Last month, caught between western values and economic interests in China, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stated that her country must “maintain and respect” China’s “particular customs, traditions and values”. But what values and customs is Prime Minister Ardern referring to? Since late 2020 the world has been shocked by the systemic ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province. What people fail to understand is that the treatment of this population is just the latest manifestation of fundamental attitudes towards race that are endemic to both past governments and the current CCP.
Indeed, if we wish to properly understand the reasons for the treatment of the Uyghur population, we need to consider China’s actions within their proper historical and sociocultural context. Given that China has one of the longest historical records of any civilization, a complete contextual assessment is clearly difficult within a brief article but it is hoped that a few examples of historically relevant events may allow us to better understand why we cannot treat the Uyghurs as a single event but, rather as part of very long-standing issue of Han supremacy and nationalism.
Currently, the CCP recognizes 56 ethnic groups within China. The largest of these groups is the majority Han who, as of the 1990 census, comprised 94% of the overall population. While representing a relatively much smaller percentage of the Chinese population, non-Han ethnic minorities are broadly spread throughout the country and with a combined population exceeding all but the 10 most populous countries in the world. Recognition of these minorities, however, by successive governments has been limited.
Modern China, as we know it, is a descendant nation of the Han-Dynasty. This dynasty was founded by the conquest of various different racial polities during the first Warring States period. The famous 1st century BC Han diplomat Zhang Qian described several peoples he met on an expedition to central Asia as “barbarians” who “covet the rich products of China”.
As successive dynasties expanded the country to include other geographies and ethnicities, the standards to which these ethnicities were seen as “civilized” reflected their ability to adopt to mainstream customs and norms. According to historian Q. Edward Wang: “The position of a non-Han people in the hierarchy was determined by the extent to which they resembled mainstream Han culture”
Historically, this cultural pressure was most pronounced on the nation’s two predominant Muslim minorities the Uyghur and Hui people (though there were many other Islamic minorities). According to academic David Atwill, the pre-conceived Han stereotypes of the Hui and Uighurs defined these groups as “clannish, sluggish and vengeful” and labelled the Islamic religious identity as “incompatible with Chinese Order”. This led to historic systemic genocides of the Hui committed by the Han people and aided by successive dynastic governments. These genocides would culminate in the 1856 Panthay Rebellion in which the Hui minority rose up against the Qing government in response to a Han attempt to ethnically purge the Hui majority city of Baoshan.
Anti-minority beliefs became a cornerstone in the Chinese cultural importation of nationalism from the west in the late 19th century. Nationalism was seen by Sino-nationalists as a critical competent needed to unite the disparate Han peoples against western imperialism. The first Chinese president Sun Yat Sen stated: “For historic reasons China must be saved. The development of Chinese nationalism will give our people a permanent place in the civilized world [...] four thousand years of cultural background may be compared favourably with that of the West. Unfortunately, we lack national unity, and our country, which is weak as well as poor, is being reduced to an inferior position among the nations. “
For nationalism to exist, however, a differentiated “other” must be identified as a contrast to the national identity. In the case of China and as evidenced in history, this “other” was represented by minority ethnicities and, by early 20th late 19th century, Chinese academics and political leaders viewed this distinction as a necessary evil for the Han Chinese people to unite behind and build their nation. 19th century Sino academic Xin Liang stated that: “Now is the time that the nationalistic idea has become highly developed. If we lack this idea, we can never found our nation [...] In order to rouse the nationalistic idea, naturally we cannot keep from attacking the Manchus (a minority people). “
The goal of building one homogenous national identity was clearly continued by the Maoist regime and came at an extraordinary cost to minority peoples of all religions and cultures. During the 1970s Cultural Revolution, for example, communist authorities arrested political leaders from Inner Mongolia for encouraging the teaching of the Mongolian language or, in the words of Mao, “national splittism”. According to Human Rights Watch, over 16,222 Mongolians were put to death under false charges of terrorism during the Cultural Revolution.
This concept of nationalism has stayed remarkably true to its Han centric and roots in contemporary China and has deeply affected national politics both foreign and domestic. While the most notable example of this has been the treatment of Uyghur since the 2009 Urumqi city riots, the treatment of smaller racial groups is often overlooked. Most notably, African immigrants who during the Coronavirus pandemic had their homes searched and were arbitrarily evicted for fear of spreading the virus.
In academia, furthermore, challenging of the mainstream historical narrative has been met with extreme backlash. When a Han historian presented a book challenging the Han-centric orthodox narrative of history, for example, he was slapped by a protestor and labelled a “traitor “. According to a study conducted by the University of Alberta, in Beijing a better educated person from a marginalised community will often be paid less for the same work as an uneducated Han person. Interestingly, since 1949, China, has only integrated one large group of refugees and that group consisted of 300,000 ethnic Han-Vietnamese people. As of 2016, only accepted 583 non-Han registered refugees.
In order to fundamentally understand the Chinese treatment of Uyghur, it is critical to consider it in the context of thousands of years of Chinese history rather than a single event. Correspondingly, one must recognise that the persecution of the Uyghur is not religious in nature as many would argue. In fact, there are other religious minorities in China including Christians and, while they face persecution, it is nowhere near the same level as other Chinese ethnicities throughout history.
In Conclusion, this goes without saying, but Chinese people themselves are not fundamentally racist nor is their culture inherently problematic. We in Western countries have just as much (if not more) historic and current racism within our own countries. All that said, these considerations must not preclude holding China to account for its racial history and policies. We must do this, however, by recognising and considering the long-embedded cultural ideology that underpins the Xinjiang genocides and not just react to the immediately visible symptoms. It is also hoped that by looking at the historically relevant events listed above that the reader understands that, in order to fundamentally understand the Chinese treatment of Uyghur, it is critical to consider the context of thousands of years of Chinese history and the formation of modern Sino-Nationalism.
Written by Evan Robert Miller
Evan Robert Miller is a columnist at DecipherGrey.