing tremendous socioeconomic convulsions, nationalism is a reassuring and expedient ideology that creates a sense of unity among a people riven by yawning disparities, injustice and corruption.

The CCP has discovered a lifeline in nationalism, appealing to Han chauvinism to shore up its faltering legitimacy. The nightmare threat of Balkanization reinforces such claims.

With the expansion of transport and communication networks, the fringes of China have come under intensified Han sway, generating frictions and uncomfortable cultural clashes. Once-isolated minority groups have lost the protection of distance and have become targets of ambitious development projects.

Colorful Uighur markets have been razed and replaced with ugly concrete structures, while glittery signs of Han-style progress are evident in enclaves separated from the bleaker conditions that surround. The boomtowns in the oil and gas regions of Xinjiang offer glaring contrasts with local lifestyles and living standards — a divide that is replicated in Tibet. In both, locals take a back seat to Han incomers in both commerce and government.

Uighurs and Tibetans resent this Han domination, while government officials tick off statistical advances that have been achieved in improving living standards and modernizing these “backward” regions. But Han people get the best jobs, earn the best salaries and live the good life. And the security forces’ heavy-handed presence further stokes tensions.

Han Chinese justify their dominating presence by claiming their skills and resources are needed, and arguing that by any measure both regions are far better off now than they were 20 years ago. They can’t quite understand why the people are so angry and ungrateful. But they are.

Since 2009, about 122 Tibetans have protested against Han Chinese rule by resorting to the ultimate gesture — self-immolation. The Chinese government has curtailed domestic media coverage precisely because these tragedies poignantly underscore Beijing’s failures in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama recently told the Financial Times, “The same party — totalitarian system — has the ability to act according to new realities.”

In his view, Beijing’s quest for a harmonious society failed because, “The method to promote harmony (was) through tight control and relying on use of force. That is the mistake. As soon as use force, creates fear. Fear and trust cannot go together. Using force failed. So they must now carry out a policy to respect Tibetan culture and Tibetan people. I always pray the Chinese leadership should develop more common sense.”

However, while acknowledging the need for jobs and development that require Chinese investment, His Holiness argues for greater cultural autonomy. “The very meaning of autonomy is ‘look after your own culture.’ Once that is fully implemented, we are very much willing to remain within the People’s Republic of China.”

Although Beijing is intent on intimidating the Dalai Lama into isolation by economically penalizing countries that host him, perhaps it is time to reconsider the dead-end policies that generate so much resentment among Tibetans.

The same holds true for Xinjiang. There are some 10 million ethnic Uighurs spread over China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Russia. As Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims, they are one of the 56 ethnic groups recognized by the Chinese government. Culturally, religiously and physically distinct from the ethnic Han, Uighurs chafe under Chinese rule and there have been ill-fated uprisings and frequent outbursts of violence.

In the Uighur heartland of Xinjiang, the seeds of political tension are not hard to find. While living in close proximity, they are worlds apart, putting the Uighurs on the wrong side of the tracks in their own homeland, where they are now a minority due to an influx of Han.

China’s problems in Xinjiang reflect the absence of a strategy for giving Uighurs a stake in the system. This is reflected in the virtual exclusion of Uighurs from well-paid jobs in the oil-and-gas sector. Living relatively well amid dispirited and seething Uighurs, Han Chinese fear what they see as a proclivity to violence and religious extremism. Naturally there is little reflection on the policies that alienate and radicalize Uighurs — and an overblown tendency to blame outside agitators.

As such, repression at home is complemented by coopting the adjacent Uighur frontier in Central Asia in an effort to terminate cross-border support for Uighur dissidents in Xinjiang, who are branded as terrorists by Beijing.

In the past few months, President Xi Jinping has gone on a Silk Road shopping spree, signing massive energy contracts worth some $100 billion, securing critical oil and gas pipelines while levering Central Asian nations, formerly part of the Soviet empire, into the Chinese orbit of influence.

Beijing increasingly acknowledges that the clenched-fist approach to minority dissent is not working. In 2012, in fact, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made apologies for “historical errors” when unveiling policy initiatives aimed at containing growing resentments among China’s dispossessed.

Howard French, a former Shanghai bureau chief of The New York Times, explains that “historical errors” is polite CCP jargon for “blowing it big time.”

Clearly, improvements in the treatment of minorities are overdue — but tackling that agenda still appears to be way outside Beijing’s comfort zone.

Jeff Kingston is the Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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