21 September 2019
Xinjiang and Tibet are two of China's autonomous regions where interethnic enmity has given rise to unrest and terrorist attacks. Photos: Picshype, FreeTibet
Xinjiang and Tibet are two of China's autonomous regions where interethnic enmity has given rise to unrest and terrorist attacks. Photos: Picshype, FreeTibet

Why Beijing should let go of Xinjiang, Tibet and the like

After the Victory Day military parade on Sept. 3, Beijing has held another extravaganza in Lhasa, capital of Tibet, this time to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the autonomous region.

The fanfare still failed to conceal Tibetans’ deep-seated grievances and mistrust, as a heavy military presence was present alongside the official celebrations.

Beijing’s generosity in investment and infrastructure initiatives is no guarantee of political stability, either.

Still the seriousness of Tibet’s situation pales in comparison to that of Xinjiang.

One proof is the deadly blasts that hit Bangkok, thousands of kilometers away, last month.

There has been talk linking Uyghur dissidents from Xinjiang to the terrorist attack that occurred near the Erawan Shrine’s Phra Phrom statue in downtown Bangkok Aug. 16.

Earlier, Thai authorities, at Beijing’s request, had deported roughly 100 illegal Uyghur immigrants who had fled from China, sparking widespread outrage in the Uyghur world.

The Thai Consulate General in Istanbul was besieged by Uyghurs living in Turkey, and several Chinese tourists were hurt at the height of the protests.

More evidence about the attack surfaced following two subsequent arrests: one from the Middle East with a counterfeit Turkish passport and a Chinese passport holder who is believed to be an Uyghur.

Thai police said Wednesday that the mastermind still at large is also a Chinese passport holder surnamed Huang from Xinjiang.

These outlaws must have got help from others in Thailand to carry out a bomb attack that caused such destruction.

Western counterterrorism experts believe that the Grey Wolves, an Islamic, pan-Turkic terror group based in Turkey, may have played a leading role.

The Grey Wolves expanded into several of central Asia’s “-stans” that became independent after the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s.

With their common doctrine of pan-Turkic nationalism, the Grey Wolves and pro-independence Uyghur activists converged on Xinjiang.

The vast, unsettled autonomous region, originally called East Turkestan, wasn’t part of official Chinese territory until the Qing dynasty during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (乾隆) in the 18th century.

Xinjiang gained brief independence, first in 1933 with the support of Britain and India.

In 1944, the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong also endorsed an Islamic Republic of East Turkestan.

The officially endorsed historical perspective argues that Xinjiang has been “an inalienable part of China” since the Western Han dynasty two millennia ago, when a regional administrative agency was established there, although for fairly long periods afterward, until Qianlong, Chinese imperial authorities failed to exercise effective jurisdiction over the region.

Even after that, Xinjiang was considered a “vassal state” of China under the Qing dynasty.

The region maintains its distinct streak of Islamic culture and its inhabitants feel closer to the people of Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and the Arab world than their Chinese compatriots.

What pro-Xinjiang independence activists – whether doves, radicals or even terrorists — are demanding is a separate sovereign state of their own, that Beijing stop ransacking the region’s natural resources, suppressing religious freedom, sinicizing their language and testing nuclear arms there.

They want to end Beijing’s “colonization” and expel all the Han people that have settled there since 1949.

The World Uyghur Congress, founded in Munich in 2004, is a more moderate organization of exiled Uyghur groups than the radical East Turkestan Independence Movement.

The plain truth is that there’s no room for reconciliation or compromise between Beijing and these Uyghurs, giving rise to a vicious circle: more aggravated hardline moves from Beijing and more horrifying terrorist attacks in and outside China.

The masses are those who pay for the feud.

Is there a way out?

Most of the main powers in today’s world are nations of multiple races.

Some multiethnic societies, like the United States and Canada, are formed through the assimilation of immigrants from other parts of the world.

The dynamic equilibrium created in the process is the bedrock of cohesion and stability.

Ancient China represented another type of society, in which there was a dominant ethnic group, the Han Chinese.

Historically, its territory expanded and contracted with the vicissitudes of the Han over the centuries.

The Roman, British and Russian empires all shared a similar pattern.

But once the territory and the scope of suzerainty are laid down permanently, interethnic enmity is is bound to grow.

One model for China might be today’s Russia, a federation of regions that enjoy varying degrees of autonomy.

Other than the Chechens, most minority groups in Russia now live in peace.

One solution, although highly theoretical, is to reduce China’s territory to the soil originally inhabited by the Han people, to form a homogeneous China.

The indigenous ethnic groups in neighboring areas, including Xinjiang and Tibet, should be allowed to decide on their own to conclude flexible bilateral treaties with the Han authorities to formalize “special state-to-state relations” within a broader and nominal Chinese federation.

When it comes to a nation’s territory, it’s not always a case of the bigger, the better.

A substantial part of today’s China was indeed annexed through aggressive wars during the Yuan and Qing dynasties, the hegemonism of which has been grossly whitewashed.

China needs to become more homogeneous, otherwise it will be plagued with more violence.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sep. 10.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal