Racializing Uighurs: The Story of Internal Colonialism in China

By Yvonne Yen Liu Jul 09, 2009

China extends 3,400 miles from the west to the east and falls into five different time zones. Yet, the country operates on a single standard of time, eight hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, all year round based on the time zone for Beijing, the country’s capital. A single Chinese time zone is as much a fiction as a single Chinese ethnicity; recently, this truism was illustrated in the blood of Uighur protesters. Noon for Beijing was still seven in the morning for the western province of Xinjiang, the site of recent racially motivated uprisings that started this past weekend, on July 5, 2009. Though China is often rendered ethnically homogeneous in the West’s narratives, the truth isn’t so simple. 92% of the population are members of the Han race, the dominant group with a monopoly over political and economic resources. But over 120 million citizens identify as members of some other ethnic group, known in China as “minority nationalities,” each with their own cultural practices, histories, and experiences. Some, like the Uighurs and Tibetans to the northwest, practice religious beliefs distinct from the Han. Others, like the Miao in the south and Koreans in the northeast, speak a distinct language. Still others, like the Hui, are indistinguishable from the Han in appearance and dialect, but practice a variation of Islam and trace their ancestry to the Muslim traders who settled in China along the Silk Road. When Mao trooped through the countryside with his Red Army during the Long March in 1935, he promised the minorities they encountered along the way that a new communist republic would recognize the right of self-determination of ethnic groups. That was soon forgotten when the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949. One of the first tasks that the nascent People’s Republic of China undertook upon winning the civil war was to classify those living within their borders and create subjects out of them. The CCP sent out teams of social scientists, anthropologists, and statisticians to the far-flung regions of the country to gather data on peoples’ languages, cultural practices, and religious beliefs. Party bureaucrats sorted through the mass of information brought back. They determined that 56 ethnic groups deserved the official recognition as minority nationalities. This included the Uighurs, nomadic steppe peoples who are Turkic descendants of Chinese Turkestan. Still, over 700,000 peoples are members of ethnic groups not officially recognized by the state. This includes Chinese Jews and Macanese, people of mixed Chinese-Portuguese ancestry in the island of Macau near Hong Kong. The Uighurs suffered decades of internal colonization at the hands of the dominant ethnic group, the Han, starting from the 1950s onwards. Han migrated to Uighur regions at a rate that increased from 5% in 1940 to 38% in 1990. Today, Uighurs makeup less than half of the population in Xinjiang, where they were once the majority. In popular and academic discourse, the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities are portrayed as culturally inferior to the Han. Minorities are seen as exotic and primitive peoples that needed the civilizing rule of the Han to guide them into the modern age. Dru Gladney, professor of Asian Studies and Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, wrote, “One cannot be exposed to China without being confronted by its ‘colorful’ minorities. They sing, they dance, they twirl, they whirl. Most of all, they smile, showing their happiness to be part of the motherland” (Journal of Asian Studies, Feb. 1994). The process of grouping a heterogenous population into a singular identity was paralleled in the U.S. Race scholars Michael Omi and Howard Winant described countries like U.S. and China as “racial dictatorships” in their seminal book “Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s” (NY: Routledge, 1986/1989). Racial dictatorships consolidated identities into an umbrella category to negate any differences and oppositional identities. As Omi and Winant say, “Just as the conquest created ‘native’ where once there had been Pequot, Iroquois, or Tutelo, so too it created ‘black’ where once there had been Asante or Ovimbundu, Yoruba or Bakongo”. Ideology has material ramifications. Han settlers outnumber the Uighurs. The Han get first dibs on choice jobs, capital investment to startup their own businesses, and monies to purchase properties. Uighurs find themselves economically marginalized, edged out of jobs and priced out of living in neighborhoods increasingly gentrified by the Han. It’s a story we see in the West, with different players but the same ending. Is there any wonder that there is popular resentment by the Uighurs and other minorities at their treatment by the Han? Much of the English-language coverage in North America and Western Europe by mainstream news outlets have expressed surprise by the mass violence the Uighurs express towards the Han. This is a long-standing struggle for national liberation that Uighurs and the better known Tibetans engage in. To support their fight for recognition and freedom is also to endorse opening pathways for multiple constituencies to seize power from the state and rewrite the ethnic fictions it creates. Photo of Uighur women protesting in Urumqi, Xinjiang on July 7, 2009 by World Bulletin.