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A soft voice for China's wild west

The AgeThe recent bloody events in West China have drawn attention to a part of the world most of us don't ever give any attention to. We are hot and dry enough without thinking of one of the hottest and driest parts of the world, the high deserts of Xinjiang, the 'New Frontier' region of China.

Recently Australia was asked, and refused, to take some of the Guantanamo detainees who were Uighurs, Muslim activists from this region. This was far too hot an issue for the Chinese, and accepting them would have adversely affected Australian-China relations.

It was probably wise to find them a place other than Australia, one less closely tied economically to China. The Chinese view of Uighur separatism is inevitably far from ours.

Xinjiang, like Tibet, is territory on the fringe of China, under largely indirect Chinese control for many centuries but formally incorporated into China only in the last century. Ethnically, it was non-Chinese, consisting of Uighurs and other formerly nomadic peoples (Kazakhs, Uzbeks etc.). Religiously it was mostly Muslim.

Under both heads, ethnicity and religion, the region posed a problem both to the Nationalists and the Communists. The Uighurs are proud of their heritage, including periods when they ruled part of China proper. They suffered interference with their religion during the Cultural Revolution and since.

Just as in the rest of China, by their very presence the pork-eating Han Chinese create offence to Muslim neighbours, even to those for whom Islam is more a cultural than a religious identity. It is worth noting that Hui-hui, the Chinese identification of Muslims, is regarded officially as an ethnic rather than a religious label.

The Chinese government rightly fears that the mosques are centres of resistance to Chinese rule. Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Islamic republics just across the border, Islamicist ideas have spread into China and become a focus and magnifying factor for more mundane resentments created by insensitive officials and police and by the ever growing migration of Han Chinese into the area.

Technically, the region, the largest province in China but with the smallest population density, is a special region for minorities, the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. But with China's population explosion, and particularly the development of Xinjiang's oil and mineral resources (some 80 per cent of China's total) there has been a huge migration of specialist workers and job seekers from China's eastern and southern provinces.

It is not surprising that confrontation between Han and Uighur factory workers seems to have been the spark for the current riots and street violence in Urumqi, the capital.

Xinjiang is also strategically important. Not only does it adjoin the former Soviet Union but its southern border is with Tibet. There are strong garrisons there of the People's Liberation Army and a strategic highway between Xinjiang and Tibet. To the Chinese government security in this region is vitally important for the security of the state.

For all these reasons it is difficult to imagine any solution to the discontent in Xinjiang, as in Tibet, without a general change in the governance and political culture of China. That seems a distant prospect indeed. China has no history of federalism (the word 'autonomous' in its names for minority regions is one of the many ironies of Chinese officialese). Independence for the region is unthinkable in Beijing, and China is too reliant on its mineral wealth to loosen its control in a time of economic crisis.

If the situation in Urumqi worsens, President Obama, European leaders and perhaps even our sinophile Prime Minister may be able to suggest to the Chinese more sensitive treatment of its Uighur and Tibetan minorities, but even a change at the centre will not improve ethnic relations in the factories and mines or the pastoral areas of China's Wild West.

One of the side-effects of China's remarkable economic and cultural revival of the post Cultural Revolution era has been a growth in popular nationalism. I am constantly surprised in speaking with ordinary Chinese, even Chinese Australians, how close to the surface is their pride in nationality and their readiness to deny oppression of China's minorities.

Their passionate defence of the Olympic flag as it passed through Western countries was well orchestrated by the Chinese government but could not have occurred without a solid base of nationalist sentiment. There seems little hope that the majority Chinese, those identified as Han, will pressure their government for change.

It is perhaps a good thing to be born or live in a small country without too many national pretensions. This is both an opportunity and a limitation for Australia in its relations with China. A soft and friendly voice may do more than condemnation or contention.

Paul RulePaul Rule taught Chinese history and Chinese religion at La Trobe University where he is now an Honorary Research Associate.

Topic tags: paul rule, Xinjiang, New Frontier, China, riots, Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region, Uighurs



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Existing comments

Paul Rule rightly identifies population explosion as a major contributor to transmigration in China - as it is in countries like Indonesia and Africa. Local ethnic resistance to being overwhelmed results in conflict. Does the West offer any practical solutions - as Europe also has social and environmenal problems with increasing large-scale immigration?

valerie yule | 09 July 2009  

Thanks, Paul for analysis and background to Urumqi crackdown. I disagree however with your recommendation - - Australia is able to voice protest in solidarity with the persecuted Uighur minority. And why should not Australia demonstrate compassion toward the now stateless Uighur prisoners of Guantanamo? The Rudd government is well able to accept these unfortunate people. Jesus said "I was a stranger...."

Neil Tolliday | 09 July 2009  

I heartily agree with you, Neil.

Gavan | 10 July 2009  

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