“Cracks on the wall”

Brahma Chellaney from The Hindustan Times responds to Chinese allegations that Uyghur violence is supported by Pakistan with a piece addressing the real reasons for ethnic conflict in China:

Yet the charge, even if by local officials, reflects China’s irritation with Islamabad’s inability to contain the cross-border movement of some Uighur separatists. China, however, confronts not a proxy war or even foreign involvement in Xinjiang but a rising backlash from the Uighurs against their Han colonisation. Even in Tibet — where resistance to Chinese rule remains largely non-violent and there is no alleged terrorist group to blame — China is staring at the bitter harvest of policies seeking to deny natives their identity, culture and language and the benefits of their own natural resources.

But as underscored by the renewed Tibetan revolt since 2008, the Uighur rebellion since 2009 and Mongolian protests in Inner Mongolia in 2011, the strategy of ethnic and economic colonisation is now beginning to backfire. This year marked the recrudescence of large-scale Mongolian protests in the sparsely populated expanse of Inner Mongolia, even as a monk-led campaign on the Tibetan plateau has challenged a continuing Chinese crackdown. And in Xinjiang, several dozen have been killed since last month as Uighur-Han clashes have spread from the desert town of Hotan to the Silk Road city of Kashgar.

Yet today, as underlined by the bloody resurgence of separatist violence in several regions, China’s policies are exacting rising internal-security costs. Given that the restive homelands of ethnic minorities make up 60% of the PRC territory —with Tibet and Xinjiang, by themselves, constituting nearly half of China’s landmass — China’s internal security problems are greater in range than India’s.

While India celebrates diversity, China seeks to impose cultural and linguistic uniformity throughout its borders, although it officially comprises 56 nationalities. By enforcing monoculturalism, China also attempts to cover up the ethnic cleavages among the Han majority, lest the historical north-south fault lines resurface with a vengeance.

In fact, China is the only significant country in the world whose official internal-security budget is higher than its official national defence budget. This underscores the mounting costs of what the government calls ‘weiwen’, or stability maintenance. The fixation on weiwen has spawned a well-oiled security apparatus that extends from state-of-the-art surveillance and extra-legal detention centres to an army of paid informants and neighbourhood ‘safety patrols’ on the lookout for troublemakers. Although the challenge of weiwen extends to the Han heartland, where rural protests are increasing annually at the same rate as China’s GDP, the traditional ethnic-minority lands have become the country’s Achilles’ heel.

The Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongolians in China face the choice of either fighting for their rights or risk being reduced to the status of the Native Americans in the US. The readiness of an increasing number of them to stand up to the oppressive State power means that China’s internal problems won’t go away unless its reverses its decades-old policy of ethnic and economic colonisation of minority lands.

That they run the risk of seeing the same fate as the Native Americans isn’t an idle threat. Go to the Dongbei region today and see how many Manchu you can find- and of them, how many can speak or write so much as a word of Manchu? If the Tibetans and Uyghur and Mongolians have any strength on their side today, it’s that they seem increasingly cognizant of what they’re up against. Without solidarity and a firm understanding of who their adversary is, going the way of the Manchu or Native American could be all too easy.

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Filed under China, ethnic conflict

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