Saturday 3 October 2020

Uyghur lives matter


Something dreadful is happening in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Large numbers of Uyghurs, the Muslim Turkic speaking people of the region have been sent to re-education camps. There have been reports of Uyghur women being sterilised. Han Chinese have been sent to the region in large numbers and an attempt is being made to erase the language and culture of the Uyghurs.

The Chinese Government disputes all of these things, but the same Chinese Government denied that there was any famine during the Great Leap Forward, denied that anyone was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and won’t even let its own people read about anything controversial in recent Chinese history such as the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

But why should the Chinese be persecuting the Uyghurs? The reason is essentially historical. China is an Empire and rules over people who are not Chinese.

Just as the Russian Empire began as a small settlement on the banks of the Dnepr, so the Chinese Empire began as a community that grew up between the Yangtse and the Yellow rivers. Just as Russia spread northwards and eastwards, so too China spread northwards, southwards and westwards.

While Britain, France and Spain had empires that crossed seas and oceans, which they eventually lost for this reason, the Chinese and the Russian empires were contiguous. This is why they kept them.

The borders of the Russian and Chinese empires were decided by when they met each other. The Russians reached as far east as present-day Kazakhstan, but the Chinese reached what is now Xinjiang first.

There were disputes between the Soviet Union and China over the borders. The Soviets invaded Xinjiang in 1934 and again set up a Soviet Republic, the East Turkestan Republic in northern Xinjiang between 1944 and 1946.

After the Sino-Soviet split in 1962 many Uyghurs crossed over to the neighbouring Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and the Soviet Union promised them independence and encouraged the Uyghurs to rise up against the Chinese. Soviet Chinese tensions finally escalated in 1969 into war between the Soviet Union and China along the Xinjiang border.

It is an accident of history that the Uyghurs ended up on the wrong side of the border. If one of these wars or disputes had turned out differently then the Uyghurs would have formed another of the republics of the Soviet Union and when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 they would have gained a new nation state similar to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the other states of the region. There is little difference between the Turkic speaking peoples of Central Asia. They usually can understand each other without difficulty, and they are culturally similar. There are Kazakhs in China and Uyghurs in Kazakhstan. It is entirely accidental that some people in this region are citizens of their own state, while others are in re-education camps.

The fall of communism led to the break-up of the Soviet Union. There was no attempt to hold the Soviet Union together by force. But the transition from communism to a market economy in China did not lead to any similar breakup of China. The people of the Chinese empire remained Chinese whether they liked it or not.

It may be that Putin regretted the breakup of the Soviet Union. But Russia’s brief moment of weakness had enabled the Soviet republics to escape the Russian empire. By the time Putin arrived it was too late. He was dealing with sovereign nation states and any attempt to get them back would involve war.

China never had that moment of weakness. Deng Xiaoping who guided the transition from Mao to the market did not allow it to weaken China’s hold over the whole of China’s territory.  

The Chinese attitude to territory can be summed up simply. What was ever ours is always ours and we will always claim it and be willing to do what is necessary to get it and keep it.

It is for this reason that China claims Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. At some point in history these were all part of the historical Chinese empire. This and this alone justifies the Chinese keeping them no matter the wishes of the people living in these places.  It justifies China controlling them in such a way that they will always be Chinese.

The Chinese will not tolerate anyone in China who wishes to separate from the Chinese state and will use all means within their power to prevent it.

They have already moved Han Chinese into Tibet. They have done the same in Xinjiang. Having done this, they can justify anything else they choose to do in terms of protecting their own citizens.

There is little doubt that the Uyghurs have historically hoped for independence. They have little in common with the Han Chinese. They are remote geographically from other parts of China. They are culturally, religiously and linguistically very different from the ethnic Chinese, but they have much in common with their Central Asian neighbours in places like Kazakhstan.

China shows what a sovereign nation state can do to hold itself together.  Many in both Taiwan and Hong Kong would like to be fully separate from the Peoples Republic of China, but they don’t have a choice. Few countries even recognise Taiwan’s independence. The Chinese model of sovereignty is that you are Chinese whether you like it or not.

Are the Uyghurs really a threat to Chinese sovereignty? Do they have any serious chance of breaking away from China? The answer has to be no. But Chinese ruthlessness about its territorial integrity means that it will always do what is necessary to crush even the slightest threat that might one day develop. It views what happened to the Soviet Union as both a warning and a sign of Russian decadence for being unwilling to fight  for what had once been Russian. 

China is not weak. A glance at Chinese history over the past decades shows its determination and willingness to do what is necessary to become ever more powerful. The Chinese are a ruthless, intelligent and cunning opponent in international relations. They win because they are always willing to do what is necessary and they don’t care one little bit what we think or whether we object.

People in places like Scotland who have civil rights and the vote who complain about lacking freedom and self-determination should remember that they were given what the Uyghurs will never get. Scots were given an independence referendum. We voted to stay in the UK. We were given self-determination. Choosing to stay was just as much an act of self-determination as choosing to leave would have been.

Britain’s concept of sovereignty is completely different to China’s. There is hardly another country in the world that would allow a part a referendum on secession. Can you imagine China allowing Hong Kong, Xinjiang or Tibet to have such a referendum? No doubt the Chinese think us weak and decadent. The pity is that Scottish independence supporters gave Britain no credit for allowing them to choose, simply because they lost. It's not so much Saor Alba [Free Scotland] as sour grapes. 

Scottish nationalists who complain that Scotland is not free should be made to point out Xinjiang on the map and learn what lacking freedom really involves.  

The Chinese should realise that Uyghurs are no threat and should be allowed to live in peace. We all have learned a lesson about China this year. It will lie rather than lose face no matter what it costs the rest of the world. China is a selfish, unrelenting and cruel power which since the start of communism has treated its own people worse than Stalin treated his. We only fail to view China as the moral equivalent of the worst aspects of the Soviet Union because of our ignorance and desire for Chinese trade. 

There can be no return to normal relations with China until we can trust them to tell the truth and also until they treat all their peoples with common decency.