We’ve all read the depressing news coming from Xinjiang – the dead, wounded and arrested, the violence spreading from Urumqi to Kashgar. The regime is blaming foreigners for instigating the riots. As if there were any need for such explanations. Isn’t the pent up frustration and repression in the region is explanation enough? The story that everything escalated from an Internet posting about a gang rape in Guangzhou may be true, but hardly provided more than the igniting spark in an already explosive situation.
An especially depressing, and worrying, piece of news is the appearance on Tuesday of revenge mobs of thousands of Han Chinese armed with clubs, shovels, lead pipes and machetes, who marched through central Urumqi, smashing shops and knocking over food stalls run by Uighurs. Some of the Han Chinese appear to have been waving the national flag. Perhaps I know too little to judge the situation correctly, but this smells fascism, or at least a very unpleasant form of ethnic bullying.
I was intrigued to find that, according to the journalist William Foreman in this article, the crowd chanted slogans such as ”Modern society” and ”[National] Unity”. These slogans are used by the CCP to legitimize its rule in Xinjiang, but apparently they are also endorsed by the local Han Chinese. The slogans portray the CCP as a benevolent bringer of “modernization” and other blessings. “Unity” is not to be understood as imperialist or colonial domination, but as harmonious cooperation between culturally distinct groups who are united by their gratitude to the CCP and by their enthusiasm for their brilliant common future.
I remember a conversation I had with a young man in Urumqi in 2004. I remember him vividly because of his earnestness, which shone through in his thoughtful and hesitating way of speaking. He and his friends had chosen to study English at a business school ”because it is international” and because they disliked the Chinese language. He dreamed about studying psychology at university, but he couldn’t since there was no literature in Uighur and he didn’t want to study in Chinese. He went on to describe how the situation for the Uighurs was deteriorating from year to year. In school, they can’t study their own language or their classics until in the later years, often in mixed clases where Chinese predominates. Many young people can’t even speak their own language properly, much less read and write. Perhaps it’s fate, he says suddenly. I asked him what he meant. ”Allah’s punishment”, he said, ”because many Uighur have behaved badly”. He started to tell me about Islam. ”The schools teach propaganda, such as Islam being against modernization. And they teach bullshit like Darwinism – have you heard about it? It teaches that man has evolved from some kind of monkey. And they tell that to children, who don’t know better! Islam is not against modernization, but unfortunately many today have forgotten about religion”. “Well, wine and the beer seem to be popular everywhere in Urumqi”, I remarked. “Exactly”, he said, “that’s what I meant when I told you that many Uighur behave badly”.
Yes, there is oppression in Xinjiang, who can deny it? And yes, there is a need for modernization, but what kind of modernization? And modernization to what price? I can’t help recalling Japan’s attempt at setting up its own multi-ethnic empire in East Asia, which ended in 1945. How did it legitimize its rule? By referring to modernization – Japan as a bringer of civilization, of economic and industrial development and of widespread education. Japan as a heroic nation that would liberate Asia from colonialism and even unite all the oppressed peoples of the world in a crusade against the white peril. Japan, whose ”Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” was unlike Western imperialism or colonialism since it was infinately hospitable to difference, allowing each member nation to retain its ”independence” (albeit ”not in the term’s Western sense”) while at the same time remaining a harmonious whole in which each part would gratefully participate and cooperate under Japan’s benevolent leadership.
What is the least that I (and hopefully everyone who reads this) should ask of China right now? Openness, transparency, that the Internet and mobile phones be allowed to function normally everywhere and that journalists should have easy access to the area. That Uighurs should be allowed to make their voices heard, to organize and demonstrate, and be provided with channels to influence the rule of their own province. That they should be able to study psychology if they want to, preferably in their own language, or, if that is impossible, that exchange studies should be facilitated. Finally, I would like the Chinese majority population to reflect on a few questions. Aren't you repeating what you so rightly loathe in the imperialism of other countries? What makes the Han Chinese in Xinjiang different from the Japanese settlers of Manchuria or the European colonizers of most of the rest of the world? Is the contribution to “modernization” and “development” really a valid way of justifying the rule of the territories of other nations and ethnic groups?