Cracks on the Chinese Wall
Jiayuguan, the first pass at the western end of the Great Wall of China.

China’s Ethnic Tremors

Brahma Chellaney
Column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate, August 8, 2011
In the face of spreading civil unrest among China’s Uighur population, the Chinese government’s love-fest with its all-weather ally, Pakistan, may be starting to sour. Indeed, the authorities in China’s Xinjiang province are charging that a prominent Uighur separatist that they captured had received terrorist training in Pakistan. No less embarrassing for Pakistan, the charge came while its intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, was holding talks in Beijing on securing greater Chinese support to blunt the growing U.S. pressure on Islamabad.

No country has done more than China to prop up the Pakistani state – support that has included transfers of missiles and nuclear-weapons technology. By playing the Kashmir card against India in various ways – even deploying People’s Liberation Army units in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near the line of control with India – China has clearly signaled in recent years its desire to use its alliance with Pakistan to squeeze India. Given the level of China’s strategic investments in Pakistan, the bilateral relationship is unlikely to change.

Yet the charge of supporting Uighur terrorism, even if leveled only by local Chinese officials, reflects China’s irritation with Pakistan’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 rather a rising backlash from its own Uighur citizens against their Han colonizers.

And the Uighurs are hardly alone. Even in Tibet – where resistance to Chinese rule remains largely nonviolent and there is no alleged terrorist group to blame – China is staring at the bitter harvest of policies that have sought to deny native minorities their identity, culture, language, and the benefits of their own natural resources.

To help Sinicize China’s minority lands, the government has used a strategy made up of five key components: cartographic alteration of ethnic-homeland boundaries; demographic flooding of non-Han cultures; historical revisionism to justify Chinese control; enforcement of cultural homogeneity to blur local identities; and political repression. The Manchu assimilation into Han society and the swamping of the locals in Inner Mongolia have left only the Tibetans and the Turkic-speaking Uighurs as holdouts.

But the renewed Tibetan revolt since 2008, the Uighur rebellion since 2009, and the recrudescence this year of large-scale protests by ethnic Mongolians in Inner Mongolia have shown that the strategy of ethnic and economic colonization is beginning to backfire. While a monk-led campaign on the Tibetan Plateau continues to challenge the Chinese crackdown, several dozen people have been killed in Xinjiang since last month as Uighur-Han clashes have spread from the desert town of Hotan to the Silk Road city of Kashgar.

Xinjiang, bordering Afghanistan, Russia, the countries of Central Asia, and the Kashmir areas occupied by Pakistan and China, was annexed by the newly established People’s Republic of China in 1949, a year before it began its invasion of Tibet. That put an end to the East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang, which Muslim groups, aided by Josef Stalin, established in 1944, while World War II was raging. In the six decades since then, millions of Han Chinese have moved to Xinjiang, sharpening interethnic competition for land and water, not to mention control of the region’s abundant hydrocarbon resources.

The Great Wall was built by the Ming Dynasty (1369-1644) mainly to demarcate the Han Empire’s political frontiers. Today’s China, however, is three times as large as it was under the Ming – the last Han dynasty – with its borders having extended far west and southwest of the Great Wall.

Thus, Han territorial control is now at its zenith: Xinjiang’s cultural capital, Kashgar, is closer to Baghdad than to Beijing, and Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, is almost twice as far from the Chinese capital as it is from New Delhi. Indeed, forced assimilation in Tibet and Xinjiang began only after China created a land corridor between these two regions by gobbling up India’s 38,000-square-kilometer Aksai Chin, part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, following an invasion of India in 1962.

Yet China’s policies are now exacting rising internal-security costs, as the resurgence of separatism in several regions shows. Given that the restive homelands of ethnic minorities make up 60% of the PRC’s territory – together, Tibet and Xinjiang constitute nearly half of China’s landmass – internal-security problems loom much larger than they do next door, in India.

While India celebrates its diversity, China seeks to impose cultural and linguistic uniformity, although it officially comprises 56 nationalities. And, in enforcing monoculturalism, China is also attempting to cover up the cleavages within the Han majority, lest the historical north-south fault lines resurface. In fact, China is the world’s only major country whose official internal-security budget is higher than its official national-defense budget.

This fixation on what the government calls weiwen, or stability maintenance, has spawned a well-oiled security apparatus that extends from state-of-the-art surveillance and extra-legal detention centers to an army of paid informants and neighborhood “safety patrols” on the lookout for troublemakers. Although the challenge of weiwen extends to the Han heartland, where rural protests are increasing at the same rate as China’s GDP, the traditional ethnic-minority lands have become the country’s Achilles heel.

Uighurs, Tibetans, and Mongolians in China face a stark choice: fight for their rights or be reduced to the status of the Native Americans in the United States. With or without external assistance, the readiness of an increasing number of them to stand up to China’s decades-old policy of ethnic and economic colonization does not augur well for weiwen.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and the forthcoming Water: Asia’s New Battlefield.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.