Look on a world map, and you’ll notice China is a vast country. Positively massive.
I realize that now, but most of the time I don’t give China’s portly silhouette much thought. I just assume those have been her borders for some time, occasionally contested by an uprising in Tibet or tumult in Xinjiang.
But all’s not well on the western front. News of unrest has become increasingly frequent, as has China’s response to fresh violence, especially in Xinjiang where there’s an ongoing crackdown to buffer against potential riots by the local population.
The natives of Xinjiang are Turkic Muslims whose customs and culture are worlds apart from that of the Han Chinese. Historically, they are a fusion of Turkish, Mongolian and other East Asian migration. They’re completely unique, neither East nor West. I personally find them fascinating, but right now, and depending on whom you speak to, they’re either causing trouble or in trouble themselves.
Most travelers to China, myself included, first encounter China’s Uighurs in cities like Beijing or Shanghai. Their food is popular, and in restaurants Uighur women often sing and dance in a display of culture that’s perceivably exotic. As a visitor, I thought they were merely a part of the local color, but in China they are becoming increasingly linked to Islamic militancy, a trend of suspicion with a twin in the mirror, and if a twin, a hard-earned lesson as well.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11, which undoubtedly will be occasioned with fanfare, and for obvious reasons. The day was a tragedy, but what followed was hardly reparation. Islamic militancy became such a blanket term for everyone who didn’t fit in or belong. In retrospect, it was a psychically damaging error that can’t be undone, at least not right away.
I feel similarly about the Chinese approach to Xinjiang, as they deal with a Muslim population that’s sitting on a resource-rich hinterland inside unilaterally defined borders. That’s because whenever Uighurs are treated with disdain, or perceived as a threat to security, it becomes clearer China’s reeling from historical amnesia. In its restrictive authoritarian approach to government, China’s cosmopolitan past seems further away from reach than during the Mao-jacketed era of a few decades ago. An angry China also raises the specter of a scary China, and a scary China is probably an irremediable scenario that can’t be undone, not even by all the Confucius Institutes in the world.
For those of us who want a happy ending to the breaking story of the 21st century, we can only hope a smarter and more sophisticated China will emerge, one that’s worthy of all the Dior swag in Shanghai. Perhaps something even better. What we want is a true leader that will wisely grant Tibet and Xinjiang their independence, restore faith in her neighbors, and treat its own citizens with the democratic respect they deserve.
Wishful thinking, you say? Maybe, but here’s to hoping it’s not.