I didn’t visit Xinjiang Province on my trip in 2007, but I did visit Qinghai and Tibet, and the parallels are obvious. There are many ethnic minorities in China – 55 is the figure often quoted – and their cultures are as various. Xinjiang’s capital, Ürümqi, was a staging post on the Northern Silk Road. To the Southwest is the cold Taklamakan Desert, where red-haired mummies were found some years ago. The indigenous people here are Uighur, of Turkic origin. Indeed, during WWII, the area was named as East Turkestan.
The Southern Silk Road went through Xining in Qinghai Province, where the minority Hui people are descendants of Arab and Persian traders who intermarried with locals. The Hui, like the Uighur, are Moslems. Qinghai is on the Tibetan Plateau, cold in summer and bitterly cold in winter. When we visited in November 2007 the vast and beautiful saltwater lake – Qinghai Hu – was beginning to freeze, and we had snow when we visited the Kumbum Monastery in Ta’er Si.
Tibet itself (Xizang) is, of course, home to the Tibetan people, and is a pilgrimage centre for many other peoples.
The point is that in all three areas, called ‘Autonomous Republics’ in doublespeak, have ethnic Han Chinese majorities now. Xining and Lhasa are for the most part modern Chinese cities, and Ürümqi probably is too, although I haven’t seen it. For ideological and economic reasons, the Chinese government has pursued a policy of encouraging settlement in these regions, and it seems to have been popular. The ‘One Child’ policy does not apply to ethnic minorities, nor to marriages between such minorities and ethnic Han Chinese. Equally, better educational facilities, financial access and the encouragement of entrepreneurial spirit in ‘greater China’ have given its people greater business opportunities in the less developed provinces. This fuels resentment among the indigenes, and that won’t be helped until education and training in these regions is levelled up. It was obvious to me that a large proportion – probably the majority – of the businesses we saw in Lhasa were Chinese-owned.
So the resentments on both sides are huge, and can’t easily be solved, The eggs can’t be unscrambled. Separatism on the basis of ethnicity is morally repugnant and impossible in practice. What would help would be greater sensitivity from the Chinese government in understanding the reasons for the build-up of anger, and it then taking steps to improve the long-term prospects for all peoples in these regions. The brutal suppression of protest will not work. China is an astonishing and wonderful nation, and it contains within its borders many different cultures. Until it learns to value diversity, pluralism and dissent it will continue to have difficulties with its minorities.