Saturday, July 25, 2009

Long knives v. Xiaokang

I returned to Beijing on Sunday the 12th of July 2009 just when the Government of China declared that the riots that started on the 5th of the month in the Xinjiang region had been suppressed and things had returned to normalcy in Urumqi, the capital. The death toll stood at 184, although the English language newspaper, China Daily, reported that the fatalities might still rise as 74 of the injured were on the “verge of death” (July 13, 2009). Some of them did indeed pass away in the days to come. The daily further reported that 137 of the dead were ethnic Han, 46 were Uygur and one poor fellow was an ethnic Hui. The Urumqi government announced they’d dispense special compensation plus funeral fees to each of the bereaved families, adding up to 210,000 yuan or US$30,730. The fact that all of this was reported on the first page of a Chinese newspaper itself was a sign of progress and openness in the country. During last year’s riots in Tibet, the news was much more carefully controlled and foreign journalists were kept from reporting in the aftermath. The bad news for the Chinese central government is that trouble is brewing in the Middle Kingdom’s western flanks.

The roots of the unrest in Xinjiang (literally, New Territories) appear to lie in the extensive influx of the Han Chinese into the ethnic enclave. In the past decades the Uygurs have perhaps already become a minority in their own land, as the Chinese government has encouraged the majority Han who make up about 92 percent of China’s population to move west in a campaign reminiscent of the conquest of the American west in the 19th century—Go West Young Han! The ethnic and cultural differences are as large as they can be. The Uygurs are Turkic people whose language is close to Turkish, rather than Mandarin or any other variety of Chinese. Furthermore, they are Muslims by religion, a fact that has enabled the Chinese government to convince the West that quelling unrest in Urumqi is part of the misguided global ‘War on Terror’ and that the troublemakers have connections to Al-Qaeda. Indeed, a group of Uygurs were arrested in Afghanistan and sent to Guantánamo Bay by the Americans where they have rotted for years despite no evidence of any ill-doing by them. The reasonable assumption is that the poor sods were on their way to Turkey to find employment when they were caught in the American dragnet. Later they could not be released and sent back to China, as it could be expected that they’d face reprisals due to their illegal emigration. Finally, only in June this year, the tiny Pacific nation of Palau agreed to take 17 of the Uygurs in return for a promise of considerable aid from the US.

There is no doubt that one of the reasons for the massive migration of the Han Chinese to the western parts of the country has to do with consolidating the ‘territorial integrity’ of China. Another reason of course is the economic opportunities that lie on the frontier, as was the case with the expansion of the United States to the west when the native Americans were trampled and corralled into reservations. Yet, there is still another justification, which is more benevolent, albeit misguided. The regional differences in prosperity are enormous. While the coastal areas of eastern and southern China are booming despite the recent economic downturn, the vast interior lags tragically behind. Shanghai today is richer than Singapore but in the interior there are provinces that, if they were independent countries, would qualify in the United Nations official category of Least Developed Countries. This divergence is likely the major source of instability in China and the government wants to even out the differences in development levels. Although nobody knows for sure, there is an estimated 220-240 million migrant workers roaming China, moving from the rural areas to the cities—and lately back, as the construction has slowed down as a result of the economic downturn reducing the number of available jobs. This is the largest ever mass movement of people the world has experienced.

The regional disparities are also an issue of human development. Since the days of the Maoist revolution, China has aimed to eradicate poverty and oppression and to spread economic development to all parts of the huge country. The campaigns in the western provinces and autonomous regions must also be seen in this light. Most Chinese people whom I talk to—even those educated and living abroad where they are exposed to unfiltered, albeit equally biased, news—indeed believe that the cause of extending economic development to what they see as backward lands is a noble one. The fact that the local populations—many of them ethnic minorities living for long periods of time in their homelands without outside intervention—do not welcome the Han invasion is just because they are ignorant. After all, the Chinese have brought economic growth, modern infrastructure, better housing and so forth to the ungrateful denizens of Xinjiang, Tibet and other regions. The fact that the locals see this as an occupation fails to penetrate the minds of even progressive easterners.

It is of course a figment of imagination of the liberal westerners in Hollywood and beyond that life in Tibet and other such areas would be lovely if only the repressive Communist government in Beijing left the people alone to mind their own business. Life in poverty is not a romantic life and Shangri-La never existed. Like Patrick French in his excellent and well researched book Tibet Tibet showed, the kingdom of the monks on the roof of the world was indeed a backward and at times brutal place. The Chinese image of it as a feudal society where an upper class of religious parasites exploited the poor peasants until the arrival of the Red Army, nevertheless, is simplified propaganda.

The problem with the Han is that they can be extremely culturally insensitive—frequently even racist—and the Chinese state is known to be quite heavy-handed. The East may be red on paper—and the Communist Party does retain a monopoly on political power—but the colour of money rules the day (incidentally, the largest denomination 100 yuan bill, still sporting the deceptively benevolent moon face of Chairman Mao, is something of salmon pink). Regretfully, most Chinese tend to see ‘development’ purely in terms of getting rich. Other values, such as cultural preservation or conservation of natural beauty, do not count in the equation. It is often said how eastern cultures are communal in nature, but in practice the desire for prosperity often doesn’t stretch beyond one’s own family, extended as it may be. “To get rich is glorious,” said Deng Xiaoping who transformed the Chinese economic system after the passing of the Cultural Revolution and its chief instigator. But at what cost? It’s a question that most people here rarely consider. Consequently, it is hard for the migrants who have moved to the underdeveloped areas to fathom why they should not be welcome. After all, they have brought so much prosperity and ‘development’ to the regions, so who cares if a holy lake in Tibet has been turned into a garish amusement park for the invaders? After all, people have the right to relax after a hard day’s work churning out money, right?

Luckily the central government has started to realize the importance of other values, too, such as sustainable development and social wellbeing. Xiaokang—meaning balanced and harmonious society—officially guides the national vision towards 2020. Xiaokang emphasizes a “scientific concept of development” that focuses on “five balances,” namely those between urban and rural, between different geographical regions, between economic and social, between people and nature, and between domestic development and opening-up beyond China’s borders. A beautiful vision but the challenge will be in the implementation. It’ll be tough to convince the provincial authorities, entrepreneurs, and all those trying to improve their lots that they should focus instead on Xiaokang.

Recently as I was having lunch with an acquaintance who is an official in a governmental research institute, I asked him about what’s happening in Xinjiang. Mr. Han said that there were some bad people attacking others with long knives and other weapons. The problem was that the police and army didn’t interfere early enough and the situation got out of hand. What was behind all of this, I asked. He responded that they (the Uygurs) just want to become independent.

Years ago I was travelling around the south-western province of Yunnan—another ethnic area—with a friend of mine, Guo, who is a professor in one of the top institutions in China. He was genuinely mystified about why the Tibetans were giving such grief to China. The ethnic minorities are treated with special privileges and are generally happy, except for the Tibetans, he noted with bafflement. It is true that ethnic minorities do have certain privileges. For instance, they have the right to education in their native languages and have not been subject to the official one-child policy. According to the Chinese law, a Uygur couple can have two children if they live in a city in Xinjiang and three children in the countryside (apparently, the exiled Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer, whom the government blames for inciting the recent violence, has eleven children!). This is all good and well, but it misses the point of having the right to determine the state of one’s own affairs.

On my first Wednesday evening in Beijing I ended up in the Sanlitun entertainment area with Gunther, an Australian buddy of mine who is a long-term Beijing resident. We stumbled into one of the many small bars. A trio was singing on the bandstand: a young man dressed like an all-American boy and two girls in the shortest micro-jeans imaginable. They were singing hip-hop songs with Chinese lyrics to pre-recorded tunes karaoke style. They all seemed to be having a good time. When they took a break, unexpectedly a dancer appeared on the stage. She was a gorgeous, tall and slim girl with a face that bore little if any resemblance to the rest of the people in the joint. She was dressed in a bright red silk dress and a matching headdress. The music changed completely: no more cute and meaningless pop. Now it was serious, clearly Middle Eastern groove and the girl’s moves were no longer innocently baby-like those of the kids who had done the earlier hip-hop. This woman was gyrating to Turkish beats and her performance was distinctly erotic despite—or perhaps because of—her all-covering flowing silken outfit. She was a Uygur.

Meanwhile, life in Urumqi returned to normal—almost. While peace returned to the troubled city, roads leading to the Grand Bazaar were being reopened, shops unlocked, and security vehicles were no longer on the People’s Square. The Urumqi Public Security Bureau announced that residents would have to carry identity cards and were banned from holding dangerous articles, such as knives or batons.

On July 14th, the China Daily reported that the police had shot and killed two armed Uygurs who, together with a third surviving friend, all armed with long knives and batons, had been intercepted as they attacked a member of their own ethnic group. The paper reported that once the men had not heeded to the calls to drop their weapons and surrender “the police shot the suspects in accordance with the law.” On the following day, an Imam in Urumqi came out saying that one of the three shot men had interrupted a prayer meeting at his mosque, holding up a green banner and shouting “jihad.” An altercation ensued when the imam and his followers tried to expel the jihadist and the two other men who had joined him. When the three pulled out their knives the police showed up and shot them.

On the same day, I spoke with another contact from the central government. She was on her way to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan in the south-west, where an earthquake caused significant damage the week before. Her mission was to receive a group from UNICEF-Hong Kong who had raised funds to aid the earthquake victims. Ms. Liang mentioned that, as the hardest hit area was the home of the ethnic Yi (another minority tribe), the central government was particularly anxious to respond quickly and efficiently. I believed her. Ethnic minorities are getting priority treatment in China—at least as long as they do not make political waves.

A week after the end of the major unrest, CNN reported that the security presence in Urumqi was still heavy and that there were moves to restrict what foreign journalists could photograph. The Chinese consulate general in Australia was also putting pressure on the organizers of the Melbourne International Film Festival to cancel the screening of a new film about Rebiya Kadeer whom they classify as criminal. In the meantime, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, unhelpfully stated that he’d invite Ms. Kadeer to Turkey. Inevitably, Al-Qaeda affiliates abroad made statements threatening to attack Chinese interests overseas in retaliation of the Xinjiang events. With these kinds of positions on the different sides, one cannot be very optimistic.