an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Modern China and the Uyghur people

with one comment

Uyghur youngsters – from the East Turkistan Australian Association

A dozen or so years ago I began teaching English at a community college in the north-west suburbs of Adelaide. I didn’t know it at the time, but the area was home to the largest Uyghur community in Australia. The word ‘Uyghur’, of course, meant nothing to me, nor did the English name they gave to their homeland – East Turkistan. My classes were filled mostly with middle-aged Moslem women, along with Vietnamese and other Asian nationalities. Some of them wore hijabs, others didn’t. They – the Uyghurs – were an interesting lot, feisty, chatty, politically aware and close-knit. Over time I learned to my surprise that they weren’t quite ‘middle-eastern’, whatever that vague term means. Or at least they were more eastern than middle, geographically speaking. Had I been forced to guess their nationality, I’d have said maybe Iraqi or Afghani – I had only a vague impression of the various ethnicities – Uzbek, Tajik, Khazak, Pashtun, and their histories of interaction and/or tension. So I was surprised to learn that the Uyghur people live within the current borders of China – specifically, a large, sparsely populated region north of Tibet, which the Chinese call Xinjiang – which translates, interestingly, as ‘new frontier’. Knowing this, of course, alerted me to the probability of tensions in the region, or worse.

This was fully confirmed when the Uyghur social worker at the community centre, with whom I’d become friendly, asked me to help her write a letter to the Australian authorities for assistance in the case of her brother, an Australian citizen, who had been incarcerated in neighbouring Kazakhstan while on a visit to his home region. She explained that the Kazakh government had long been currying favour with the Chinese authorities by rounding up anyone who might favour East Turkistan independence. She also assured me that her brother, while resistant to the brutalities of China, was anything but a terrorist, and wanted nothing more than to return to his family.

I don’t know if our letter had any impact (I very much doubt it), but everything I’ve learned about the region since has, when I’ve turned my attention to it, gripped me with the usual impotent rage I’ve felt whenever a weaker nation, or culture, or person, is harassed and bullied by a stronger one.

Uyghur is a Turkic language, most closely related to Uzbek, and many Uyghurs live in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as well as in the ‘Xinjiang autonomous region’, their principal homeland. The term ‘autonomous’ is risible these days, as the Uyghurs are under increasingly intense surveillance and pressure from their Chinese overlords. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment is commonplace, and the number of Uyghur inhabitants has dropped from around 76% in 1949, when China annexed the region, down to 42% today. In the same period the population of Han Chinese has risen from around 6% to 40%. It’s a situation that immediately makes me think of Palestinian Arabs under the sway of the Zionist movement since early in the 20th century. To describe it as ethnic cleansing by stealth would underplay the brutality and consequent suffering.

In his very thought-provoking little book The dawn of Eurasia, Bruno Maçães provides a more subtle and certainly less emotionally-charged account of China’s modernising movement, a movement which has little patience for ethnic diversity and the preservation of traditional cultures. Of course, nations like Australia and the USA are also struggling with the rights and aspirations of traditional indigenous cultures in the light of a relentless modernism, but both of these ‘western’ nations seek to accommodate those cultures under a framework of individual freedom (more or less). Maçães notes that China’s modernist ‘dream’ is more collective, requiring everyone to ‘get with the the program’.

I should point out that Macaes is talking about the Chinese government’s dream, one first iterated by Xi Jinping, who clearly wants to make a distinction between what one might call European, or European-style, liberalism and what he personally wants his country to be. The question of what ‘the Chinese people’ actually want or have dreams about – well, it’s moot. Nobody can say, certainly not Xi.

Nevertheless Xi and his cohorts are wielders of massive power, and for the time being they’re suppressing all but their own manufactured vision of the Chinese future. Maçães writes of a document distributed within the CCP shortly after Xi’s public maundering about the Chinese dream:

It outlined the main political perils the Party leadership was urged to guard against, all of them located within the ‘ideological sphere’ and calling for an ideological response. The document started by denouncing those who replace the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation with an obverse ‘constitutional dream’, imported from the West and claiming that China should strive to catch up with the West by adopting a form of constitutional government and following Western political models. Linked to this, a second false trend attempts to promote Western values as ‘universal’, claiming that the West’s value system ‘defies time and space, transcends nation and class, and applies to all humanity’. The document then goes on to complete a full indictment of Western political ideas, including an independent civil society, economic liberalism and freedom of the press. The General Office is particularly insistent on the principle that ‘the media should be infused with the spirit of the Party’. Criticism by the media must be managed, supervision supervised. Those who deny this principle are looking to use media freedom in order to ‘gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology’. By allowing mistaken ideas to spread, critics will disturb the existing consensus on which road to take and which goals to pursue, and ‘disrupt our nation’s stable progress on reform and development’.

Bruno Maçães, The dawn of Eurasia, pp125-6

This is truly chilling stuff. The chances that an ‘existing consensus’ can be found regarding China’s future are about as likely as finding proof of the existence of some god or other, and needless to say, this fake consensus finds no place for the Uyghur people or any other minority culture within China – in fact they’re clearly in the way of what the current dictatorship deems to be progress, and nothing illustrates this so well as the city of Khorgos in Xinjiang, right on the border with Kazakhstan.

If you haven’t heard of Khorgos, you’re not alone. The city didn’t exist 5 years ago, but now it’s full of skyscrapers and already has a population of 200,000. It has been built as a major component of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ economic infrastructure project, which seeks to connect with central Asia and Europe as a means of facilitating trade, cultural exchange, financial ties and the like. Ambitious young people are being attracted there in large numbers, from all over China and other distant parts. The place apparently does have a multicultural feel, but only from a high-flying, business perspective – though cheap labour from the surrounding country side (e.g the Uyghurs) is an essential part of the plan. The Belt and Road future, if it can be pulled off, will mean that freight services will be able to shift products overland from China to Western Europe in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of current maritime transport. Interestingly, China has been turning its back on seaports, due to environmental congestion and high labour costs, and building more inland cities such as Khorgos. The future, as China sees it, lies with ‘a new network of railways, roads and energy and digital infrastructure linking Europe and China through the shortest and most direct route’ (Maçães).

the Khorgos gateway – a new rail port for Eurasia…

The Chinese government is arguing – no doubt sincerely – that its Belt and Road project will provide great opportunities for those who get on board with it, and that includes not only the Uyghur people, but the peoples of the Eurasian region, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, to name a few. This vast region is seen as a reservoir of barely-tapped economic potential, and the Belt and Road is being sold as a grand tide lifting all boats between and within Western Europe and China. But of course there are critics as well as fierce opponents. The growing presence of Chinese on the borders of and within Kazakhstan, for example, has seen protests there which have threatened the stability of the Nazarbayev regime (Nazarbayev resigned as President of Kazakhstan in March this year, but essentially still runs the country). Russia, India and a number of Western European nations have expressed grave concerns – Russia in particular is seeking to build its own rival economic network, and ‘infiltration’ of the project into Pakistan and Kashmir is creating regional tension. Obviously, any threat of a Chinese ascendancy outside its borders, given the Chinese government’s totalitarian control of its own people, is of global concern. The only way to allay those concerns, at least from a western perspective, is liberalisation within China, and a full recognition of the diversity of its people, in cultural, ideological and other respects.

Reference

Maçães, Bruno, The dawn of Eurasia: on the trail of the new world order. 2018

Written by stewart henderson

July 5, 2019 at 1:10 pm

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] the fulsome Wikipedia article, Human rights in China, and it truly makes the heart sick. I’ve already written about the Uyghur people of the Xinjiang ‘frontier’ (as many as a million of them are in […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: