At least when it comes to the Uighur, the situation is certainly getting worse.
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Like an increasing number of Uighur even in Beijing, he maintains a puritan distance from Chinese culture; he refuses to eat Chinese food, to speak Chinese unless absolutely necessary, or to have Chinese friends. But to be Uighur, at least, is to be constantly confronted by the state. It intrudes even into small things; Uighur names are too long to fit onto Chinese ID cards, for instance, and so end up being written in butchered Sinified versions.
Nor was it some kind of choice for the Tibetans and Uighur. So do the Mongolians, but they also have a nation of their own—which China did all it could to prevent happening, but which bleeds off most of the anger. For the Tibetans and Uighurs, the Chinese are invaders and colonizers, and always will be. The only way to begin to resolve this would be for the Chinese state to acknowledge its own imperialism, to cease the colonial project and the attempt to obliterate independent histories, and to allow genuine cultural and political autonomy.
Ordinary Chinese conceive of themselves only as victims of imperialism, never as its perpetuators, and they deeply resent the idea that they might be the villains of this story. Xinjiang has obviously only got worse over the last year. We saw what happened in when tensions exploded into inter-communal killings ; I fear the outcome if that became the norm, rather than a horrific exception. Asking about ethnicity and tension in China is one of those questions that mirrors the problems it tries to describe: it uses terms and categories that blur what those problems are and replicate the stresses that underlie them.
It hoped that the new term would suggest only cultural and economic differences. Many foreign writers and journalists now follow the same practice, perhaps without remembering the reasons why it was introduced and the issues that it veiled. Those three are the Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongolians.
It makes sense for there to be differences in their relations with the larger state.
Put simply, some of these groups are subject to very restrictive policies while others are not: the ethnic approach has led to a policy quagmire. For the last three decades China tried to handle all these groups by promoting rapid development and, more recently, by boosting incomes. It also encouraged a limited amount of cultural expression. This in turn has led to violent protests, and the cycle of unrest has continued. There are other factors, such as international involvement and growing nationalist emotion on all sides. But the most pressing question is whether Beijing officials can craft policies that respond to the different needs and histories of different constituencies.
Treating them as a single block that needs only economic goods has so far not worked. Tibetan areas witnessed in the largest popular uprising in several decades. The protests spontaneously spread from Lhasa—where the still unexplained disappearance of security forces from the downtown area on March 14 led to multiple incidents of arson and violence—to the rest of the plateau, in particular the Eastern part, generally a much less contentious than the Tibet Autonomous Region TAR.
The harsh repression that followed the protests, documented in a July Human Rights Watch report triggered an historically unprecedented wave of self-immolations, with over Tibetans setting themselves on fire in protest at Chinese policies since February Today, the security presence remains at a much higher level than before , and the State pursues very ambitious social-control policies in the TAR. Xinjiang experienced its worst episode of inter-ethnic violence in decades in July , when the suppression of a peaceful protest by Uyghur students turned into a night of murderous rioting in which, officially, people, of them Han Chinese, died in the violence, and some 1, were injured.
The real number of casualties might have been much higher, as high as There, too, the repression was brutal and indiscriminate, and marked by an unusually high rate of disappearances at the hand of the security forces, as documented by Human Rights Watch in an October report. Ethnic polarization in Xinjiang has since been further fueled by policies designed to accelerate the assimilation of the region through massive investments and state-led modernization, accompanied by ever-growing restrictions on religion and cultural expression imposed in the name of the anti-separatism struggle.
The year witnessed the highest incidence of political violence in Xinjiang since the Urumqi riots of , with over casualties. One should of course bear in mind the distinction between what constitutes tensions between specific ethnic groups and the Chinese state on the one hand, and inter-ethnic tensions on the other hand. Inter-ethnic polarization and antagonism of Han Chinese seem to be more acute in Xinjiang and, to a lesser extent, in Inner-Mongolia, than in Tibetan areas.
But in both cases mutual stereotyping is only the by-product of what remains the main driver of ethnic relations today: assimilative State policies. The key problem is that these domestication efforts are predicated on two fundamentally mistaken assumptions. The first one is that substantially raising living standards among ethnic communities will extinguish potential ethno-nationalist aspirations.
Examples around the world show that it does not, all the more if target groups have no say in the design and implementation of these policies and continue to face everyday discrimination and no meaningful political representation. The truth is, neither region stands a remote chance of actually separating from China today. The State would be better off casting off what is in essence a phantom-menace—one that fuels ethnic polarization, prevents the accurate diagnosis of policy problems, and gives primacy to a security apparatus responsible for widespread human rights violations, including the endemic use of torture.
There are vigorous debates in China policy-circles about the need to reform ethnic policies—and not only in Tibet and Xinjiang. Professor James Leibold has recently written an excellent overview of these debates in an East-West Center monograph. Unfortunately, the debates tend to perpetuate the practice of not including the people at stake, whether Uyhgur, Tibetan or others.
Uyghurs and Tibetans are, certainly, but by far the most numerous and restive minzu are those Chinese who belong to the Han majority. Annual official P. These protests, usually inspired by land-grabs, egregious corruption, labor disputes, illegal taxation, or environmental damage, take the form, on the one hand, of SMS and Internet chatter or marches and sit-ins, to riots, suicides, bombings, physical attacks and the expulsion of officials from entire towns, on the other.
It would be interesting to compare per-capita Han unrest with that of Uyghurs and Tibetans. As long as protestors stick to local issues and do not attempt to build solidarity among similarly aggrieved workers, farmers, pensioners or pollution-victims nationwide, often they can get away with surprisingly little or even no sanction whatsoever. Meanwhile, if the incident gains sufficient attention, the central Party rides in to prosecute miscreant businessmen and cashier corrupt officials.
The underlying systemic problems remain unaddressed, but local tension is relieved somewhat and the Party looks good. By now, this escape valve is the de facto way of dealing with corruption, land-grabs, pension-theft, pollution and the like in the absence of a free press, free courts or other democratic checks on officials and the rich elites with whom they collude.
But we use different terminology and lenses for incidents involving Tibetans and Uyghurs than for incidents involving Han Chinese alone. Their communications are censored more closely; police are immediately sent to violently repress the few peaceful demonstrations that do occur.
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The suppression of a demonstration by Uyghur students in , sparked the Urumqi riots. Loyal, moderate, but critical voices, such as that of Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, are more quickly and thoroughly silenced. By signaling to Han and other groups that there is a tolerated way to voice concerns, demonstrate, and otherwise act out their grievances, while brutally repressing similar dissent when it arises from Uyghurs and Tibetans, the Chinese party-state is reinforcing those very ethnic lines of division they claim they want to dissolve.
The first was a video posted on Facebook. The second was an audio file posted on WeChat, the mobile app that has recently become the communication tool of choice for young Uyghurs in Xinjiang. As Jim Millward points out, similar things happen all over China but they are not labelled as terrorism. One of the eminently moderate and sensible things that Ilham Tohti dared to say before his arrest, in an interview with The Financial Times , was that the suppression of everyday religious practice in Xinjiang was liable to provoke further discontent with the state and encourage stronger religious feeling.
How and why has that come about? But the two items I viewed last week took things a step further. The video showed a young Uyghur man writing to his mother to explain why he was joining the rebel fighters in the mountains, which were portrayed as places of freedom, joy and comradeship. What interested me about this video was that it was not made to provoke anger and hatred but pathos.
He was writing to his mother for goodness sake!
In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon: Stories of Repression in the New China by Xu Youyuis
A group of eleven Uyghur young men did find their way up a mountain in January this year. What they were doing there is unknown. Reports that the eleven men were unarmed have cast doubt on this interpretation of events, and I suspect that we are unlikely to learn the truth of the matter. In short, we have no way of answering this question with any level of certainty. The sensitivity of ethnic issues in China and the closed nature of society in the P.
If the C. What is perhaps more worrying, however, is the perception of a looming minzu crisis inside China. With each incident of Uyghur or Tibetan violence, the chorus for policy change increases, at both a popular and elite level. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in , Chinese policymakers and intellectuals have warned that the P. Today, most Chinese believe current ethnic policies have failed. Yet, any forced or rapid increase in inter-ethnic contact will only exasperate ethnic tensions and violence, in the short term at least.
China has its fair share of ethnic problems, but are they any more serious than those confronted by other multiethnic societies across the globe? For someone like me who is old enough to have the honor of being at the receiving end of ethnic violence during the Cultural Revolution, the current tension is a piece of cake, as it were. Having said this, there is no denial that we must address ethnic conflicts seriously. In doing so, however, we should not be tempted into a mode of showing sympathy only to the hapless minorities without taking account of the profoundly emotional state of the Chinese.
Unlike in the past, today many Chinese blame the State for giving the minorities too much privilege, to the extent of spoiling them. That this sense of Chinese victimhood in the hands of minorities is shared by an increasing number of Chinese scholar-politicians is alarming. For many, these images draw attention to the contradictions of a nominally communist system struggling to provide even basic social services and dominated at the top by a tiny, autocratic political elite accumulating enormous personal wealth.
Chu Yanqing is a pastor at the Zhongyuan house church, which started in a hotel on the outskirts of Beijing in Chu was a student demonstrator in the Tiananmen Square democracy movement that ended in a massacre. The experience left him traumatised and deeply disillusioned and contributed to his eventual conversion to Protestantism in He and his small Protestant cell are exactly the type of well-organised Christian political activists the Communist party fears most.
He eloquently describes the disintegration in Chinese society that has helped bring about what he calls the current golden age for Christianity in China. Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in the 13th century and in the early s there was even briefly a Franciscan archbishop in Peking. For more than years, Jesuit priests were tolerated by the emperors and even welcomed at the imperial court for the western technology and artistic knowledge they shared with their hosts.
But following a series of papal edicts banning many Chinese customs in the late 18th century, the Qing emperors outlawed Christianity and introduced death penalties for anyone caught proselytising in China. The man who founded Chinese Protestantism, British missionary Robert Morrison, arrived in China in and began learning Chinese and translating the Bible at a time when both acts were punishable by death.
Even with this help, Protestant missionaries were not particularly successful. After 27 years of missionary work in China, Morrison could take credit for just 25 converts and, even by , after nearly a century of efforts by thousands of missionaries, the number of Chinese Protestants was barely , When the Communists won their revolution in there were about , Protestants, compared with some three million Catholics in a country of million people.
In , the Pew Research Center estimated there were about nine million Catholics and more than 58 million Protestants in China. Using a conservative annual growth rate of 10 per cent, Professor Yang and others estimate the total number of Christians in China is now about million. Wang Yilin is a fourth-generation Catholic who looks and acts much older than his 16 years and whose father is a Communist party member. Although none of his friends or schoolmates are believers, he says they all think his Catholic faith is very cool and exotic.
This flexibility of Protestantism also leaves a lot of room for individual interpretation. The whole country was shocked in May when a cellphone video circulated online showing the Zhangs and four others, including a year-old, beating the woman to death with a chair and a pole while other customers watched or fled. Of the 14 cults Beijing placed on a watch list in , 12 of them were based on some form of Christianity. And China has a long and tumultuous relationship with crypto-Christian religions taking root in the superstitious and restive rural hinterland. Hong Xiuquan, the founder of the movement, was a frustrated intellectual who failed the imperial Mandarin examinations four times.
On one of his trips to sit the exams, Hong picked up a Chinese translation of the Bible from an American missionary. After nearly two decades of war, Hong and his followers were finally defeated by the Qing empire, with help from British and French colonial forces. At its height, the Taiping kingdom covered half of southern China and made its capital in the great southern city of Nanjing.
Officially, however, the Communist party has adopted a curiously tolerant and even romantic view of Hong and his followers. In the middle of the enormous factory, hundreds of copies of the Holy Bible for the Bible Society of Kenya are rolling off the production line and being stacked next to Chinese copies of the Catholic Youth Bible and the Oxford English-Chinese Dictionary. To this day, church groups around the world, and particularly in the US, continue to raise money from their congregations for the express purpose of buying Bibles and smuggling them into benighted heathen China, where they believe the book is still banned.
Most of them do not realise the Bibles they buy abroad are quite likely to have been printed in this factory in Nanjing. Qiu Zhonghui, vice-chairman of the Amity Foundation, explains why the government decided to allow the venture to open in to print a book, which was banned and burned for decades under communism. Qiu represents the most politically acceptable face of Protestantism in China. In order to go quietly about its business of collecting souls for the faith, the Amity Foundation works entirely in co-operation with the government.
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Using profits from its printing operation and donations from home and abroad it runs charity projects across the country on everything from poverty alleviation to environmental protection. In the process it takes care not to violate a government ban on religious proselytising. Qiu says as a Christian he is disturbed by the images of churches being demolished and crosses being torn down in Zhejiang Province and Wenzhou. But in his province of Jiangsu, the government and religious authorities have not yet changed their policies or utilised the more repressive tactics seen in neighbouring Zhejiang.
Back in Wenzhou, a fully grown orchard has been transplanted on to the spot where the Sanjiang church stood less than six months ago. I heard it made the officials angry and so they knocked it down and got rid of the evidence. Since she has continued this work in Shanghai. Choose your FT trial. FT Magazine. Jamil Anderlini in Beijing November 7, Experimental feature. Listen to this article Play audio for this article Pause What was mispronounced? Optional: help us by adding the time. We have not seen a worse campaign since the cultural revolution. Church provides a moral foundation in a messy and corrupt modern society.