Review: Of Dissent, Independence Movements and the Fight for Identity by Minority Societies in China

Drawing liberally from Chinese sources, Debashish Chaudhuri’s book is a noteworthy event in the annals of Chinese studies in India.

Hundreds of people have been killed in Xinjiang in the past few years in violence between Uighurs, a mostly Muslim people who speak a Turkic language, and ethnic majority Han Chinese, blamed by Beijing on Islamist extremists. Credit: Reuters

Xinjiang – also known as Eastern Turkestan – occupying one-sixth of China and bordered by eight countries, including our disputed Aksai Chin, is an area of great importance, but very few Indian scholars have looked at it seriously. That itself makes the publication of Debashish Chaudhuri’s book Xinjiang and the Chinese State: Violence in the Reform Era a noteworthy event in the annals of Chinese studies in India. What lends the book even greater importance is that it draws liberally from Chinese language sources.

The author tells us in the preface that his main argument is that “the use of indiscriminate and excessive state coercion, coupled with rapid modernisation and deprivation in actual and relative sense, has complicated the situation in Xinjiang even more during the reform period”.

Beginning with a very informative historical background, the author proceeds to look at the various dimensions of the problem. This inevitably means that he goes forward and backward in time, which occasionally could confuse a reader. He even gives us a chapter on theoretical aspects. He makes rapid references to the contrasting approaches to functionalism and conflict theory of main Western thinkers and goes onto have a brief discussion of the work of the eminent Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotung.

The author believes that “Chinese scholars and officials have failed to delve into the roots of ethno- national conflicts in Xinjiang and Tibet’ which he believes explains ‘the depth of official insensitivity’ in handling the problems of ethnic subjects. To back this, he has dug up the interesting statistic that out of 1.700 articles on social contradictions between 1999 and 2009, only five address issues relating to minority societies.

Students of 20th century Chinese political history are more familiar with contents of the next chapter which deals with the National Question and nationality work. This chapter has to be read along with the one on State ethnic policies. Given the sheer size and geographical location of the space occupied by Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, this was always not a mere ideological issue but one with profound strategic significance.

Xinjiang and the Chinese State: Violence in the Reform Era
Debashish Chaudhuri
Routledge 2018

After the mayhem in the Cultural Revolution, the tendency to interpret the minority problem as a class issue was declared ideologically erroneous, However, strategic considerations and ethnic prejudices have ensured that the Han majority has given a very restricted connotation to the concept of regional national autonomy and has not been quite able to honour its oft repeated promise of avoiding ethnic discrimination and big nation chauvinism. Taking a close look at the Chinese literature on the subject the author shows us how the relatively liberal policies of the then General Secretary Hu Yaobang were denounced by the conservatives in the party and indeed reversed after the Tiananmen protests. Similar fluctuations continued in subsequent years with some of the top leadership being very conscious of the fact that interethnic tensions could stand in the way of other national goals.

Debashish then turns to what is the central theme of the book: the Uyghur nationalist resurgence and the Han-dominated nation state. The author gives an educative summary of the gradual evolution of the modern Uyghur identity among disparate groups living in communities separated by long distances.

He makes a shrewd observation: “The Chinese scholars often overlook the simple fact that by taking responsibility of either ‘liberating’ the ethnic minorities or helping them to develop their economy, the Han might be seen as playing the coloniser’s role of carrying ‘Yellow Man’s Burden’.

The book has a useful chapter on ‘regional economy’. Though there has indeed been a certain degree of economic development, the author points out that the Han settlers who have been relocated in Xinjiang in large numbers, were able to garner most of the advantages. The sense of grievance was intensified when oil and other petroleum products came to dominate Xinjiang economy. The Uyghurs felt that they should have had a share of the economic gains so generated which they felt went actually to further enrich the eastern provinces.

1981 saw the start of violent interethnic clashes put down with increasing harshness by the state. The issues varied from family planning policies to Lop Nor nuclear tests. Debashish’s analysis shows the impact of developments outside on Xinjiang. Thus for instance the Tiananmen Square incident caused the Beijing ruling elite to decide to put down dissent everywhere with an iron hand, This attitude was further aggravated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly the so-called strike hard measures “itself created new grievances”.

The author points out how the international odium against terrorism created by the 9/11 incident in New York helped China to legitimise its own measures against those it has designated as terrorists.

The penultimate chapter is devoted to international dimension. The new post-Soviet neighbours abutting Xinjiang joined China in launching SCO and committing themselves to oppose separatism, extremism [clearly a reference to Islamic radicalism] and terrorism. No less important are the opportunities presented by China’s burgeoning economic might in reducing their willingness to help Uyghurs in any sustained manner. Even more striking is the dramatic volte-face of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He had earlier denounced the Chinese suppression of the riots in Urumqi ‘as a kind of genocide.’ But the Chinese ethno-diplomacy worked on him – in particular a tour of Xinjiang in April 2012 – and he promised he would not allow his people to engage in anti-Chinese activities.

The Indian readers of the book would naturally be interested by the author’s coverage of Pakistan’s relations with the Uyghur militants and how under strong pressure from their all-weather friends, the Chinese they have been compelled to take stern measures against them.

It is the author’s firm conviction that the problem has deep local roots — and that the ongoing societal conflict, both in minority areas as well as Han areas ,are basically internal problems and need to be addressed internally. But the author’s own analysis suggests that the ethnic and religious dimensions makes the problem which the Chinese state faces in Xinjiang as in Tibet qualitatively different from the problem of dissent and mass protests in Han-majority areas though there are obvious similarities arising out of the fault lines in an authoritarian system which has few avenues for legitimate protests.

In the meanwhile Xinjiang’s geographical location makes it an area of even greater importance for China because of Xi Jinping’s beloved Belt and Road Initiative.

Even if – as Debashish argues – the East Turkestan independence movement is doomed to failure, will they stop trying? Will the widespread Uyghur diaspora give up? Will pan-Islamic factors become more or less important in coming years ? Only time will tell.

To conclude, this book is an important contribution by an Indian scholar. Perhaps more careful editing would have taken care of the occasional grammatical error, but Debasish is undoubtedly one of India’s leading authorities on Xinjiang.

Vinod C. Khanna is an Emeritus Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies.

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