My Han Relatives’ View From Xinjiang
Yan Sun, a native of Sichuan, has lived in the United States since 1985 and been a professor of political science at the City University of New York since 1992.
After arriving at the home of my parents in Chongqing on July 7, I asked my mother how many relatives we still had in Xinjiang and how they were doing lately. Ten families of close relatives, she said, and several more distant ones. Some were born and raised in Xinjiang, but the majority migrated there in the 1960s and 1970s from the Sichuan countryside. The sole reason was to get out of the poor farmland and have a chance at becoming urban residents. They were introduced to Xinjiang by an aunt who was assigned there in the 1950s but had managed to bring her family back to Sichuan in the 1980s.
I scrambled to reach some of them by phone and talk to them candidly about the issues that are often cited in the Western media as responsible for growing ethnic divide and tensions between the Uighur and Han Chinese. Some of my cited reasons took them by surprise; others made them laugh. With their decades of life and work in an austere region, I have little reason to dispute them. As a social scientist, it is fascinating for me to learn about their perspective on the deeper roots of the recent riots. After all, they were supposed to be the very source and targets of local grievance.
Without any need to repeat government accounts to me, my relatives mostly see “outside forces” as the main reason for the latest as well as other riots in Xinjiang in recent years. Citing long-term good friendship with local Muslims, they are hard-pressed to think of divisions serious enough to cause deadly riots. Rather, they claim to have seen outside influences at work from their own experience, e.g., money for underground mosques where mullahs engage in inciting rhetoric, for “terrorist groups” that make explosives and bombs, or for restless Muslim youths who stage trouble on the streets. They also see a pattern of Uighur separatist forces imitating the tactics of Tibetan exiles, namely, phrasing issues in terms that appeal to Western sensibilities, such as religious freedom, cultural and linguistic preservation, ethnic equality or territorial autonomy.
But aren’t there problems in these areas? My relatives were unanimous in their view that state policies are already tilted in favor of local ethnics. Freedom of religion? My relatives see the state restrictions are justifiable: no mosques for those under 18 because they are not mature enough to have good judgment, and no mosque attendance for those holding government jobs. The state does send an (Uighur) official as a liaison with the mosques on a weekly basis, but again this is seen as justifiable since the state funds helped with their construction and to pay the mullahs’ salaries. Why not let them fund on their own? The answer is that outside religious forces would otherwise fund them. Having read about how foreign-financed madrassahs spring up and spread in western Pakistan, I am hard-pressed to pass judgment here.
How about the imposition of Chinese language instruction in schools? This was news to my relatives. They grew up attending separate schools from their Uighur peers, where different languages were used in instruction. Some Uighurs chose to attend Han Chinese schools for career benefits. Only since 2005 has bilingual education been introduced in public schools in Xinjiang. Most technical colleges use Chinese in instruction, because of available resources, while colleges for ethnic nationalities instruct in minority languages. Rather than seeing bilingual education as forced assimilation, my relatives see it as a good skill to have in the job market, because many modern-sector jobs will involve interaction with Han Chinese in and out of Xinjiang. For their part, my Xinjiang cousins speak enough Uighur to communicate with Uighurs on a daily basis, and tell me that they live more like Uighurs than Han Chinese, enjoying mutton more than pork.
What about widened income gaps between Han Chinese and Uighur Muslims in the market economy? My relatives cite different attitudes toward education, achievement and life. This is where some “racist” assessments may be found, if they may be so-called: nomadic traditions do not value sending kids to schools, but rather roaming around or bathing in the sun; nor do they prioritize professional and material pursuits like the Han Chinese, or hard work or long-term planning for this world, but rather satisfaction in the spiritual world, etc. These are the contrasts I have learned in Western social sciences — conflicts between pre-modern and modern values, religious and secular cultures, or an achievement and non-achievement ethic. So it is hard for me to pass judgment here as well except to urge Han Chinese to loosen up and enjoy life a little as our ethnic brothers do.
What about the squeezing of Uighurs in their own native land by growing Han presence? Is that occupation or colonialism? These lines usually shocked my relatives. One aunt, a college professor who spent three decades in Khotan of southern Xinjiang, gave me a history lesson about how Xinjiang came under Chinese control in the Han Dynasty in the 200s B.C. and remained so on and off till the Manchu Dynasty finally consolidated Chinese rule in the 1770s. Xinjiang was loose whenever China was weak internally and its rulers were preoccupied elsewhere.
But successive rulers always reasserted control and sovereignty. Another aunt who had lived in a Tibetan region called the Chinese nation a melting pot of different ethnic groups over millenniums. Citing our own ancestors who had migrated to Sichuan generations back, my mother recalls her grandmother as one with white skin and yellow hair, possible of Turkic origin herself from western China.
Are there government policies on minority regions responsible for increasing ethnic tensions? Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly for someone familiar with America’s ethnic politics), some of my relatives fault the government’s preferential policies for helping to enhance ethnic identity and entitlement for minorities. Uighurs with disciplinary problems or criminal offenses are treated leniently, they say. In matters of employment, appointment and promotion in the public sector, Uighurs may be preferred over (perceived) more qualified Han candidates. “Reverse discrimination” in college admissions and population policies are other areas of Han complaints. While Han Chinese can have only one child, Uighurs receive honorary and monetary rewards for stopping at three, along with yearly bonuses. Whether legitimate or not, such complaints make it difficult for Han Chinese to appreciate Uighur grievances.Do they think the World Uighur Congress and its exiled leader, Rebiya Radeer, were behind the recent riots? My older relatives from Xinjiang recalled Soviet instigations of Uighur separatism in the 30s and during the cold war, so they said they would not be surprised by any outside support for the W.U.C. or Radeer. Younger relatives point to the U.S. — not the U.S. per se but to the exploitation of U.S. apprehension over anything Beijing does and of U.S. sympathies for any group that Beijing opposes. The real point of staging riots inside China, they assert, is that they enable the exiled groups to survive and thrive. So they expect such riots for years to come.