Things are looking pretty rough in Xinjiang, or Uighurstan if you prefer, at the minute. In fact, Urumqi looks worse than Ardoyne. Joking aside, though, it’s a major story and, though I can’t really claim any specialist knowledge, there are some aspects that have grabbed my attention.
Firstly, Dave speculates that “the left” will, in its majority, come out in defence of whatever the Chinese government does. I suspect that Dave may be confusing the Spartacist League with “the left”, or else he’s been paying too much attention to the kitsch leftists of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, who can use an idiosyncratic version of Stalinist geopolitics to justify supporting all sorts of rum characters. (To take just one recent example, the Lebanese Phalange, who can be decontaminated by the simple expedient of labelling them “The Cedar Revolution”.) But at the less eccentric end of the left, we have a strongly pro-Uighur article in Socialist Worker, which I would have expected given the SWP’s long-term support for Tibetan independence.
On a journalistic level, that’s fine. But I think we should be careful before demanding that Trot ideologues produce detailed programmatic positions. The thing about your Marxists is that an ideologue, at least an experienced one like Chris Harman or Sean Matgamna, can produce a 60-page blueprint for the Uighur revolution at the drop of a hat, with no more research involved than reading this morning’s Guardian and maybe spending half an hour on Wikipedia to fill in the gaps. This is because your Marxist ideologue is a master of such theoretical tools as the Dogmatic Schema, the Rhetorical Overstatement and the Tenuous Historical Analogy. If all else fails, you can fall back on such formulae as “We support the demands of the masses”, which worked really well for the Iranian left in 1979. Alternatively, you could try to put some knowledge to work alongside your formulae, which is why I quite liked this from the CWI, but it’s well known that nobody ever profited from trying to determine the facts.
My view is that you can sensibly talk about what demands you would raise if you were on the ground, and make those demands a bit sharper by strengthening your empirical knowledge, but beyond that I’m cautious. I’m cautious about pledging up-front support to a movement whose complexion and dynamics I’m deeply unsure about. I’m also cautious about sources – I know plenty of people on the Iranian exile left who are good and decent individuals, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily trust their judgement in all things, especially when they contradict each other or come out with sweeping statements about how the Iranian population is opposed to the Islamic Republic. I mean to say, I’ve heard Goretti Horgan say in public fora that there’s a pro-choice majority in the north of Ireland, and I’m reasonably sure that isn’t true, so it doesn’t hurt to be a little bit careful in areas that you know much less well.
That lengthy caveat out of the way, I hope you’ll excuse me for not presuming to pull a detailed blueprint out of my left ear. What I want to do, in the same spirit as Madam Miaow, is to offer a few impressions and what I think are some points worth thinking over.
The first thing that strikes me is that, compared to the similar events in Tibet last March, the international media have been remarkably understanding of the Chinese government. Partly this is because Beijing has been much cannier in its handling of the media – where last March Tibet was effectively closed to foreigners, and you could take your choice between editorials in the People’s Daily or emotive appeals from the Free Tibet movement, in this case there’s been plenty of access to Xinjiang. That has meant, inter alia, coverage of the Han workers attacked by Uighurs in the race riot, something that was effaced almost entirely during the Tibet events.
It also must be said that the Tibetans have PR advantages denied to the Uighurs. There is a large Tibetan diaspora in Europe and North America, many of whom speak fluent English. There is a large Uighur diaspora in the Stans, many of whom speak fluent Russian or Uzbek. The Tibetans have an internationally famous rock ‘n’ roll spiritual leader; the Uighurs have no recognisable leader. The Tibetans have been supported for decades by a highly committed solidarity movement that’s been very effective in promoting a romanticised image of Tibet; the Uighurs have had no such solidarity movement. The Tibetans are backed by Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Bono and Joanna Lumley; the Uighurs are supported by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, who aren’t exactly media darlings themselves, and by some pan-Turkic wingnuts in Istanbul, who are the sort of people you would invite on Newsnight if you actively wanted to discredit the Uighur cause. The Tibetans benefit from a 1960s view of Buddhism as a religion of peace and tolerance, which is only sustainable if you aren’t paying much attention to Burma or Sri Lanka. The Uighurs have the disadvantage of being of the Muslim persuasion, and it’s not all that easy to get idealistic Western reporters to swing behind uppity Muslims.
Beijing has been keenly aware of the last element at least, and has been keen to flag up the terrorist activities of some Uighur separatist groups, and tenuous links they claim to have uncovered to Osama. There appear to be much stronger links with the CIA and the Turkish Deep State, but the Chinese authorities are less keen to stress those. All this means that, while the Cold War tropes of anticommunism and Sinophobia have not been absent, Beijing has done rather better out of this than it might have expected.
So we now move to what has actually been going on. There has been some grandiose talk about the movement for democracy and self-determination, but the Urumqi events look to me at first glance like a race riot. The question is, whether it is just a race riot, and what are the underlying causes. After all, the Kosovo events of 1981 were essentially a race riot, but there was more to them than that, and the cack-handed response of the Yugoslav authorities helped to stoke up trouble for the future. And, as we know, race riots don’t happen for no reason.
Firstly, I think there’s a certain amount of guff to be cut through. There is an obvious and close parallel between Xinjiang and Tibet, which is why this blog recommends the following products: the Gongmeng report into the March 2008 events in Tibet, a complex and convincingly argued analysis from within China, and anything by Tsering Shakya, who’s been a consistent source of good writing on Tibetan politics.
To dispense with some mythology, it’s common to hear Tibetan advocates in the west talk in emotionally-charged terms about “cultural genocide”, which consists of two interlinked arguments: the first is that Tibetans are banned from expressing their identity, even in terms of freedom to speak their language or practice their religion; the second is that Beijing is following a deliberate policy of sending millions of Han colonists into ethnic minority areas so as to swamp the native population. The second I think is dubious, at least in the terms that it is usually framed, although large-scale immigration there certainly has been. I don’t think, anyway, that we have an analogue to the way that, during the Cultural Revolution, millions of Red Guards were sent to the furthest-flung parts of China to smash regionalism. The first charge is simply untrue. Chinese nationalities policy is closely modelled after Soviet nationalities policy, which means (Stalin’s wartime deportations notwithstanding) a policy of supporting, even celebrating, local identities and cultures while cracking down very hard on anything that looks like political separatism. Some nationalities – like the largest minority in China, the Zhuang – have done quite well out of this. It’s worked less well in practice for the Tibetans and the Uighurs.
What the nationalities policy means in Xinjiang is that Uighur and Kazakh are official languages (in the traditional Arabic script, rather than the Latin imposed in the 1950s), it means that Uighurs as a non-Han nationality are exempt from the one-child policy, that there is a special dispensation in Xinjiang allowing Muslims to become members of the Communist Party (as there is for Buddhists in Tibet) and the Party has followed an affirmative action programme to put Uighurs into top positions. Religion is a slightly different matter, and it does make Beijing nervous. As I’ve mentioned previously, the Catholic Church can’t operate legally in mainland China, and its adherents have to operate via the Patriotic Catholic Association, a body which agrees with all government policies and whose bishops are appointed by the Communist Party. (Actually, that sounds a bit like the SDLP.) Similiar arrangements prevail for Muslims and Buddhists. So even if minorities’ constitutional rights were fully implemented in practice – and I’m fairly sure they aren’t – there would be plenty to chafe against.
All this is not to say that the Uighurs or Tibetans do not have serious grievances, just that you have to try harder to discover what they are rather than just relying on hasbara from exile groups, which will, as is the way with exile groups, be geared towards evoking a particular reaction.
This is where I think the Gongmeng report is extremely important in terms of the answers the team retrieved from their fieldwork. Much of it makes sense to me, whether the authors are exploring generational shifts in identity, or whether they’re discussing the way corrupt bureaucrats sustain themselves in power by the bogey of “separatism” and the splittist Dalai clique. But what’s most important is how they concretely situate last year’s outburst of Tibetan nationalism in terms of China’s development strategy. Here’s a brief sample:
In the process of modernization, economic structures and political structures in Han areas and Tibetan areas have been made uniform. As “backward” areas, Tibetan areas had to catch up with “progressive” areas and keep up with the “modern”. But the Tibetan people have not had adequate opportunity or skills to respond. Large numbers of incomers and rapid social changes have brought conflicts to culture, lifestyles and even to values. In the past, contacts between Tibetan areas and the interior were often very limited, but the specially formulated development process opened up Tibetan areas in an instant, opening up for attack every single key area of nationalities’ life from the economy, power structure, religious life, lifestyle and population structures. When the Tibetan people have a sense of unfairness and loss in the economic and social changes resulting from the modernization process led by Han and by the state, this can strengthen yet further their ethnic identity and how they identify with their traditions, giving rise to conflict between the traditional and the modern, and conflict between the ethnicities.
In sum, to understand the 3.14 incident, the present in Tibetan areas must be understood, and close attention must be paid to the core question of the process of modernization in Tibetan areas. If it’s said that the modernization process of the Tibetan people is an irreversible historical trend, then how the Tibetan people and Tibetan areas progress toward modernization is worthy of in-depth consideration. The prominent contradictions and conflicts in Tibetan areas are not solely the remnants of history, they are also problems arising from the current situation in the path of modernization and the strength and manner of its implementation. From the 1989 incident until the 3.14 incident this year, an important dimension to social structures has been the adverse effects of the modernization process the core of which is the marginalization of the Tibetan people and the discontent this has brought.
It’s a long document, but well worth digesting in full. To simplify greatly, and here we’re passing over a wealth of empirical detail and historical context, the immediate locus of discontent is the central government’s Go West development strategy and the attendant dislocations. Cutting a long story short, the centre is basically putting forward modernisation as a panacea for the west’s underdevelopment, but this modernisation is being carried out with scant regard for the wishes of the nationalities in the west, and it further meshes with the explosive issue of immigration. You have all these enormous infrastructure projects being carried out in the west which bring in their wake an army of Han migrant workers. At the same time, rural poverty and economic growth in the urban centres is drawing Tibetan peasants into the towns looking for work. But once there, they find themselves at the bottom of the pile, having few marketable skills, often lacking fluency in Mandarin, often even illiterate in Tibetan. In towns with burgeoning Han populations, the Tibetan workers are unable to compete in the job market, and equally unable to return to a backward agricultural sector. So you have the same material conditions as in interior China, with peasants in places like Anhui becoming unskilled labourers in the towns, but with an added layer of national grievance.
Put all this together, and you have all the ingredients for an explosion of ethnic tensions, without even factoring in Han racism against minorities, which undoubtedly exists. This seems to me a plausible account of the underlying situation in Tibet, and I can’t imagine that Xinjiang is all that different.
So, to return to the start, where does that leave us? There isn’t really a solidarity movement to hand, and I’m not yet persuaded that there’s a movement on the ground that’s supportable. If the left press raises slogans about democracy, freedom of speech, religious freedom, self-determination for national groups – that’s all well and good, reiterating your basic ideas, as long as you understand what that means – that you’re raising the slogans you would raise if you were on the ground, and you hope there are some people on the ground saying similar things. Because when West European or North American leftists come out with lists of great-sounding “demands” in respect of Country X, I always wonder whether anybody in Country X is saying anything similar, although it would be nice if they were.
Other than that, I would again stress the danger of schematism. There are a whole lot of bad habits leftists tend to fall into on this sort of issue. One is the nineteenth-century Colonial Office reflex that says, “Ethnic tensions in Herzoslovakia? Let’s draw a line on a map!” I don’t know if there is a majority in Xinjiang for independence, as opposed to proper autonomy, but we don’t need to speculate very much to see what an independent Uighur state would look like – just look over the border at the Stans, a rotten bunch of despotates ruled by very much the same people who were in power under the Soviet Union, only without the Kremlin to restrain them.
The other danger is grandiosity, as when a race riot gets rhetorically transformed into a national liberation movement. It rings alarm bells with me if disgruntled Uighurs, rather than aiming their fire at the Chinese authorities, are attacking Han or Hui migrant workers who are just trying to earn a living. Apparently it doesn’t ring alarm bells with some on the left, either because they accept the Stalinist concept of the “oppressor nation” and the concomitant blurring of class lines, or because they belong to the spontaneist school of thought that says a race riot is an example of deflected class struggle. We would, I would suggest, get a different response if we were talking about Ukrainian attacks on Jews in 1920.
That will do for the time being. If you’re looking for definitive answers, I’m sorry I couldn’t provide any. But I hope I’ve raised some worthwhile questions.
Much more, as always, at Blood and Treasure.