Saturday, July 18, 2009

What You Probably Don't Know About Xinjiang

I think this will be my last post on the Xinjiang affair, as it is rapidly falling from the public conscience, and I find it frustrating finding worthwhile information on the background of the incident. I do not feel I can really do any justice to a proper analysis of the whole thing. But I do know a few things about the whole situation that most do not, and which aren't covered nearly enough by mainstream reporters but in my opinion shed a lot of light on the situation. The Economist had yet another typical report the other day:
IT BEGAN as a protest about a brawl at the other end of the country; it became China’s bloodiest incident of civil unrest since the massacre that ended the Tiananmen Square protests 20 years ago. The ethnic Uighurs in the far western city of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, accused Han Chinese factory workers in the southern province of Guangdong of racial violence against Uighur co-workers. By the time Urumqi’s Uighurs had finished venting their anger, more than 150 people were dead and hundreds more injured.
There is some background, lots of statistics, but it is the typical type of analysis: what political leaders are saying, this and that political interest, how many people died, the stated reasons for the riots, blah, blah. Garbage. As the longtime reader will know well, I do not subscribe to these kinds of facts as all that important in understanding events. They say very little of what drives masses of people to behave so violently, knowing full well the probable repercussions at the hands of the Chinese government. What are the values of the people involved? How do they see the world? Using basic facts to try and put yourself in the shoes of those involved in the story will not tell you much because you are probably not very much like those involved in the first place. There was, however, another article which actually did actually address popularly felt grievances, albeit in a rather nonspecific manner:
The fighting was nasty enough in itself, but its underlying causes should worry Beijing even more. Many Uighurs believe their land, traditions and religion are being swamped by decades of Han immigration, which has seen the proportion of Uighurs in Xinjiang shrink from about 75% in 1949 to 45% now. They are less likely to advance in the civil service, and many feel that Han Chinese do better in business too. They are fed up with their lot as despised, second-class citizens. Like Tibetans, Uighurs feel colonised, as Xinjiang’s natural resources—it is rich in oil and gas—benefit the rich coastal regions. Meanwhile, for some Han Chinese, the Uighurs seem ungrateful and backward, pampered by the state with preferential policies, such as being allowed to have more children.
(emphasis mine)
The second fact is probably something you didn't know about China. China has a vast "affirmative action" system, which favors certain groups over others, breeding resentment between legally favored and disfavored groups:
There is another paradox to China’s treatment of minorities. There are some 50 within China, not just Uighurs and Tibetans. On paper, they have been granted considerable rights and privileges; semi-autonomous provinces, economic subsidies, religion guarantees, schooling in native languages, etc.; all sorts of affirmative action that go beyond anything done in the old Soviet Union or in today’s United States.
These policies are not just limited to ethnic groups. From what my wife tells me, whole provinces face quotas with regard to admission to public universities in China. Local officials meddle with who is allowed to take up residency in their cities. (One is not allowed to move freely in China, at least with respect to residency. Visiting is okay, moving requires permission.) The whole idea of "affirmative action" ought to particularly strike the reader in light of my previous post on the subject. Affirmative action is actually quite prevalent all over the world, and Americans know full well how this issue can turn into a hot potato and a source of resentment amongst differentially treated groups. But we are only imagining affirmative action in light of our own circumstances and point of view. Americans are a relatively laid-back lot with respect to jealousy towards "opportunity." Imagine affirmative action in light of the hypercompetitive Han-Chinese view of the world. I have seen it expressed that the whole idea of the Han seeing the Uighur as ungrateful for the opportunities provided as a result of Han labors and at the expense of Han opportunity is something of a joke. I would beg to differ. Strongly. The Han have been forced to put on offer to the Uigher that which they clearly covet most. If preferential policies merely rankle Americans, they must assuredly incense Chinese. I would also beg to differ that the cause of Uighur impoverishment and "lack of opportunity" is Chinese racism. I have little doubt that there is an element of Chinese racism. I have found that Chinese are generally far more candid with their opinions concerning the propensities of other groups than most Americans, as are many other nationalities I have encountered. This isn't necessarily a negative characterization. Will they act on them in an untoward manner? Maybe. In a large group, I'm sure you can find some fraction that would. However, this doesn't change the fact that the Uighur live in the same universe as the rest of us. If they truly desire to succeed, whether individually or collectively, I am confident that they are perfectly capable of doing so on their own, irrespective of racism. In fact, many Uighur have done so, leaving their homeland and integrating themselves into mainstream Han culture, which to my experience is perfectly happy to make a good deal with anyone who has a good deal on offer. My wife tells me that quite a few make a decent living selling their own distinctive type of barbecue, which is seen as something of an exotic dish, and reportedly finds good demand throughout the country. Most people like an exotic taste treat, after all. But if you have nothing to offer, well... obviously, that is going to be another story. And whose fault will it be? The more one looks at this situation, the more it begins to look like any of a number of relationships in which a cultural underclass finds itself being overrun by a more vibrant and economically successful majority, which then begins treating the underclass with paternalistic, coddling policies that wind up doing little to foster real success and much to breed resentment and hostility. The relationship between several of America's minority groups and, lets be honest, a consortia of whites, Asians, Jews, and other statically higher economically performing demographics which end up getting lumped together under the label "the establishment" comes to mind. The two effectively wind up living in the same nation under two different sets of laws. Or even multiple sets, one for each different group. Most people, regardless of culture, instinctively understand this to be an abomination and rebel against such treatment. Most people recognize that this is wrong. It is a violation of very ancient, universally understood principles and the most fundamental aspects of justice. The law is to be "no respecter of persons." In case you don't recognize that wording, it is the Old Testament expression of "equality before the law." Which is to say, its a pretty old idea. And in one of those juicy ironies of the universe, the pragmatic effort to keep the peace and ensure "harmony" in the short term with such abrogations of justice winds up breeding hostilities that result in even greater violence and instability in the long term. Pragmatism once again turns out to be decidedly un-pragmatic. So, to close the subject out, in my opinion both sides are clearly and nearly equally at fault here. The Han have a lot to be angry about. So do the Uighur. The Uighur can justifiably claim that they are being colonized and disrespected by the Han. There is simply no excuse for many of China's policies, not even pragmatism. There is no excuse for differential treatment by the law, which appears to have angered both sides all around and pretty much always has throughout recorded history. At the same time, one can hardly blame the Han for choosing to employ fellow Han over their Uighur counterparts. Nothing succeeds like success, and if the Han persist in racism against a group of outperformers, they will face negative economic consequences as a result. And they will have deserved it. If the Uighurs have a culture which fosters economic success, they probably will be successful and can hardly be angry if they are being economically displaced by another culture with a general attitude of initiative, thrift, and industry. From what I've heard, those Uighur who take the initiative to find success and contentment generally find that they can achieve it, as would be expected. Likewise, if the Uighurs have a culture that fosters brooding ethnic resentment and hatred, well, they will reap a fitting reward as well. The Han should not lord over the Uighur the fact that they have provided such opportunity to their countrymen only to be rejected so ungratefully. The Uighur, quite simply, did not ask for it, and, quite clearly, do not wish to live under the system the Han have brought with them, regardless of its effect on material prosperity. At the same time, the economic "leg-up" on offer should not be lightly discounted, either. In this part of the world, material well being is not the difference between country club and rotary club. It can very well be the difference between a merely meager existence and grinding poverty. It is not that the "gift" on offer is no good, it is that it is being "offered" in a highly inappropriate manner, which is just as bad. The policy of colonization should be ended if it possibly can be, as should such abrogations of justice as differentail legal treatment and affirmative action. There appear to be quite a number of different groups in the area, of which I was until recently quite unaware, as well as an enormous influx of Han into the province as a direct result of government subsidy, yet another destructive and insidious policy to be sure. Again, readers will recognize another of my pet peeves, and its negative consequence. So it is unclear if such an arrangement is even possible at this point, which was probably the entire point of the subsidy to begin with. Finally, we should always remember that we are talking about individuals here, not just groups. It is equally a mistake to lump everyone equally into some category as it is to pretend that there are no generalized observable differences between groups which have chosen different outlooks on life. Every actor ought to be making his choices and choosing his attitudes and beliefs carefully, cognizant of the differences in outcome that are likely to befall him as a result, and of the ethical ramifications. It appears that there hasn't been quite enough of that going on in the recent past. I think we could all do with some more of it.

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