Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Great Wall

I had planned to write about the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Then the Ukraine crisis and invasion of the Crimea happened. I still wanted to write about the Olympics but struggled with how to put that all in context.

Then something happened that I really don't want to write about, but feel that I must: The Kunming train station killings.

If you have somehow missed this dreadful story, between 8 and 10 armed attackers (accounts vary) dressed in black and wielding long knives descended on the Kunming train station and began to indiscriminately attack people waiting to buy tickets, killing 29 and wounding more than 130. Four attackers, three men and one woman, were shot dead by police and one was captured (a woman).  The attackers were immediately identified as Uighurs, a Turkic people who primarily live in China's northwestern Xinjiang Province.

It is a shocking, horrible thing (This is a good roundup of eye-witness accounts and a range of Chinese viewpoints on the attacks). I've been to Kunming a few times. I've been to that train station. Kunming's nickname among Chinese is (or used to be, the first time I visited in 1980) "The city where it's always spring"— a place known for its good weather, a pleasant city that's becoming a regional powerhouse, in one of China's poorer but most beautiful provinces, diverse in terms of its landscape and its people. Imagining that kind of violence there is hard. Particularly violence committed by Uighurs, whose homeland is very far away.

But there has been a history of conflict between China's Uighurs and the Chinese state. It has mostly been confined to Xinjiang Province. The most significant incident in recent years were the riots and subsequent crackdown that began in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in July 2009. The inciting incident was a demonstration to protest the deaths of two Uighur migrant workers in far away Shaoguan, a demonstration that turned violent (whether the demonstrators or the police provoked the violence is up for debate). The resulting casualties were mostly Han Chinese, attacked by Uighur mobs, but this too is a matter of some debate: Uighur advocacy groups claim that the Uighur arrest and death toll was greatly undercounted, and it is true that the Chinese government's reporting on these matters is, shall we say, far from transparent.

Why the violence?

One of the things I found upsetting in the aftermath of the Kunming train attacks were the knee-jerk comments by Americans and other westerners that this was another manifestation of global Islamic jihad, with plenty of cracks about "the religion of peace" thrown in. Yes, a majority of Uighurs are Muslims. Most are moderate Sunnis. Yes, there are Islamist organizations in Xinjiang, and yes, odds are the attackers were Islamic extremists (though we don't know this for certain). And I want to say very clearly: there is no excuse or rationalization for this horrific act of terrorism. It is criminal, it is inhuman, and the only causes it advances are hatred and fear. But reducing the conflict between Uighurs and the Chinese state to "Islamo-nazis!" is dangerous and just wrong.

Questions of who "owns" Xinjiang, the legitimacy of Uighurs' claims, and so on are complicated, at times murky, and far from my area of expertise. What I can say is that this an ethnic conflict that is multi-faceted, where religion is just one factor, where the larger issues are self-determination, cultural suppression and economic justice.

On a very basic level, Uighurs look very different than the Han, who make up some 92% of China's population. They are visibly "Other."

All of this has been greatly exacerbated by recent Han migration into Xinjiang. For the last couple of decades, the Chinese government has been encouraging this migration, to the extent that the Uighurs are now a minority in areas where they used to be the majority. This has caused a considerable amount of resentment, especially among the majority of Uighurs who are not fluent Han speakers and who are not doing as well overall economically as the recent Han migrants and who do not hold the majority of government positions and political power (that, again, would be the Han).

There is a lot to be said about Chinese government policy toward Uighurs and "ethnic minorities" (the Chinese government's terminology) but rather than me trying to badly paraphrase it, I'll offer some links to articles written by experts.

Check out this piece by Evan Osnos written for the New Yorker: "After the Kunming Massacre: The Dangers of China's Ethnic Divide."  For background, see James Palmer's "The Strangers." For a more personal response, read long-time Xinjiang resident Josh's "5 Questions about Xinjiang and the Kunming Terror Attack." 

And for an example of how the Chinese state's policies persecute exactly the sort of people who might serve to help bridge this divide, see this BBC article about China Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who has been arrested on separatism charges.

I also recommend this short film about Uighur life in China's cities, which is often marked by alienation and prejudice. See this post, "Dispatches From Xinjiang: Battle' And Uyghur Life In Chinese Cities' for background.

ETA: Here is a NYT piece, "Opposing Narratives in Piecing Together Kunming Attackers' Motives" with some new information and good background.

A few words about my own brief experiences in Xinjiang. I visited there in February 2009, just a few months before the riots. I was astounded by the place. The landscape was beautiful (I made it up to Yili, not far from the Kazak border). The mix of cultures, fascinating. The people I met, from many ethnic backgrounds, some of the warmest and most welcoming folks I've ever encountered. There was an epic drinking and dancing night that…well…some other time.

It's a place that I long to return to.

But there were hints of trouble if you looked for them. Here's an experience I had that might explain what some of the conflict is about, from a post I wrote in March after my return to the US. For background, I was visiting a friend who taught at the university in Yining. I called the post "Ethnic Dances":


The students - and the teachers - here don't encounter a lot of Western foreigners, so my coming was seen as an opportunity to meet a real, live American and get some English practice with a native speaker. I'd done this kind of thing thirty years ago, but this was one of the only places I'd been to in China recently where I was really a rarity, a novelty.

I loved the students. They were enthusiastic, sweet, a little shy but not so shy that it stopped them from asking questions, excited to have a foreign guest and to share their culture with me.

I went to their "English Corner." They'd arranged a presentation with me, all about Xinjiang, about the local foods and customs, and the particular cultures of Xinjiang's "ethnic minorities."

This was a mixed group of students. Most were Han, but there were Kazaks and Uighurs as well. Now, everyone seemed happy and excited to participate. But...the MCs, the kids doing the explanations and introductions, were Han. "And now this Kazak girl will show us the Kazak dancing!" The Kazak girl did, with a big smile. A Uighur couple did a traditional dance, acting out the roles, having fun with it. All the performers were really good - I learned later that they were either enrolled in the arts school at the University or were at members of the dance club or the music club. Then, a young Kazak man played a song on the dombra, the Central Asian lute. He was dressed head to toe in black, his hair spiked like an early 80s punk, his collar turned up. He played with fierce concentration. No pro-forma smiles here. When he finished, he made a little, abrupt bow, stone-faced, and left shortly after. Elvis has left the building, I thought.

It was just a little strange, hearing these Han kids talk excitedly about the quaint local customs, introducing the "ethnic minorities" to perform in front of me.

There was one particular Uighur girl there, outgoing, a live wire, wearing a sweater with some slogan spelled out in sequins, I forget what it was. Regardless, she sparkled. After an explanation from the MCs about several aspects of Uighur culture, she stood up and explained things from the perspective of an actual Uighur. "This is why we make the chuanr on iron and not wood." "This is why we eat this dish with our hands." She laughed a lot, seemed to be close to many of the other, Han students. But she was not shy or apologetic about explaining her own culture in front of them.

When it came time for questions, she stood right up. Her first question I couldn't exactly understand. It had something to do with how young Europeans were portrayed in films and television that she'd seen. The gist of her question was, were they really as sexually active as they appeared? Did they kiss and do such things on busses, in public?

Perhaps, I said, it's true that Europeans are more sexually active at a younger age than most Chinese, but I am not an expert. Perhaps they are more demonstrative in public as well. But different European countries have different cultural norms in this area. And of course, films and television tend to exaggerate.

Her second question: "Is it always true that the more powerful people in a country will always cover up the less powerful? Will the less powerful always lose their culture? How do you solve this problem?"

I paraphrase, but this was the gist.

The other kids in the class reacted, but I wouldn't say they overreacted. No one passed out in astonishment; I didn't get the sense that anyone was running out to inform the local Party representative (though who knows, really?). Still, I was impressed by her fearlessness. There's no more loaded an issue in China than anything smacking of "splittism."

As a member of the majority culture in my own country, what could I say? Well, that, to start. I'm in the Han position, you know?

And: "It's a very difficult problem. And it's really up to you and your children, how much you can preserve your culture, what's really important to you." I couldn't say, "too bad the Chinese government doesn't support an official bilingual policy, so if you have to learn Mandarin to advance in education and government and business, maybe the Han should have to learn Uighur or Kazak too." I don't know, maybe I could have said that, but I didn't think of it then. The whole issue of whether Xinjiang was "Chinese" or whether it should be something else, East Turkistan, maybe, well, I wasn't going to get into that.

What I did think of to say was this: "You know, it goes both ways. In America, African Americans are a minority, but African Americans' contributions to culture are so significant that African American culture really is a huge part of American culture - all Americans' culture." I talked about Chinese people in California - "that cultural influence is a part of our larger culture as well. Maybe here in Xinjiang, it's a little similar. Maybe Han people are also influenced by Uighur culture and by Kazak culture - maybe you are creating a new culture, that is a blend of all the people here."


It was the best I could do at the time: Sadly optimistic, uninformed and naive, especially now, when that cultural gulf seems wider than ever.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...


  1. Thank you for this helpful introduction. I also appreciate the links so I can learn more. For the people there, the horror, pain and devastating losses will reverberate for a long time. And it is distinctly local -- this problem with Hans and Iughurs. And it is utterly universal. It is all of us, west and east, north and south. Only the names and specifics are local. The tears belong to us all.

    I can't help but wonder why it is in our nature to abhor cultural diversity. That throughout history men have attempted to destroy all that makes us 'mutts' of the world so interesting. Around the world cultural differences have been used like a Descartian guillotine in support of fear, greed and power.

    Religion is often used. Color is often used. Different clothing, accents... It's a sad and endless list. Until we stop with the "us" and "they" mentality, attacks like that in Kunming will be yet more drops into a seemingly bottomless murderous bucket.

    1. So true, and trying to reduce it to "Because, ISLAM!" isn't doing anyone any favors. Because of course the more a government tries to repress cultural differences, the more a certain percentage of the people feeling the repression will go to extremes. And so it goes.

    2. Um, no. The U.S. government has succeeded very, very (very) well in repressing Native American cultures (notice the plural). Aside from isolated incidents like Wounded Knee '73, no Native Americans are going to "extremes."

      Give the Chinese (Han) a break...and a few years.

      Seriously. While I would certainly agree that "Great Han chauvinism" is the number one problem in ethnic relations, I'm not sure that the government can do too much about people's attitudes -- Han and non-Han. Just look at the United States: even with a black President (yeah, kudos and props all-around), attitudes persist...and not just among whites.

      "Haters are gonna hate"...while there needs to be more affirmative action and whatnot, it seems that the Communist authorities are doing what they can with what they have -- which may not seem like much to a rich country like the United States (which still seems to prefer spending so much more on non-social purchases), but remember that they barely spend anything on the Han, either (at least not *as* Han)....

    3. "It is in our nature to abhor cultural diversity" because we have evolved to be's really as simple as that.

      Luckily, the same evolutionary processes have, and still are, pressing us to overcome simple egotism.

    4. Jack, while of course there are certain parallels to the history of Native Americans in the US, I think where this doesn't hold up is that the territorial takeovers mostly took place a good century and a half ago. And certainly there were many, many violent conflicts at that time. Though the history of conflict in Xinjiang goes back a while, the recent settlement of waves of Han migrants in Xinjiang is, well, recent.

    5. Yes, so what? It's almost exactly the environmental argument, too -- the West eats its fill, and, as the Chinese expression goes, now that it's "filled with rice with nothing to do" it goes around having existential angst about natives and the earth. That's rather like Clarence Thomas, affirmative action baby, saying affirmative action ain't necessary!

    6. Oh, I meant that, because Native Americans are not reacting violently now (or recently), that there certainly were many violent conflicts in the past when the territorial disputes were actually playing out. Does that make sense? (I'm really sleepy).

    7. and that the Xinjiang situation is just a lot more recent, so the fact that there are at times violent conflicts isn't so surprising. It's just not a settled issue yet.

      Though lord knows it can take a really long time for historical dust to settle. Does it ever?

    8. LOL; to paraphrase Faulkner: the past...isn't.

      The West continues to benefit from its mercantile and colonial policies. I just think it significantly discounts any moral homilies their foreign ministries/departments of state would have to say. I would even extend this perspective to private citizens in the West, to their own sense of sympathy for aggrieved minorities -- reminds me of the New Testament rebuke: how can you love God, Whom you have not seen, when you do not love your brother, whom you do see? (Something like that.)

      Honestly, I think it's more intellectual fashion and youth-chic than anything ethically serious.

    9. Actually? I doubt that all that many people in the West are particularly knowledgable or concerned about the Uighurs. Tibetans, that's different. I remember reading a wonderfully cynical comment by, I forget who, an American Buddhist, I think, who called Tibetans the "baby seals" of the global human rights movement.

      I actually think that most people who are concerned about human rights, in a more involved and informed way than "gee, that's too bad, those terrible evil Commies, look what they're doing" tend to be concerned about human rights across the board. Most of them are more than willing to look at problems in the US (if they are Americans) as well as in other countries. Maybe my perspective is influenced by having hung out with a lot of activists over the years. If they're protesting bombing Iraq, they also tend to be protesting Keystone XL or racial disparity in prison sentences in the US or what have you. There may be naivety involved, but I don't necessarily find that much inconsistency.

      Which isn't the same thing as a government spokesperson decrying Russian troops moving into Ukraine on the one hand and being fine with, oh, invading Iraq on questionable pretenses on the other.

    10. Nah, I beg to differ (as indeed I have been doing all along). I think most of the folks who are "concerned" about so-called "human rights" are like Sharon Stone and Richard Gere. Yes, there are real activists out there, true believers, God bless 'em, but the vast majority are just party people, young college kids.

      I mean, an independent Tibet? Yeah, like any country in the world is gonna give up ~25% of its territory, however ill-gained. Why don't these crusaders create a petition: U.S. Out of North America!

      Seriously, China has more right to Tibet and Xinjiang and, even, Outer Mongolia (despite the Soviet-pressed treaty of '49) than the U.S. has to its share of North America or Australia to, well, Australia.

      IOW, it ill-behooves Western do-gooders to meddle in what China perceives to be its internal affairs when Westerners can still find much in the way of aggrieved minorities within their midst.

  2. Just a note to thank all of you on this international blog... I often read it to keep in mind we live on a huggggggeeeeeeee planet, esp. when I read the daily NYT and see how provincial some Americans can get... Thelma Jacqueline Straw in Manhattan

  3. Thank you, Lisa, for what reads more like a "Foreign Affairs" essay than a blog post. You brought far more depth to the tragedy than anything I've found reported elsewhere. There is also something nagging at me about a similar sort of attack a year or two ago. Does that ring a bell...or are my chimes just off?

    1. The articles I've linked to really do provide some depth, Jeffrey. I really recommend them. But there is so much to learn on this topic. I've hardly scratched the surface. It's just sad that more news accounts are not bringing in some of this very basic background.

      And, yes, there was an incident at Tiananmen Square in November (a day or two before I arrived, actually), when a Jeep drove into crowds at the square and burst into flames, killing the Uighur occupants and two tourists. What's not clear about that incident, at least as far as I know, is whether they meant to kill bystanders or were just trying to make a very visible demonstration. But that's the problem with these incidents in China: if they are fully investigated, the results aren't always released to the public. The government also always refers to these separatists as "outside terrorist/splittist elements" or words of that nature -- never that they are an indigenous group with some legitimate grievances, if not always a legitimate response -- again I don't think there was anything "legitimate" about what happened in Kunming. The sad thing is, in addition to the tragedy suffered by the victims, the fallout of this will almost certainly be borne by China's Uighurs.

  4. I don't know what an Islamo-nazi! is, ( exclamation point yours, not mine) you didn't tell us. It is certainly not me. I'm a middle path guy and you took a hard left. I chatted with an American who is a Chinese linguist. He has spent much time in all parts of China, over the past 40 years, including recently. He told me he felt that China's policies were a contributing factor, but that religion was a primary, not secondary, reason for the murder of 29 non-Muslims by Muslims It sounds like it will happen again. Tragically. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

    1. As I said in the post, odds are that the attackers are/were Islamists. But leaving out all of the context of the Uighurs' situation in China is, to me, irresponsible, and reducing their conflict with the Chinese government to just one factor, religion, is simplistic and inaccurate. I mean, since when did the current Chinese government get a reputation of dealing gently with restive border provinces? What about Tibet? Is that conflict purely religious? We could talk about Mongolian dissidents as well.


      Religion is a big part of a culture (though not always, and not with all Uighurs). What I object to is a reductionist way of thinking that sees this as the only factor in play. I think Terra hit upon something important: It is the "Othering" that is at work here, and that can take many forms.

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    3. "Islamo-Nazis!" -- well to be strictly accurate I should have used "Islamo-fascists," a term popular with some folks who seem to think we are going to have Sharia law in Beverly Hills.

      And seriously? "Hard left"? What in the world is "hard left" about what I've written? Insisting that some things are complicated and need to be viewed with nuance? Then call me a Marxist.

    4. I'd like to say, too, that there is a part of me that has some sympathy for PART of the Chinese government's agenda (though not necessarily why it is in place). I think that fundamentalist religions are more often than not incompatible with modern society and damaging to many (especially women). I am a secular person myself. But I don't know that "modernizing" people at gunpoint and with bulldozers (see Kashgar) is a great way to go about it. Obviously there are "carrot" aspects to Chinese government policy in this area as well, I don't want to reduce this to a stereotype, and again, it's a complicated subject that I don't know nearly enough about. I think it's safe to say there are Uighurs doing well in the Chinese system, but as a group, not as well as the Han in Xinjiang.

  5. And finally, what I'd really like to know is: Does the fact that the Uighurs are Muslims mean that all of their grievances are illegitimate, in some peoples' eyes?

    1. No, but it means they come from a worldview in which a father sacrificing his son on the say-so of voices in his head is held up to be a great example of faith and something to follow (yeah, that's Jews and Christians, too, for that matter). This means walking on eggshells and that it will likely take a whole lot more work to convince someone that you mean no harm.

      It's a sad situation and I don't know "who started it" -- and I would say that it's up to the Chinese government to end it, as the authorities in charge. How they do it...well, it doesn't seem very effective but that may be because we're viewing matters from our own postcolonial Western sensibilities.

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    3. Well, that didn't work. Let me try it again:

      Unfortunately so far the response seems to be…more repression. What's distressing is that this latest crackdown is silencing voices that are potentially moderating influences. See:

      China detains Uighur AIDS activist amidst crackdown
      And the link on Ilham Tohti above.

    4. Oh, and thanks for mentioning the common roots of Islam, Judaism and Christianity -- I didn't want to get on my high horse about fundamentalism and illogic in all three of them, but, yeah.

    5. Yes, it's crazy what the Chinese authorities are up to in Xinjiang and Tibet -- but then I ask myself, what would I do if I were the Second Coming of Mao Zedong??

      I mean, what could anyone do, really...on the one hand, letting people "just be" is going to lead to Tiananmen all over again (recall that '89 was the culmination of liberalization policies begun in the earlier part of that decade [and, incidentally, any honest political science professor will tell you that it's almost proven that the more you give people hope, the more they will actually demand further things -- the ol' give an inch and take a foot -- and the more you set yourself up for catastrophe if you wind up disappointing their own self-inflated hopes, as any population kept under ignorance for long must inevitably do]); on the other hand, clearly the age of ruling by fiat is coming to a close, however slowly.

      As the Tao Te Ching would counsel, when in doubt, do nothing. That the ChiComs are so reactive, not proactive, suggests that they are classically fatalist -- not, as Westerners would imagine, given the perspective of their own psychologies and histories, repressive or "genocidal."

    6. I think so much of the Chinese government's actions come down to the blunt logic of securing borders, frankly. And yes, I'd say a lot of it is fear-based.

      On your other subject, I've always thought that when you create a middle-class, you create a middle-class sense of entitlement. "Why shouldn't' we be able to breathe clean air?" for example.

    7. Yes, a growing bourgeoisie will mean the mainstreaming of bourgeois sentiments and conceits, God help us...what the Communist authorities are trying to do is keep a step ahead of rising expectations...I read that there's on average a riot a week somewhere in China!

    8. Well, the last time the government published statistics that I know of, in 2012 there were about 180,000 "mass incidents" in China. Those are "protests," not necessarily "riots," but however you define it... that's…a lot.

    9. I hear ya: it's like with cockroaches -- if you see one in the open, there must be like twenty others in the walls! Likewise, for the government to cite 180K must be many times that.
      So given such pressures, I think the Faustian bargain made after Tiananmen '89 is the proper frame or lens through which to understand and judge Chinese government policies...a number of people equivalent to almost the whole population of the United States graduates from Chinese universities each year; that's a lotta jobs to have to create, and I think many if not most Chinese people give the authorities a bit of a pass for not fully tending to Western-styled sensitivities, especially where separatists are concerned.

    10. I first visited China in 1979 (I was there for 6 months). It is astounding to me, and I'm sure to many Chinese who lived through it, how much has changed. It's no small thing to create a global economy nearly from scratch out of the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution. And I don't envy the government the challenge of trying to keep a billion/whatever people employed and give the majority a sense of hope that their lives are going to continue to improve. To say it's a tremendous challenge almost diminishes how tough it is.

      I sorta talked about this above in response to a different comment of yours, so I'll just say here: the Chinese government presents a pretty distorted view (duh) of what's going on in places like Tibet and Xinjiang. Most Chinese from elsewhere don't have much to go on, other than a sense that the "special privileges" ethnic minorities are granted aren't particularly fair to Han, that Tibetans and Uighurs were rescued from lives of medieval serfdom (not entirely untrue), and that "separatists" are influenced by outside agitators (like the dreaded Rebiya Kadeer, who has got to be some kind of super villain for all that she supposedly has manipulated in Xinjiang). Which is not to say that there aren't genuine separatists, but again, when the government starts arresting Uighur intellectuals and Uighur AIDs activists, this isn't just about ethnic minority policies, it's more examples of a general tightening of public discourse and civic activism in China, period.

      It's not a good trend.

    11. RE: "The Great-Han's-Burden Narrative"...yes, it's a tragedy that most folks in China don't get the correct history on Tibet and Xinjiang -- but, as I've been arguing, it's only slightly better in the West, especially when you consider how there's total freedom of information in the West on these topics.

      The fact of the matter is, both sides are given to gross distortions -- like I said, "cultural genocide" is a ridiculous charge, considering that 99.99% of the incidents cited as proof took place during the Cultural Revolution, when everyone's culture [duh] was targeted for destruction.

      But here's the thing: with people like the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer claiming disingenuously "cultural genocide," the government is almost forced to stick to its myths, given the game of moral oneupmanship here...I mean, filmmaker Spike Lee just claimed, in effect, that Brooklyn has undergone a kind of cultural genocide, and no one takes his charges what is it about such processes, when undertaken by the Chinese state, that leads to similar charges being taken so seriously in the West??

      Because it serves a nice geopolitical agenda to contain Chinese power projection and, speaking of projection, it allows Westerners to psychologically atone for their historical misdeeds, even though they could well start with themselves ("charity begins at home") if they're so concerned, given their still much-neglected indigenous populations.

      "All well-fed with nothing to do," as the Chinese expression goes...that's the West and its bogus human rights claims.

  6. Hi, Lisa,

    Very interesting essay, though I would quibble in several places. May I recommend Blaine Kaltman's "Under the Heel of the Dragon" and Justin Jon Rudelson's earlier "Oasis Identities" for a much more balanced perspective.

    For example, Uighurs are a made-up people -- at least in the modern ethnic and Muslim sense...which go back to Chinese government planners of the 1930s!! Or that many Han migrants work as menial laborers for Uighurs in places like Turpan, Xinjiang. Or that Uighur intellectuals actually fault the Chinese government's mother-tongue preservation policies for preventing Uighurs from adequately learning Mandarin (so as to succeed in mainstream -- Han -- society[reminds me of African-Americans' traditional damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't complaints about the police: they either "don't care" and let crime run amok or are "an occupying army" that targets black folk])...or that Uighurs in Shanghai freely admit that they target Han for purse-snatching and pickpocketing (apparently, Westerners are better marks for drug sales)...or that many Uighur intellectuals are enamored of Adolf Hitler and imagine Uighurs to be blood Aryans with the Germans -- no, really: read these books!

    They're hardly pro-Chinese; in fact, both hold what Uighurs would consider to be pro-Uighur conclusions, despite the mostly disinterested narratives. I only mention them because I feel like there's this unfortunate cowboys-and-Indians meme that's making the rounds where Westerners look at Chinese activities in Xinjiang and Tibet (and, increasingly, Africa and South America, even) through their own guilty consciences, given their own outrageous histories, despite all the trite, almost reluctantly obligatory nods to reconigizing situational complexities.

    1. Thanks for this very thoughtful comment, Jack. I was going to mention the whole debate about the Uighurs as a historical people but felt that this fell outside the scope of both what I was writing and my own knowledge base.

    2. Oh, no problem -- you're one of my favorite authors, and it's always interesting to see other aspects to one's favorite writers!

    3. And…I can't speak for others, but I'd say, first, "cowboys and Indians" speaks to peoples' desires to find easy, clearcut heroes and villains in situations where there frequently are neither. And speaking personally, I would not say that I have a guilty conscience for the historical misdeeds of my own country, but rather, an awareness that guides some of my thinking. Basically that there's only so much rationalizing for bad actions you can make based on, "They did it too!" but that every country on earth has "done it" at one time or another.

    4. Oh, now you've gone and made me blush. :)

    5. :-)

      Hey, sorry, I'm not trying to take you to task personally...yes I'm reacting to your essay but I don't mean to suggest that you hold any particular opinions, exactly; I just think that even though there's a lot of dutiful bromides about complexities, the proposed solutions often belie the acknowledgement: like, what are the ChiComs supposed to do, let Uighurs intellectuals talk about their pan-Turkic aspirations and Uighur peasants talk about their pan-Islamic desires? But if they don't (which they don't), it's considered "repression" in the West -- even "cultural genocide!"

    6. Oh, no worries! Like I said in the essay, this isn't an area that I'm expert in at all. I'm enjoying learning something new.

      And yeah, I can appreciate the dilemma the Chinese government has. But, what's the definition of crazy? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results…I'm not sure that ratcheting up the control, again, is going to get them the results they'd like.

    7. I think, actually, that the Chinese authorities are just doing the plate-juggling thing, you know what I mean? I don't think they expect anything, honestly, at this point...I think it's a bit like how people figure that there will always be crime and so a police will always be, in that joke about how you don't need to run faster than the wolf, you just need to run faster than your friend!

      Similarly, I think the ChiComs are actually content with just treading water, just as long as the Party can keep its head above the water. Like if you're a businessman or woman in a dying industry but instead of wracking your brains trying to innovate you just milk what time you got left....

      That's why I think "cultural genocide" charges and the like are ridiculous. I don't think the Chinese government actually has a real plan, nor do they really care too much.

    8. Heh, well, they definitely have plans. There are 5 year plans, there are targets, there are all kinds of big goals. Whether the central government has the ability to carry them out on a local level is an entirely different thing, and what they actually mean…(excuse my incoherence, as mentioned, very tired, and trying not to procrastinate on work too much longer). You know there's a huge anti-corruption campaign going on right now. Xi Jinping knows there's a tremendous amount of anger among all levels of Chinese society about corruption and favoritism, and he is aggressively pursuing certain officials. Of course, those officials also happen to be allies of Bo Xilai in many cases. So is this a serious attempt to root out corruption, or a convenient way of purging political enemies? And how do you root out corruption at a provincial level or a local level when there's no real political competition or watchdog press or independent judiciary to monitor what's going on. It's like a giant game of whack-a-mole.

      Similarly, with charges of "cultural genocide" -- as long as demonstrations of "ethnic minority culture" confine themselves to charming costumes, music, dancing and food, that's all fine and worth celebrating. But expressions that lead to demands of self-determination -- whole different thing. But then Han people who want a greater degree of participation in the political process are going to get stomped on pretty hard too. The Party isn't going to allow anything to challenge its monopoly on power, and unfortunately, it seems to be moving in a more repressive direction rather than a more participatory one. I think that's all about fear -- justified or not. Just look at the number of wealthy Chinese and powerful officials who've moved their money offshore, just in case.

      (FWIW I'm not predicting some kind of mass uprising or revolution or anything like that -- just that it's not clear how much social stress Chinese society can tolerate).

      Back to the Uighurs, was bulldozing old Kashgar a form of cultural suppression? A part of an aggressive modernization campaign motivated by the money the economic development would put in the pockets of local officials and businessmen? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that the people who lived in old Kashgar didn't have much say in it, one way or the other.

      (I'm guessing you know this, but land seizures and questionable developments are a huge source of social conflict in China -- see "nail houses").

    9. RE: whack-a-mole...yes, there are all kinds of plans -- but, and this is my point, no plans where restive minorities are concerned. Why is that?

      'Cause they recognize that there's really nothing to be done. The people there don't want you there. So what do you do? You just keep on keepin' on. That sounds crazy to Western ears, so used to notions of "progress" in its myths, but most things in life happen by a kind of happy accident anyway, when conditions are ripe. It's fairly evident that the Chinese Communists are betting that time is on their side, whatever the ominous apocalyptic undercurrents Westerners are fond of perceiving.

      RE: cultural genocide...this is a silly made-up term some French activist used on TV once that the Dalai Lama adopted because it plays so well to Western guilt over their own very successful history of genocide. It's a great strategy, allowing Westerners to project their own sins onto the Chinese geopolitical scapegoat while totally ignoring the native peoples in their own midst. The fact of the matter is, while "Great Han Chauvinism" certainly exists and is a very, very real problem, social inequities ain't gonna disappear just 'cause the PRC gets kicked out of Tibet and Xinjiang: Abdals are heterodox Muslims consigned by other Uighurs to the worst of the worst; the Tibetan caste charged with sky burial work are in an even worse position -- like their counterparts in India, they are so unclean even their very presence is an offense, even to Tibetan intellectuals and Tibetan nationalists ("non-Western" ones, anyway).

      RE: bulldozing Old, I don't think that's a good thing to do. Can't believe the ChiComs are erecting a shopping mall in Barkhor Square, Lhasa! But here's the thing to understand: this is just the pendulum swining the other way; the liberalization of the '80s only brough mass protests (in Tibet, I'm talking; I'm not referring to Tiananmen here) and renewed lobbying in the hated West by the Dalai Lama, to the point of his pressing his apparent advantage in the Panchen Lama case, unilaterally announcing his choice ahead of secret agreements with Beijing at the time that any decision should be jointly publicized (this is according to Melvyn Goldstein [in "The Snow Lion and the Dragon"], no friend of the ChiComs with a Tibetan wife of his own though castigated among rangzen advocates for his disinterested scholarship); so now the ChiComs are just like, phukit (and they don't mean Thailand!), can't please 'em anyway, so whatever....

      If you're damned if you do and damned if you don't, you might as or don't do as you please.

    10. Would love to reply to this thoughtful comment at length, but, given the late hour, I think I'll have to confine myself to some cliche/proverb about "climbing on the back of the tiger" or what have you…I don't think that the Chinese government is particularly influenced by the pronouncements of Western governments when it comes to these things. I do think there are probably better ways to deal with "minority" populations, but given the current political climate, where there is a general shutting down of public discourse, I doubt if that's going to happen. I think the one point where I disagree with you is, it's not clear that time is on their side. The CCP doesn't have a tremendous amount of legitimacy any more (see corruption and favoritism, referenced…somewhere), and if the deal was "we'll let you have your private lives, and we'll lift the population out of poverty, and you'll keep doing better materially," it's not really clear that the system has the flexibility to deal with a serious economic downturn, which may or may not be coming (I guess it depends on how far they can kick that can down the road, for one). The CCP has tried to substitute nationalism for Maoism, but that's one of those double-edged sword kind of deals too.

      The thing about tipping points is, they aren't always obvious while you're building up to one. Then change suddenly happens, and it all seems very clear, in hindsight. I don't know what, exactly, is building in China. But you have a lot of credible Chinese folks predicting that the CCP as it is currently constituted is good for another 20 years or so at best. If that's true, I for one don't want to try and predict what might replace it.

    11. Twenty years, huh? That's generous: the usual prognostication is that, historically, no dictatorship that has sponsored an Olympics games on its territory lasts beyond another ten years....

      Yes, "hindsight is 20/20" -- and things can go either way. But the Chinese state is in a much better position WRT its restive minorities than the Israelis vis-à-vis their Arab citizens, mainly because they don't have the birthrate problem and, almost as importantly, they don't even pretend to be a democracy.

      They'll be able to kick this can down the road for quite some time to come. Why, just lookit the United States!

  7. BTW, just as an FYI to everyone: watch for the documentary "Diamond in the Dunes" next year on PBS, about a Uyghur university baseball team captain struggling to hold his ethnically diverse players together for their big game against Tibetan students....

    Too bad there isn't a better sports culture in China; the Commies ought to look into promoting their much-desired ethnic harmony through varsity sports!

    1. Oooh, that sounds awesome! I love baseball!

    2. Yeah? I find watching even more boring than soccer!! But playing sports is always fun...even if I'm not always the best, as in baseball! :-)

      Don't know why this documentary would take until next year to broadcast; apparently it's already been filmed...does post-production take over a year -- even for an indie project???