Chinas ethnic moment is here with a vengeance. This was nervously endorsed by President Hu Jintaos decision to cut short the G-8 summit to return home. The ongoing unrest in Xinjiang will bring with it a familiar sense of déjà vu. Ethnic dissent has all too often taken a violent turn in Chinas restive far-western region. Beijing will also be wary of its date with history in a year littered with politically sensitive anniversaries. The 50th anniversary of the
Tibetan uprising and the 60th anniversary of Xinjiangs incorporation into China have kept the leadership on edge. The bloody commemoration this week in Xinjiang also gave the lie to the official rhetoric of peaceful national liberation of the province. The clashes this week have already resulted in more than 156 people dead and 800 injured. As tensions and casualties have mounted,will Beijing be prepared to seize the moment of ethnic reckoning or will it let it pass?
Beijing will be wise not to let it pass. Chinas western region is home to 55 state-recognised minority nationalities which constitute little over eight per cent of its population. But this is no trifling percentage as this makes up nearly 300 million people inhabiting up to 60 per cent of Chinas territory situated along international borders. This locational identity is reflected in the fact that the Uighurs of Xinjiang are ethnically Turkic Muslim. Their homeland was,till 60 years ago,known as East Turkestan. It also enjoyed an all-too-brief spell as an independent state before China re-established control in 1949. China tried to wipe the slate clean by renaming the territory Xinjiang which means new land. But the rechristening only deepened the sense of otherness in a people who mourned the loss of its name and much else with it.
This was also made worse by dictated priorities from a distant centre with no local say in production choices. The imposition of cotton quotas in Xinjiang,or those of wheat in place of traditional Tibetan mountain barley had disastrous consequences. As economic distress deepened,local resentment found vent in the increasing incidence of sporadic violence. It is not surprising thus that order and stability in the peripheral region has ranked high in the calculus of policymakers. This became even more acute as growing uneven regional development further magnified its remoteness from Chinas booming east. The officially-sanctioned stepladder theory,which held that growth would in time shift from the coastal regions to the hinterland came to be seen as dangerously out of step with political stability. The worst-case scenario was of China fragmenting like Yugoslavia in a perilous mix of ethnic ferment and regional disparities.
The Western Development Strategy unveiled in the 90s sought to make amends; and has national unity as a strong subtext. This concern was more-than-evident in how the definition of the western region was stretched to include the ethnic autonomous regions of Guangxi and Inner Mongolia in the reorientation. The course correction was no less dictated by the fact that it holds nearly 85 per cent of the countrys most valuable mineral reserves,including natural gas,petroleum and coal.
The mainstream discourse on assimilation has also had alienating cultural connotations for minority communities. This is clear from the linguistic,religious,educational policies that are part of the development strategy. A deeply embedded sense of cultural superiority projected the Chinese as forming a superior civilisational core in the midst of barbarian peoples. The official metaphoric lexicon is replete with how internal barbarians need to be slowly cooked,assimilating them to Chinese ways,adopting Chinese characteristics. In Xinjiang,for instance,the medium of instruction was changed to Chinese at the primary-school level and language-training in Uighur was discontinued at the higher educational levels. The decision was justified in progressive terms so that the quality of the Uighur youth will not be poorer than that of their Han peers. Official disdain for local resentment was echoed in the words of a Party official: The whole world is learning English. Why bother? Minority languages were seen as having very small capacities and out of step with the 21st century.
The polarising discourse has seen repeated cycles of protests and violence met with calls for a harsher crackdown to compel submission. This has only hardened stances on both sides and strengthened the case for further tightening of central controls.
For a long time,China will be caught up with the contradictions inherent in its development trajectory. Its future will increasingly be shaped by how these contradictions are resolved or further sharpened. Either way,it is set to get a lot worse before it gets better.
The writer is an associate professor at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi