“The incidents in China are, simply put, a genocide. There’s no point in interpreting this otherwise,” said Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan recently. He was talking about the deaths of at least 184 people in the recent street violence in Xinjiang, the huge province that occupies the north-western corner of China.
A majority of Xinjiang’s people are Uighurs who are Muslims and speak a language closely related to Turkish, so Erdogan’s comments were bound to appeal to his audience in Turkey. The Chinese government, predictably, condemned his charges as irresponsible and groundless.
The Chinese government was right, but also terribly wrong.
It wasn’t a genocide. The deaths of 184 people, for whatever reason, do not constitute a genocide.
Erdogan was claiming that there had been a genocide against the Uighurs, but three-quarters of the people killed in the riots were Han Chinese. “Genocide” is a word that should only be used very precisely, and Erdogan owes Beijing an apology.
Even if the Chinese authorities exaggerated the number of Han dead and understated the Uighur death-toll, as Uighur nationalists abroad claim, there is no doubt that this violence started as an Uighur attack on Chinese immigrants. However, Beijing owes the Uighurs more than just an apology, for it is Chinese policy that drove them to such desperate measures.
The Chinese authorities genuinely believe that the development they have brought to Xinjiang has been for the Uighurs’ own good, even if it has also brought huge numbers of Han Chinese immigrants to the province. But they are certainly not distressed to see this sensitive frontier province that was 90 per cent Uighur and Muslim 60 years ago become a place where a majority of the residents are instinctively loyal Han Chinese.
More importantly, they lack the cultural imagination to see that this process will be profoundly alienating for the Uighurs.
It may sound preposterous, but most of the men who rule China simply could not come up with an answer to the question: “Why don’t they want to be Chinese?”
So if there are anti-Chinese riots in Xinjiang, it must be “outside agitators stirring up our Uighurs.”
That is how Beijing explained the riots to itself and to the nation.
As Xinjiang’s Communist governor, Nur Bekri, said in a televised address, exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer “had phone conversations with people in China on July 5 in order to incite (the violence).”
Beijing explained the even bloodier anti-Chinese riots in Tibet in March of last year in exactly the same way, except that that time the outside agitator was the Dalai Lama.
What’s more, most Chinese believe it.
They have been schooled to believe that Xinjiang and Tibet have been an integral part of their country since time immemorial.
They also believe the Uighurs and Tibetans who live in those places are (or should be) profoundly grateful for the development and prosperity that have come to their provinces as a result of their membership in the Chinese nation.
The gulf of incomprehension is so vast that it is reminiscent of the gap between the Russian and non-Russian inhabitants of the former Russian empire before the collapse of the old Soviet Union in 1991.
Almost all Russians believed that the non-Russians were (or should be) grateful for all that had been done for them, and even resented the fact that they got more investment per capita than the Russians themselves. As for the non-Russians, they took their independence as soon as they could.
The truth is that the Chinese empire first took effective control of Tibet and Xinjiang in the same period when the Russian empire was conquering the other Central Asian countries. Whatever vague claims to benevolence Beijing can dredge up from the more distant past, they do not convince the Uighurs and the Tibetans themselves, who would cut loose from China instantly if they got the chance.
It’s called decolonization, and China is the last hold-out.
The repression needed to hold down Xinjiang and Tibet may lead to increased repression in China in general, and it will almost certainly lead to more violence in the colonies.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.