Frayed
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno () - July 11, 2009 - 12:00am

There are disturbing things happening in the city of Urumqui in China’s sprawling northeast region of Xinjiang.

The past few days, long simmering communal tensions have broken out in the streets. Shops have been torched. Ethnic groups have clashed.

Xinjiang is a vast region, about twice the size of France. It used to be a remote wasteland, inhabited by several ethnic groups. The largest of these groups are the Uighurs, a Turkic people converted to Islam hundreds of years ago.

Recall that a handful of Uighurs were among the Islamic militants detained at Guantanamo. They have since been relocated to a small Pacific island nation.

Over the recent past, China has encouraged Han people from the congested eastern provinces to settle in the sparsely populated northeast region. Roads and railways were built. Infrastructure was improved. The rapid development of the rest of this large country began spilling into the remote northeast.

By encouraging resettlement, Beijing was behaving as any modern state would: centralizing its rule and homogenizing its population. But as elsewhere, movements of ethnic groups in large numbers produce communal tensions that eventually break out in the open.

Soon, the economy in the northeast was dominated by the Han Chinese. The Uighurs were pushed to the margins. They became second-class citizens in their own homeland.

Since last week, communal violence broke out. The shops of Han Chinese were attacked and looted by Uighurs. In turn, the Han Chinese population of Urumqui began organizing gangs to protect their businesses. The gangs began attacking Uighur communities.

When police and military units were sent in to intervene between the warring ethnic groups, they were deployed mainly to halt the violent marches of Han Chinese. The Uighurs have become a persecuted minority in Urumqui.

There is no easy solution to communal tensions. Less educated and culturally awkward, the Uighurs cannot compete with the Han Chinese for economic control of their fate. That will require a comprehensive program of affirmative action over generations. The Beijing government is not particularly distinguished for its affirmative action programs.

Several months ago, we saw a similar outbreak in communal tensions in Tibet. The cultural differentiation between Tibetans and Han Chinese is wide. As in Xinjiang, migration of Han people into the sparsely populated Tibet pushed the natives to the margins, causing resentment to build up and separatist sentiments to flare up once more.

Tibetans are not just ethnically distinct. They have a traditional leader, the Dalai Lama, now in exile. They have been a distinct political entity before being annexed by China.

We sometimes forget that the China we know now is not a homogenous society. It is actually an empire guised as a nation-state that has tried desperately to mask ethnic boundaries. It is as much of an empire, superimposed on a wild quilt of nationalities and cultural groups, as the defunct Soviet Union was. The Soviet Union, we will recall, unraveled very quickly as soon as the central government’s ability to deliver progress dwindled.

The legitimacy of the Chinese nation-state rests, not on common cultural identity, but on the capacity of the central government to deliver progress evenly. That is not what always happens, unfortunately. Eventually, economic differentiations tend to follow the fault-lines of ethnic and cultural differentiations.

We witness that sort of phenomenon everywhere: in Thailand’s south where a Muslim, largely Malay, minority persists; in our own south where the same sort of economic marginalization along tribal lines brought forth a lingering insurgency.

The situation in China’s northeast, as in southern Thailand and Mindanao, is made particularly precarious by the fact that the marginalized communities are Islamic. These minority communities become fertile grounds for fundamentalist Islamic agitation. The economic marginalization expresses itself in war along religious lines.

The Jemaah Islamiyah is the radical Islamist network responsible for sharing technologies of terror in Southeast Asia. A similar network could eventually develop in China’s northeast. This is why Beijing has responded with comprehensive force to the outbreak of communal tensions in Urumqui.

Already some Uighurs have become involved in the international radical networks of Islamic militants. It should be safe to assume that militant cells have begun to form in China’s northeast.

There is a large swath of Islamic countries covering the former Soviet Asiatic republics, Chechnya, Pakistan, Afghanistan and straight down to Iran where militants could proliferate. The riots in Urumqui could be the early warning of much turbulence ahead.

There is no easy formula for dissipating communal tensions. It is unlikely that Beijing would reverse the policy of transmigration that now makes its northeast region a powder keg for communal tensions escalating into some sort of religious war.

Recall East Timor. Indonesia, long before, pursued the policy of transmigrasi to populate that rich but thinly settled territory with Javanese. That policy eventually backfired, leading to civil war along ethnic lines and eventually to the establishment of a separate state.

We know this dynamic only too well.

BEIJING CHINA CHINESE COMMUNAL DALAI LAMA HAN HAN CHINESE NORTHEAST SOVIET UNION URUMQUI XINJIANG
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