by Edward F. Wong
Recent events in Urumqi have been very disconcerting for me, especially considering how close to home the initial spark for the unrest was. On June 25, in Shaoguan, Guangdong (I am from Hong Kong, which is geographically part of the same province), violence occurred after rumours that some of the 800 Uyghur workers who had recently arrived to work at a toy factory raped two Han women. These rumours were later found to have been fabricated by a disgruntled Han worker who was recently laid off. But because of the racist stereotyping of Uyghur men as sexual predators (ironically, the identical stereotype was made of early Chinese migrants to North America), no questions were asked and the legitimacy of such claims were assumed. Almost 1000 Han workers from the factory approached the Uyghur dorms and assaulted Uyghur workers with pipes and machetes. In the aftermath of the brawl, 2 workers had died and over a hundred injured. There were reports that the police stood by watching, choosing to intervene only at a very late stage.
Such incidents, while unsettling, cannot in itself spark the sort of mass uprising we see today in Urumqi and the rest of Uyghurstan (I will refrain from using the official Chinese name for the region ‘XinJiang’ (New Frontier), given its colonial roots and connotations – ‘frontier? Frontier for Han expansion??). Instead, the Shaoguan incident served as a poignant reminder of the broader structures and history of subjugation faced by the Uyghur people. Probably the biggest benefactors of such ethnic unrest and inequalities are the Chinese capitalists and state officials. Just as capitalists in Canada like Onderdonk had spread racist propaganda to white workers to discourage labour solidarity in the railroad construction, the divide-and-conquer logic can be inferred with the circumstances in China. With the very real inequalities between Han and Uyghur workers, obfuscated is the common enemy of these two groups – the bosses. For example, while the Han workers of the toy factory in Shaoguan may hold certain privileges over the Uyghur workers, they too are victims of exploitation, many of them migrant workers, driven out of their rural homes by poverty.
I feel that it is by a similar logic that the state latches on to incidents of violence against Han workers during the riots. I condemn such acts of violence against Han workers, though I do recognize that the root cause is subjugation and the privileging of Han people. Alarmingly, such acts have been used by certain interests to stoke Han chauvanist fervour. The Chinese state had learned an important lesson from the Tibetan uprising and have switched to a more Western-style of media warfare. Instead of the media blackout, which occurred in Tibet, there was extensive coverage of the riots – with a strong disproportionate emphasis on Han injuries and deaths. Chauvanist fervour has manifested itself in retaliatory attacks by Han people1. Uyghur neighbourhoods and mosques were targeted with an arsenal of meat cleavers, clubs, and rocks. A participant commented, “They attacked us. Now it’s our turn to attack them.”
As stated earlier, the Shaoguan incident alone could not have sparked such mobilization. The Chinese government has time and time again deflected criticism by blaming ‘outside exile subversives’. These claims are laughable and out of touch with reality. If Uyghur workers had truly benefited from the current structures in place, no amounts of persuasion from outside groups could bring them to the streets.
I am aware that the region fell under Chinese control throughout history; likewise, the region has experienced a number of periods of independence, whether de jure or de facto. The historical argument is often been brought up by apologists for the government. In my view, this point is completely irrelevant, let alone important. During a number of historical periods, the Mongolians had ruled over China. Would this historical fact justify the invasion of China and the subjugation of the Han people by Mongolians assuming they had the military strength today? The question instead should simply be: does oppression exist?
Considering the irrelevancy of that specific historical argument, I will begin my analysis with the modern conception of this region as a part of China, the modern conception beginning with the PLA invasion in 1949. Were the PLA greeted as liberators/allies? As with the case of Tibet, there have been reports of such. Are they true? Maybe, I don’t know. It’s certainly plausible; in Tibet, many were opposed to the exploitative feudal social relations in place. Nevertheless, the image of the PLA as liberators would certainly have faded away given the experiences and policies in these regions for the last 60 years, policies which can only be described as colonialism.
Economic development is regularly cited as a counter to claims of oppression. However, economic development figures only tell a part of the story. The more important question is economic development for who? North America has certainly undergone mass industrialization and ‘development’, but to say that this has been to the benefit of Aboriginal people would be ignorant at best. Likewise, the benefits of economic development in Uyghurstan have been unequal.
Since 1949, the demographics of Uyghurstan have shifted from 90% Uyghur to just 45% Uyghur. The Chinese government has encouraged mass settlement of Han people through financial incentives. Most have chosen to stay in urban areas. Indeed, in Urumqi, the capital of Uyghurstan with a population of over 2.5 million, 75.3% are Han and only 12.8% are Uyghur. Most of the economic development have focused on urban regions, a policy consistent throughout the country, and thus, benefiting primarily Han people. In addition, such developments, as described in an article written by Louisa Lim, have sparked processes of gentrification. Open-air bazaars run by Uyghur small merchants selling cheaper goods have been replaced by new buildings, bringing rents up and leading to increased marginalization. Urumqi has become heavily segregated with Uyghurs confined to poor neighbourhoods. Another reason for unemployment and poverty is linguistic imperialism. Characteristic of linguistic imperialism is the privileging of the Chinese language. Many Uyghurs do not qualify for official jobs in the government or in Chinese companies as they lack the knowledge of the Chinese language. Ironically, this has been used as a justification for bringing in Han labour from the rest of the country.
One of the major incentives for the Chinese control of the region is its massive natural resource deposits. Oil refineries have sprung up throughout the area. However, employment and revenues have gone largely to Han people. Wang Lequan, a high ranking government official in the province, defended employment practices by claiming that, “one common problem of the western region is that the education and cultural level of the people here is quite low <…> In Xinjiang, we lack the talent needed for modernization and advanced technology”. In terms of revenue, almost RMB14.8b ($2.5 billion CAD) in taxes were collected from the petrochemical industries. However, only RMB240m ($41 million CAD) were allocated back to the local government. Wong Lixiong, a Chinese intellectual, had written extensively about the growing nepotism and corruption in the resource extraction industries in Uyghurstan. For example, a monopoly on mineral water in the region is held by the son-in-law of Wang Lequan. Resource extraction have not benefited the local people; instead, it has lined the pockets of state officials and Chinese capitalists. A Muslim resident commented, “the Chinese didn’t want to let Xinjiang be independent before, but after they built all the oilfields, it became absolutely impossible”.
Uyghurs who have left Uyghurstan and settled in major cities in the rest of the country have not fared much better. In a recent paper by Reza Hasmath, a professor at Cambridge, it appears that although Uyghur residents of Beijing tend to have attained higher education standards than the average, higher education standards do not correlate with higher wages or employment. Mirroring the experience of the Chinese community in Canada, university degrees have not resolved problems of above-average unemployment rates, and below-average wages. Thus, systemic racism is apparent.
The more important question is where do we go from here? Personally, I do not feel that the creation of a Uyghur nation-state (or a Tibetan one) would solve the root problems. The creation of a new state would only serve to replace Chinese oppressors with Uyghur ones. However, if that is the wish of the people, this must be respected. Instead of separation, I feel that the only answer, the only starting point to meaningfully addressing ethnic inequalities, is to democratize society, to put decision-making in the hands of the workers. And for that, there needs to be a united workers’ movement. To the Han workers: do not fall victim to these divide-and-conquer tactics. We must recognize our privileges within the system, but also recognize that we share with the Uyghur workers a common enemy and a common goal. Our enemy: the capitalist bosses and the state! Our goal: social justice and democracy!
還證於民! Power to the people!
Note: There are a great number of over concerns held by the Uyghur people, including cultural assimilation (book burnings, languages not taught in school) and religious persecution. Unfortunately, given limits in time and the consideration that economic gain has been the major means of justification for gov’t policy in Uyghurstan, I have chosen to focus on economic aspects
Note2: If anyone speaks Turkic, could they tell me what power to the people is in that language. It’s kind of ironic I guess to speak of linguistic imperialism and then not include it.