Violence in the mostly- Muslim Chinese province of Xinjiang has come to such a high point President Hu Jintao was forced to leave the G8 Summit in L’Aquila shortly after he had arrived in Italy. Never before a Chinese high representative – be it President, Prime Minister or Minister – had left an international meeting because of internal affairs. This fact only stands out to show how much importance Xinjiang is to the Beijin political establishment, and how difficult – and potentially dangerous for China’s security – the situation has grown in that far away province. These riots can be credited to the past few decades of Chinese history – since the Communist came to power, in 1949 – and in the strciter relationships between the international community and Beijing. Indeed, the root of today’s violence in Xinjiang can be ascribed to China entering the WTO. That is, to globalization.
We usually think of China as a homogeneous country. As a matter of fact, that’s not wrong: Hans, the dominant ethnicity, make up some 93% of all Chinese population. This is not the whole picture though. First of all, 7 percent of 1,3 billion means some 100 million people are not ethnics Chinese. That is, France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Denmark all together, to give an idea Europeans can easily understand. The main point, point, though, is geographic distribution: 93% of Han Chinese live in 40% of the national territory, leaving the rest of the country to that 7% of non-Han Chinese.
Xinjiang Muslims are the most important of these non-Han ethnics groups. Geographically isolated from Beijing and the rest of the country – traveling to Urumqi takes three days from the capital, and a large share of the trip is through deserted rural areas – with strong connections to the neighborhood countries with which they share ethnicity, history and religion, Uighurs represent a defiance to China cultural and political entity.
China used to be an idea, rather than a Nation. At the time of the Emperor, the main idea was that he who seated on the throne in the Forbidden City was, really, Emperor of the whole world, no matter how far and unknown. He was so gracious and mercyful to allow these peoples thier right to live their own life, as long as they did pay tribute to the Empire. There was no actual military occupation of territories, no designation of military or political administrators and governors. Indeed, there was no official borderline, for the whole world was potentially a Chinese territory. Uighurs, like other non-Han ethnics, have been part of this idea of China for a long time.
Things have changed a bit when the Communists came to power. Their culture was much different. Their idea of Nation and State was one of a Soviet-style overwhelming bureaucracy with unlimited powers. With the Communists, the relationship between Hans and non-Hans dramatically changed. Control over each and every aspect of a person’s life meant that Han culture was dominat and non-Hans, if they wanted to climb the social ladder, had to turn Han. That’s when relationship between Hans and Uighurs made a swift turn toward a violent crash. Uighurs could not easily accept giving up their own culture.
The 1960s saw the wave of independence of Arab countries. Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Syria, they all rid themselves of the direct Western powers domination and joined the group of independent Muslim nations. Muslim Renaissance began expanding its presence and influence over Arab societies. it eventually gave birth to violent groups like Muslim Brotherhood and, later at the end of the millennium, Al Qaeda. All in the name of Allah and Muslim culture.
Pressed by Han domination, the Uighurs turned to their kin neighbors: Kazakhistan, Tajikistan, Kirgizistan, all the former Soviet states in Central Asia share with Uighurs history, traditions and religion, at different levels. Muslim renaissance came to Xinjiang through these ties and connections, fed by political interests – Turkey, Iran – and the idea of a Muslim Umma.
Their side, Hans were growing more and more powerful on the international stage. Their sheer numbers, their political and economical systems allowed for a rapid growth of Chinese economy within the global economy. Until China was forced to join the WTO.
From the point of view of the international community, it was a way to force China respect basic rules for international trade. Too strong was China to allow it stand outside the international community. Too big was its growing industrial production to allow it freely flood the planet. From the Chinese point of view, joining the WTO was a recognition of their country’s political and econoical importance and influence on the global stage.
On the national level, a major consequence was that China was compelled to enforce control over peoples and territories.
China could no longer be an idea. China needed be a well defined reality, with borderlines to separate it from neighboring countries and administrators to rule and control all areas and provinces. It was time to crash the Uighurs and their separate cultural entity and force them accept Hans’ predominance.
What we are seeing these days root back into the past few decades and in the process which accompanied China into the international community.