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Two Paths for Xinjiang: Assimilation or Ethnic Sensitivity

China as the Central Country

How the Two Big Communist Societies Dealt With Minority Muslim Populations


(5-minute read)


History is Not Nice


Until recently, very few Americans had heard of Xinjiang. They didn't know where it was on a map. Even if they had heard of it, they did not know how to pronounce the name.


The nightly reporting in global media with satellite videos of the rounding up and detention of Xinjiang's Muslim minority people, the Uighurs (pronounced Wee-gurs), has changed all that. This video evoked the video of a genocide that occurred in Europe and it has been condemned globally.


Xinjiang is a province in China's Far West that came under China's control in the eighteenth century, during the Qing Dynasty. The Chinese leadership consider Xinjiang a strategic location, not only for its natural resources, but for its borders on the Muslim world.


What few Westerners realize is that for millennia, Chinese foreign policy was focused on Central Asia--the border with Central Asia served as an inland coast.


The maritime coast was of lesser importance for navigation was not developed and the Chinese were not ocean-going sailors until the time of the Ming voyages. Their trade was coastal trade and it was localized.


This is a matter of understanding the Chinese point of view. It is critical to understanding Chinese foreign policy. Central Asia is not just a vast stretch of land between Europe and Asia. Historians of Central Asia, such as Rene Grousset, call it "the womb of peoples" for out of the steppes came the tribes that invaded Europe and China, Huns and Turks, from Han to Tang. Two empires fell, the Tang, China's Golden Age, and Rome. Both had lasting historical consequences.


Few Western reporters covering the story of Xinjiang know enough about past relations between Chinese and the Uighurs to detail the background: In my detailing the story of the sucessors of Chinggis Khan, I have been writing about the Uighurs for my Silk Road Series for decades. Here is some background.


The history of China with the Uighurs began in the thirteenth century. They were among the first peoples to submit to Chinggis Khan during the time when he unified the tribes of the steppes and created a nation. For their loyalty, the Uighur leader was given a marriage to a granddaughter of Chinggis Khan and their translators and administrators had a respected place in the government of the Mongol Empire. Their alphabet was adapted by Chinggis Khan to write down the Mongolian language, for until that time, there was no written language.


Uighur education was deemed to be more suitable for Mongol princes than a Confucian education and so Uighurs were tutors to the royal princes of the family of Chinggis Khan. Uighurs could read and write, while the Mongols could do neither.


This was before the Uighurs converted to Islam, a religion that came to China on the Silk Road. Here was the Islam of the marketplace, not the Islam of the sword. Into the oasis towns with exotic names, Kashgar, Khotan, Yarkand, came many other influences from the Muslim world, including musical instruments and melodies and blue-and-white motifs for porcelain.


The roads bearing the camel caravans ran North and South of the Tarim Desert, a place of fable,mystery and demons, a place of death. 


The Uighur story is the case of a backpage story moving to the front page. Here I am with my notebook and pen, with the hard lifting of the research behind me.


This is a part of the world where cultures mingled and moved. It is a region of intense interaction, trading and raiding. It is a region of opportunity and adventure, a region where the glacier-fed rivers of the peaks of the Roof of the World feed an abundant agriculture.


Chinese expansion into Central Asia occurred at times when the Chinese center was strong. When the Chinese center was weak, the boundaries of China proper retreated to the Chinese heartland, as it did during the Ming Dynasty.



In the eighteenth century, the process of enclosure of the steppes by Chinese and Russian empires was underway. This meant the integration and "civilization" of the nomad tribes who were essentially herdsmen. If the Great Powers were to retain dominance, they had to secure the native peoples. It was part of the Great Game, vying for influence and profit on the Central Asian mainland. 


It was an old conflict in Central Asia, the sedentary agricultural societies against the mounted horsemen, the nomads. A comparison could be made between the expansion of European and Americans into the American West and the colonizing of Amerindian tribes. This was the battle of the businessmen and the farmers against the cattlemen, to put it in American terms.)


The Chinese Frontier


For most of the last two centuries, Xinjiang was like the Wild West.  This was the site of the oasis towns on the Old Silk Road, the main trading artery with the West, the crossroads of civilizations


It was a crossroads of cultures, a place where diplomats, soldiers, spies, missionaries, farmers, archaeologists, economists, petroleum explorers and government officials traveled, as well as artists, filmmakers and musicians. The Tarim Basin is where the desert of Lop Nor is and Lop Nor is the nuclear facility where the Chinese once tested their nuclear bombs.


It was once Buddhist, as one can tell from the Buddhist caves and monumental sculptures at Dunhuang. Christians of the Eastern Rite, the Nestorians, entered China by the Silk Road,


The province is at the Roof of the World, where the high peaks converge on the frontier with India, Central Asia and Afghanistan. The region is composed mostly of Muslims and tribal Turks called Uyghurs, and that is where the problem lies. It presents for the Chinese a matter of strategy that can only be understood through examining the geography.


In recent years, it has been the site of Muslim extremists making trouble. This is naturally of concern to Beijing. At least this is Beijing's story. One can understand why. A small Han Chinese population was outnumbered by the local Muslims, until China began promoting its Go West policy, with incentives for young Han Chinese to move to the region. This process of population transfer has been deeply resented by the Uighurs, who do not wish to become a minority in their own land.


It is important because China claims that its Uighur policy is meant to crack down on Muslim extremists who were responsible for a turn to extremist violence, as in a number of bombings and attacks causing multiple fatalities. Ethnic sensitivity, according to the experience of the leadership, only led to demands for separatism. As a result, China turned toward an assimilationist policy.


What the Chinese government got right was the hardware, the infrastructure, connecting Xinjiang with China proper through superhighways and high speed rail. What it got wrong was the software, the interaction of two cultures. Mao himself warned of Han chauvinism, the idea that Han culture was superior to Uighur culture. 


Human rights organizations around the world have condemned the Xinjiang internment camps for practices of forced sterilization, re-education, torture and forced labor.


Beijing in reply claims it is offering the Uighurs opportunity for a better life through language education and job training.


China decied that a regional solution might be best. Beijing took the lead in forming the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an intergovernmental organization founded in 2001. The SCO currently has eight Member States (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), four Observer States interested in acceding to full membership (Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia) and six "Dialogue Partners" (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey).


The SCO has mainly focused on regional security issues, its fight against regional terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism. To date, the SCO's priorities also include regional development.


A Chiese Dilemma: How to Deal With The Wild West


An essay in the collection edited by S. Frederick Starr, "Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland"contains the following quote:


"The steppe was enclosed and Inner Asia's tribal peoples were now mostly subjects of either the Russian or Qing empires. . . .


The Chinese elites and intellectual classes. . .had different ideas regarding Xinjiang than had their eighteenth century forebears. They regarded Xinjiang as an inalienable part of Qing—soon to be Chinese national—territory. In keeping with this shift, the Qing court too had come to support the more assimilationist approaches to controlling Xinjiang.


This meant the Qing, the Nationalist Government and the Communist government of China adopted the full Sinicizing approach: Development of a solidly ethnic Han or Chinese officialdom in Xinjiang instead of the local Turkic headsmen, princes, and Mongol and Manchu military officials. Intensified promotion of Chinese immigration to Xinjiang and reclamation of land there. Cultural assimilation of the Uyghur population through Confucian education. Confucian schools and education. In modern times, the education is the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party."


Big powers, small ethnicities, the chessboard of foreign relations: one might way this is a global story.


Turkish Independence in the Twentieth Century


At the beginning of the twentieth century in the Kashgar (and other) areas, Uighur merchants, capitalists all, travelled to Germany, Turkey and Russia and awakened to a truth. They realized that back at home, things were not as modern as they were abroad.


Liberal Tatar (Mongol and other tribesmen from the then Soviet Asian republics) and Turkish intellectuals, deeply influenced these Chinese Turkish Muslims about the need for modern education at home.


When they came back to their home regions in China, these Uighur merchant industrialists, founded European-style schools.  

This modern form of Islamic education was called usul-i jadid. It means "new method" Islamic education, a movement co-founded by a Tatar and by exponents of pan-Turkism emanating from Turkey.


The reformers hired teachers from abroad and sent Uighur students to study in Istanbul and St. Petersburg among other places. Upon returning to Xinjiang, they opened teacher training programs and vocational schools, and created publishing houses. Returned students fanned out to start other schools.


"What made these schools revolutionary was a curriculum that abandoned the traditional goals of . . . madrassa education in favor of a new set of subjects:  foreign languages, geography, history, science, mathematics, accounting, Turkic language and literature, religion and even athletics. . . .Jadidism in Xinjiang rejected traditional canonical learning in favor of personal and national strengthening through modern education."


There was a centralizing trend in Chinese government and it went against local Muslim rule. Several times in the twentieth century, Turks rebelled against the Chinese, sometimes with Soviet influence. For a time, the rebels established a republic, East Turkestan, which the Communists destroyed. In other words, the Uighurs have stood for an identity that is not the identity of a Special Autonomous Zone of the PRC, especially when the SAR is not autonomous. It is a matter of the reading of the Chinese consistution.


After the founding of the Soviet Union, the Soviets were masters of Central Asia where there were five Islamic republics. Russian Turkestan and Chinese Turkestan were not two separate Turkestans, but part of the same sweep of Muslim lands divided between Great Powers. The Soviets had a problem with the so-called nationalities: as a matter of ideology, they too veered between ethnic diversity and assimilation.


China and The Soviet Model


The early communist leaders in both China and Russia were proclaimers of their own virtue, but were hypocrites, practicing colonialism and imperialism themselves while denouncing the Western powers for the same sin.


Communist theory had a double-edged policy toward minorities from the beginning. Sometimes they called for policies that were ethnically sensitive; sometimes their policies were assimilationist. This has certainly been the practice of the PRC Tibet.


Marx believed that once a proletarian class was in place, ethnic differences would disappear, that class was a stronger and deeper form of human bonding than nationality.


The theory went like this: National consciousness was caused by membership in a bourgeois society. Once socialist society appeared, minority peoples presumably equal with majority peoples, would identify by membership in the proletariat.


Also, Marx did not support national wars of liberation unless these wars were tied to class revolt. Thus, if a national war of liberation led to a socialist society, it was a good war of liberation.


On the other hand, Marx opposed Mahatma Ghandi's attempt to put an end to the British Raj in India because he thought that colonialism would lead to more economic progress for India than independence.


Marx was also against Irish independence because he thought an independent Ireland would be too small to have an effective prosperous economy.


Economic determinism was his primary value, not the rights of a minority people to self-expression.


June Teufel Dreyer, in her book China's Forty Millions, a standard work on China's minorities, says, "Like Marx, Lenin believed that minorities' perception of economic self- interest would lead them to decide against independence."


Lenin only supported national liberation movements when he believed they spelled defeat for his enemy, bourgeois capitalism. Lenin believed in the right of self-determination of minority peoples, but like Marx felt that national characteristics would wither away in the socialist state.


The origin of the minority republics stems from Lenin's theory that minority peoples should have equal rights, with local peoples having the right to self government, to setting their own boundaries, to elect school councils, to have the choice of languages, and the right to a share of expenditures for education and culture.


Lenin was against the idea of federalism because he believes that it weakened the state. His position was either inclusion or independence, and nothing in between.


He also believed absolutely that the use of the Russian tongue would be an advantage to backward peoples, but believed that minority peoples should have the right to decide which language they would use.


Though it is often forgotten, Josef Stalin, who followed Lenin as dictator of the USSR, served as Commissar of Nationalities under Lenin. A Georgian national, Stalin believed that minorities suffered both from class oppression and from Great Russian chauvinism, the belief that they were inferior to ethnic Russians.


As to the minority regions which became part of the Soviet Union, they would have economic opportunity and freedom of cultural expression.


"Aware that the minorities might perceive the 'new Soviet man' as the same old Great Russian chauvinist with a new name, he railed against the czarist type of oppression and even advocated returning to certain minorities the lands which had been taken from them by Great Russian colonizers." (Dreyer, 50)


This did not make him a fan of quaint minority customs such as the self-flagellation of certain Tatar tribes nor of the exaggerated devotion of the Turkmen to their horses. Stalin thought the horses a symbol of the backwardness of Turkmen nomads and ordered them all to be sent to the sausage factory.


It was Stalin's intention to give the Turkmen tractors and apartment buildings to replace horse and tent. But the nomads released their beloved Akhal-Teke horses into the deserts from which they had come and later, with the passage of the Soviet Union into history, sought to re-establish the breed. 


Stalin was also mindful that while the Soviet model was being introduced into backward areas, concessions and adaptations would have to be made.


In what is almost a cartoon of the inefficiency and mindlessness of the Soviet system in a minority area, Stalin criticized those bureaucrats in his Commissariat of Food who delivered pigs to Kyrgyzstan where the people are Muslim and shun pork.


From 1922 to 1928, Stalin made an attempt to integrate minority areas into the socialist state. Non-Russians shared power with Russians. The goal of this was friendship. The Constitution of 1924 was ethnically sensitive: it granted autonomy to the minority areas, including the right to secede and to be educated in local languages. The Latin alphabet was used to romanize these languages and replaced Arabic as the script of the Muslim minorities.


These efforts on the part of the Soviet government represented both economic and humanitarian motives--they brought civilization to the less fortunate minorities while they took their natural resources, products such as Azerbaijani oil and Turkestani cotton.


The dislocations caused by industrialization and collectivization caused problems and soon many local leaders thought that they had replaced one dictatorship with another, with little real progress for the minorities. Stalin became disillusioned with his attempt at local autonomy and gradual integration of minorities into the mainstream.


The second period of Soviet minority policy (1929-1953) was hardline and assimilationist if not exterminationist. Minority differences were no longer tolerated but were to disappear.


Now minority peoples were forced to learn Russian and Cyrillic alphabets were restored even to non- Russian languages. This was the period when nationalitiy groups such as the Crimean Tatars, Kalmuks, Chechens and Balkars were deported to Central Asia and Siberia.  


Stalin died in 1953. From 1953 to 1958, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev revised Stalin's policies. He no longer needed a policy of economic decentralization nor did the USSR need the support of the minority republics against the center.


Khrushchev realized that a taste of freedom created the desire for more freedom. He backed off from a policy of national autonomy.


The Chinese See-Saw


In 1949, after the communist victory in the civil war, China embarked on an ethnically sensitive policy in minority areas. This included cultural development, the use of local languages, exemptions from marriage and tax laws.


Minorities attained new social rights, discrimination was banned and China brought medicine and education to backward minority areas. Chinese cadres who violated the rules laid down for the treatment of minorities were punished.


The 1950s saw the beginning of the policy of integrating minority areas into the Chinese economic and political structure, the so-called assimilationist approach which minimized minority differences. Rapid collectivization of minority areas began.


Separatist movements were reported among the Uighurs who wished to set up an independent Uighurstan, Kazakhs wishing to unite with their fellow Kazakhs across the Sino-Soviet border and Hui, Chinese Muslims who wished to set up an Islamic state.


A less radical form of separatism demanded that all Han leave minority areas and to allow the unitary state to be replaced by a federal system.


Han cadres, according to the minority cadres, tended to be arrogant and overbearing. They were unwilling to learn minority languages, loathe to observe local etiquette when it did not suit their convenience and in general exuded an air of what the party had called Great Han chauvinism.


The period of ethnic sensitivity came to an end at the beginning of the Great Leap forward. The rage for learning Chinese began. Multiple languages were a roadblock to the unity of the Motherland.


Special characteristics of minorities were not in favor or in fashion. The process of homogenizing culture would speed economic development, or so it was thought. Minority studies went out of vogue.


Minority peoples viewed the Great Leap Forward as an attempt by the Chinese center to obliterate their identity and their way of life.


Following the abject failure of the Great Leap Forward, an accommodationist policy was again reinstituted in minority areas. Peasants and herders were allowed plots of private land and private animals Attention was paid to mass literature and art.


The Great Leap forward was a disaster for minority areas, but it was nothing compared to the long nightmare of the Cultural Revolution, that decade from 1966 to 1976 which took as its goal, the destruction of the Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits.


Red Guards asked that the special status of minorities end and that minorities be treated exactly the same as Han. This is one demand that might have been implemented, but the Chinese model for millennia had been that of a dominant Han civilization at the center and tribute nations at the periphery, looking to the center for civilization.


Xinjiang and the United States' Approach to Ethnicities


Analyzing the communist approach to ethnic nationalities is important because the dialogue represents both a Western (Russian) and an Eastern (Chinese) approach to the question of their Muslim minorities.


The lens of communist ideology is a theory, but a valuable tool for comparison with American practices in patterns of immigration, of the melting pot model, in which ethnics keep their own culture in the private sphere but join a national identity in the public sphere, the salad model, in which ethnicities retain an identity by keep their own culture, customs and languages.


As with China, the United States has had to face the problem of an extremist element within its borders. The United States has had a past policy of opposition to militant Islam. For the most part, the approach has been successful in preventing extremist violence in the United States. This has not been without opposition and protest for the definition of mainstream Islam and violent extremist Islam is not always recognized by advocacy groups. The Chinese are saying that violence is not the solution to the problem and it will not be tolerated. The Chinese are saying that violence in support of extremist Islam will not be publicized and glorified.


For China, perhaps the Uighur solution suggests a way forward. The way out of the dilemma is for a modernizing education for Muslim minorities.mIn former times, this was the solution that the Uighurs devised for themselves. This is one benign element of the multipronged approach that China has taken.


China clamps down on the reportage of acts of terrorism in order not to inspire copycats. The Uighur policies are meant to enforce the idea that the teaching of violent extremism must not be tolerated as a minority right. This has led in the past to the closing of mosques. This is not the American system, but it is a pragmatic approach. This is an authoritarian response to a threat to national security, but it is logical, however one may disagree with it.


To understand these policies is to be informed about China, which means an understanding of history. As an author, I take the middle path, not to demonize China, but to analyze. I wish to avoid being either a panda hugger or a dragon slayer. My position in no way justifies the extreme practices that qualify as human rights violations.


A question remains for China: Is it possible to teach Uighurs Chinese language without criminalizing the use of their own language? Is forcible criminalizing of beards and veils a help or a hindrance to inter-ethnic relations?


It is important to recognize some of America's successes in these matters, although the American record is far from perfect. How has America managed to permit ethnic identity and expression of hundreds of ethnicities, without destroying the majority culture? These are questions that come to mind from an outside observer's point of view. These are questions that bear answering without it becoming an issue of public condemnation or the assertion of national pride. These are policy questions from the laboratory of history.


Assimilation seems to have worked in America because the American model guarantees integration into the fabric of American life, however imperfect.


China has the longest border in the world, sharing a line of demarcation with some sixteen countries. America has taken the position, as a matter of past policy, that democracy is not a suicide pact with those who would destroy it.


On the other hand, Marx was wrong. Class has not proved to be a more enduring form of identity than ethnicity. The abandonment of cultural identity has not occurred simultaneously with an improvement in material circumstances.


This is not to take away from Chinese accomplishments in Xinjiang Autonomous Republic--the Chinese have invested billions of yuan in Xinjiang and think that the Uighurs are ingrates. Of course, the Chinese think the same thing about the Tibetans and one cannot deny that the Chinese have improved the material culture of Tibet. This has to do with the idea that the Chinese Communist Party is the vanguard of the revolution, the enlightened elite leading the masses to higher consciousness. This was the subject of a great deal of revolutionary art during the Cultural Revolution, with posters of red-cheeked cadres leading the proletariat. But then again, the Chinese are old hands at this game. The Confucian scholar-class might be viewed as an elite governing in benevolence for the masses, with an ideology to bind them in the classics. 


To this observer, it seems that the Chinese are missing something. Does the education they offer make up for the suppression? This culture is the software that the hardware--roads, hospitals, electricity and high speed trains--do not address.


Materialism for the Uighurs is being judged against what might be called the spirit. It may be baggage, as it is to the Chinese way of thinking, but it is Uighur baggage. If former Yugoslavia is any exaple, it proves that enthnicity is far more enduring ithan class identity. Peace be to Marx.



Post-script: A prominent intellectual at a Beijing party think tank has a different theory of the ethnic problem. He locates the problem in Xinjiang as a state-building problem, where China is trying to build a modern multiethnic state and trying to incorporate the Uighurs into that state by giving them a stake in a national identity. This is the Chinese version of e pluribus unum.


The problem for the Uighurs is tjat the national idemtity is perceived as a Han Chinese identity with no provision made for the ethnic identity.


This scholar compares with the original Chinese advance to the West as a nation-building exercise, where the problem was to incorporate an ethnic region into a traditional Chinese state with a Confucian ruling class and power constituted in an emperor, within a center-periphery, dominant culture, tribute culture pattern.


A blog on this theory to follow. 


Copyright  2021 Diane Wolff


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