Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Great Wall

(originally published March 5 at Murder is Everywhere) 

I had planned to write about the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Then the Ukraine crisis and invasion of the Crimea happened. I still wanted to write about the Olympics but struggled with how to put that all in context.

Then something happened that I really don't want to write about, but feel that I must: The Kunming train station killings.

If you have somehow missed this dreadful story, between 8 and 10 armed attackers (accounts vary) dressed in black and wielding long knives descended on the Kunming train station and began to indiscriminately attack people waiting to buy tickets, killing 29 and wounding more than 130. Four attackers, three men and one woman, were shot dead by police and one was captured (a woman).  The attackers were immediately identified as Uighurs, a Turkic people who primarily live in China's northwestern Xinjiang Province.

It is a shocking, horrible thing (This is a good roundup of eye-witness accounts and a range of Chinese viewpoints on the attacks). I've been to Kunming a few times. I've been to that train station. Kunming's nickname among Chinese is (or used to be, the first time I visited in 1980) "The city where it's always spring"— a place known for its good weather, a pleasant city that's becoming a regional powerhouse, in one of China's poorer but most beautiful provinces, diverse in terms of its landscape and its people. Imagining that kind of violence there is hard. Particularly violence committed by Uighurs, whose homeland is very far away.

But there has been a history of conflict between China's Uighurs and the Chinese state. It has mostly been confined to Xinjiang Province. The most significant incident in recent years were the riots and subsequent crackdown that began in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in July 2009. The inciting incident was a demonstration to protest the deaths of two Uighur migrant workers in far away Shaoguan, a demonstration that turned violent (whether the demonstrators or the police provoked the violence is up for debate). The resulting casualties were mostly Han Chinese, attacked by Uighur mobs, but this too is a matter of some debate: Uighur advocacy groups claim that the Uighur arrest and death toll was greatly undercounted, and it is true that the Chinese government's reporting on these matters is, shall we say, far from transparent.

Why the violence?

One of the things I found upsetting in the aftermath of the Kunming train attacks were the knee-jerk comments by Americans and other westerners that this was another manifestation of global Islamic jihad, with plenty of cracks about "the religion of peace" thrown in. Yes, a majority of Uighurs are Muslims. Most are moderate Sunnis. Yes, there are Islamist organizations in Xinjiang, and yes, odds are the attackers were Islamic extremists (though we don't know this for certain). And I want to say very clearly: there is no excuse or rationalization for this horrific act of terrorism. It is criminal, it is inhuman, and the only causes it advances are hatred and fear. But reducing the conflict between Uighurs and the Chinese state to "Islamo-nazis!" is dangerous and just wrong.

Questions of who "owns" Xinjiang, the legitimacy of Uighurs' claims, and so on are complicated, at times murky, and far from my area of expertise. What I can say is that this an ethnic conflict that is multi-faceted, where religion is just one factor, where the larger issues are self-determination, cultural suppression and economic justice.

On a very basic level, Uighurs look very different than the Han, who make up some 92% of China's population. They are visibly "Other."

All of this has been greatly exacerbated by recent Han migration into Xinjiang. For the last couple of decades, the Chinese government has been encouraging this migration, to the extent that the Uighurs are now a minority in areas where they used to be the majority. This has caused a considerable amount of resentment, especially among the majority of Uighurs who are not fluent Han speakers and who are not doing as well overall economically as the recent Han migrants and who do not hold the majority of government positions and political power (that, again, would be the Han).

There is a lot to be said about Chinese government policy toward Uighurs and "ethnic minorities" (the Chinese government's terminology) but rather than me trying to badly paraphrase it, I'll offer some links to articles written by experts.

Check out this piece by Evan Osnos written for the New Yorker: "After the Kunming Massacre: The Dangers of China's Ethnic Divide."  For background, see James Palmer's "The Strangers." For a more personal response, read long-time Xinjiang resident Josh's "5 Questions about Xinjiang and the Kunming Terror Attack." 

And for an example of how the Chinese state's policies persecute exactly the sort of people who might serve to help bridge this divide, see this BBC article about China Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who has been arrested on separatism charges.

I also recommend this short film about Uighur life in China's cities, which is often marked by alienation and prejudice. See this post, "Dispatches From Xinjiang: Battle' And Uyghur Life In Chinese Cities' for background.

ETA: Here is a NYT piece, "Opposing Narratives in Piecing Together Kunming Attackers' Motives" with some new information and good background.

A few words about my own brief experiences in Xinjiang. I visited there in February 2009, just a few months before the riots. I was astounded by the place. The landscape was beautiful (I made it up to Yili, not far from the Kazak border). The mix of cultures, fascinating. The people I met, from many ethnic backgrounds, some of the warmest and most welcoming folks I've ever encountered. There was an epic drinking and dancing night that…well…some other time.

It's a place that I long to return to.

But there were hints of trouble if you looked for them. Here's an experience I had that might explain what some of the conflict is about, from a post I wrote in March after my return to the US. For background, I was visiting a friend who taught at the university in Yining. I called the post "Ethnic Dances":


The students - and the teachers - here don't encounter a lot of Western foreigners, so my coming was seen as an opportunity to meet a real, live American and get some English practice with a native speaker. I'd done this kind of thing thirty years ago, but this was one of the only places I'd been to in China recently where I was really a rarity, a novelty.

I loved the students. They were enthusiastic, sweet, a little shy but not so shy that it stopped them from asking questions, excited to have a foreign guest and to share their culture with me.

I went to their "English Corner." They'd arranged a presentation with me, all about Xinjiang, about the local foods and customs, and the particular cultures of Xinjiang's "ethnic minorities."

This was a mixed group of students. Most were Han, but there were Kazaks and Uighurs as well. Now, everyone seemed happy and excited to participate. But...the MCs, the kids doing the explanations and introductions, were Han. "And now this Kazak girl will show us the Kazak dancing!" The Kazak girl did, with a big smile. A Uighur couple did a traditional dance, acting out the roles, having fun with it. All the performers were really good - I learned later that they were either enrolled in the arts school at the University or were at members of the dance club or the music club. Then, a young Kazak man played a song on the dombra, the Central Asian lute. He was dressed head to toe in black, his hair spiked like an early 80s punk, his collar turned up. He played with fierce concentration. No pro-forma smiles here. When he finished, he made a little, abrupt bow, stone-faced, and left shortly after. Elvis has left the building, I thought.

It was just a little strange, hearing these Han kids talk excitedly about the quaint local customs, introducing the "ethnic minorities" to perform in front of me.

There was one particular Uighur girl there, outgoing, a live wire, wearing a sweater with some slogan spelled out in sequins, I forget what it was. Regardless, she sparkled. After an explanation from the MCs about several aspects of Uighur culture, she stood up and explained things from the perspective of an actual Uighur. "This is why we make the chuanr on iron and not wood." "This is why we eat this dish with our hands." She laughed a lot, seemed to be close to many of the other, Han students. But she was not shy or apologetic about explaining her own culture in front of them.

When it came time for questions, she stood right up. Her first question I couldn't exactly understand. It had something to do with how young Europeans were portrayed in films and television that she'd seen. The gist of her question was, were they really as sexually active as they appeared? Did they kiss and do such things on busses, in public?

Perhaps, I said, it's true that Europeans are more sexually active at a younger age than most Chinese, but I am not an expert. Perhaps they are more demonstrative in public as well. But different European countries have different cultural norms in this area. And of course, films and television tend to exaggerate.

Her second question: "Is it always true that the more powerful people in a country will always cover up the less powerful? Will the less powerful always lose their culture? How do you solve this problem?"

I paraphrase, but this was the gist.

The other kids in the class reacted, but I wouldn't say they overreacted. No one passed out in astonishment; I didn't get the sense that anyone was running out to inform the local Party representative (though who knows, really?). Still, I was impressed by her fearlessness. There's no more loaded an issue in China than anything smacking of "splittism."

As a member of the majority culture in my own country, what could I say? Well, that, to start. I'm in the Han position, you know?

And: "It's a very difficult problem. And it's really up to you and your children, how much you can preserve your culture, what's really important to you." I couldn't say, "too bad the Chinese government doesn't support an official bilingual policy, so if you have to learn Mandarin to advance in education and government and business, maybe the Han should have to learn Uighur or Kazak too." I don't know, maybe I could have said that, but I didn't think of it then. The whole issue of whether Xinjiang was "Chinese" or whether it should be something else, East Turkistan, maybe, well, I wasn't going to get into that.

What I did think of to say was this: "You know, it goes both ways. In America, African Americans are a minority, but African Americans' contributions to culture are so significant that African American culture really is a huge part of American culture - all Americans' culture." I talked about Chinese people in California - "that cultural influence is a part of our larger culture as well. Maybe here in Xinjiang, it's a little similar. Maybe Han people are also influenced by Uighur culture and by Kazak culture - maybe you are creating a new culture, that is a blend of all the people here."


It was the best I could do at the time: Sadly optimistic, uninformed and naive, especially now, when that cultural gulf seems wider than ever.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...