The latest popular riots in Xinjiang highlight not only the ongoing contradictions within current Chinese-style neoliberal capitalism but also the historically long-standing opposition among various minorities against an ethnically dominant state power in China.
The July 15, 2009 edition of the Japanese Ashahi Newspaper has an article pointing candidly to the underlying reason behind the recent popular riot by ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang (Ürümqi riots) and the Chinese state’s brutal suppression of it, with now nearly 200 people dead, mostly Han Chinese, and about 1500 people injured. Among the growing underclass of largely Muslim Uyghurs, 70% of men between the age of 20s and 40s are out of work, consistently discriminated as the dominant Han Chinese businesses are economically “enclosing” their region and refusing to employ them, and an increasing number of women are, to the understandable ire of the Muslim faithful, forced into working as bar hostesses and sex workers.
The immediate cause of the Ürümqi riots occurred at the Hong-Kong-based Xuri Toy Factory in Shaoguan City, Guangdong, between June 25 and 26. A recently fired, disgruntled Han Chinese worker Zhu, no doubt also taking offense to his racial pride for Xuri’s recent hire of 800 Ugyurs in May while downsizing him, spread a false allegation that a group of Uyghur had sexually assaulted a nineteen-year-old Han female trainee. The nature of this ethnic tension is roughly analogous to the one found in U.S. labor history, as we substitute Zhu for a white worker and the accused Ugyhur “rapists” for black workers. In fact, the so-called “incident” was nothing more than an inexperienced young woman walking mistakenly into a dormitory of Uyghur workers and running out screaming as the Ugyhur men jokingly “stamped their feet” as if to chase after her. Several hours later as the rumor circulated, entirely unbeknownst to the young woman, Han workers attacked their fellow Uyghur workers, resulting in the death of at least two Uyghur men and the injury of over hundred people.
British social historians George Rudé and E.P. Thompson have warned us from foisting ideologically predigested prejudices upon the term “riot,” to view it mistakenly as mindless mob action without intellectual rhyme or political reason. Rudé saw the rational intelligence of the rioting canaille and plèbe at work in the instrumental role they had played in accelerating the democratic process of the French Revolution while Thompson deciphered in the eighteenth-century English food riots the subsistent logic of traditional moral economy of the commons against the market fundamentalism of emerging capitalist political economy. Twenty-first-century Uyghur rioters in China make us also aware of what is sometimes lost sight of in today’s discussions on China: behind the flurry of recent Chinese economic development that gives the definitive lie to the long-held Western orientalist prejudice – later picked up by the Japanese Meiji, Taisho, and Showa imperialists from the 1895 Sino-Japanese War to the Manchurian Incident and Nanking Massacre of the 1930s – about China’s historical “stagnation” and “Oriental despotism” of the Chinese Communist Party, there are newly proletarianized social subjects who are voicing their dissent to this state-sanctioned neoliberal rampage by taking their traditionally reasoned class wrath to the streets.
Given the racist, Han-dominant strain in current Chinese economic development, this “wrath” is often expressed in ethnic terms, leading even to the killing of racially privileged fellow workers, as it now did in the Ürümqi riots. Hence the Uyghurs’ ongoing class struggle also reminds us of the “national question” that every Chinese state, from the imperial dynasties though the era of Communist modernization, did its utmost in repressing. We in the West are familiar with something of such ethnic and religious conflicts in contemporary China in reference to the Tibetan struggle for independence or, in Dalai Lama’s more recent official policy, for cultural autonomy as part of greater China. Indeed Tibet lies on the border of Xinjiang and its indigenous population are facing the same problem of socioeconomic marginalization in the wake of Han Chinese “new enclosures.” From the perspective of the Chinese state, such “minority” ethnic and religious groups such as Uyghurs and Tibetans represent so much pre-modern relics that need to be swept away as the United States “swept away” the multiethnic tribes of indigenous population (or, as in the liberal “soft-core” racism typified in the nineteenth-century American ethnologist Henry Lewis Morgan, assimilated into becoming dutiful, private-property-owning citizens of a state capitalist, Han-dominated “People’s Republic”). Indeed even the geographic name of “Xinjiang” is a Qing invaders’ imposition in Mandarin meaning “New Frontier” (which should have a familiar ring within American expansionist vocabulary) – the Uyghurs’ preferred name for their region is “East Turkestan” as they are a Turkic people whose short-lived East Turkestan Republic was destroyed in 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party, with its leaders killed in a plane crash and the region invaded under the command of the CCP leader Wang Zhen, who forty years later would play a major role in repressing the Tiananmen Square Uprising.
The modern democratic sensibility may find something culturally “alien” in traditional Turkic ethnos of the Uyghur people or the theocratic system of Tibetan society, just as some Christian missionaries found indigenous beliefs of their target population to be deplorable heathen superstitions and as some Western observers of the Balkans in the 1990s (e.g., Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens) showed reflexive contempt or blindness to the lives of the Balkan peasants who assumed at times ethnocentric tribal and nationalist affiliations, in diametric contrast to their immediate sympathy for the Westernized cosmopolitan population of Sarajevo. As Chinese state violence continues to squelch furiously the Uyghurs’ nationalist and proletarian discontent, alongside that of its other multilingual, multiracial peoples breaking out intermittently as riots and insurgencies throughout the vast “continent” of China, we may be witnessing a prologue to the future Chinese equivalent of the Balkan crisis, which shall be bloodier, more chaotic, and equally tragic as what befell the former subjects of the fragmented Yugoslavia.
One primary reason China has so far managed to escape the fate of fragmentation into tribalist, sectarian violence that continues to brutally mutilate, for example, post-independence Africa was, despite the unequal treaties engendered by the Opium Wars, its ultimate success in beating off from its walls the late-nineteenth-century Western imperialist “scramble for Africa,” which drew arbitrary nationalist lines, exploited tribal rivalries to divide and conquer, imposed new class relations, and selectively modernized a minority of its population (of course, the longer historical context is the European slave trade) throughout this “mother continent” of homo sapiens sapiens. We can see this vividly for the Uyghurs when we contrast the generally unified East Turkestan with the effect of analogous “Great Game” imperialist competitions between Russian and British empires from early nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth on the Central Asian Turkic peoples. Americans, of course, have an ongoing case study of this in their government’s neo-imperialist war and occupation of Iraq, which had the unintended but predictable consequence of unleashing sectarian violence that can neither be contained nor channeled into the process of corporate accumulation, a notable factor in the latest deepening global economic crisis.
The world-system economic historian Giovanni Arrighi has argued in his latest book Adam Smith in Beijing that, in our period of decline an fall of American hegemonic power, China shows robust signs of taking its place, not only setting out to restore its historic position as a world superpower that it had maintained until the seventeenth century but also potentially developing a new market-based non-capitalist economy in the process. Minqi Li, a former market liberal activist participant in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising who became a revolutionary socialist in jail, similarly advances the thesis in The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy that the end time of Western capitalist dispensation is close at hand and that the Chinese working class will soon renew its vow to the genuine communist project. In light of such unceasing social discontent as we find in the Ürümqi riots, which are merely an instance in the series of popular riots that have recently rived the myth of the unified Chinese state and will continue to fissure it, I’m afraid I must take a more jaundiced view of the prospect for such a “new Chinese Revolution.” For, as we can observe in the Shaoguan Incident that sparked the riots and the presumption of Han dominance found in such bestselling Chinese books as the 1996 China Can Say No (modeled after the 1989 Japanese conservative nationalist response to U.S. Japan-bashing, Japan That Can Say No by Sony co-founder Morita Akio and Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro), no viable sign of working-class, multi-ethnically egalitarian solidarity that can effectively overcome the “wages of Han-ness” is to be seen on the political horizon.
In Customs in Common, where Edward Thompson’s study of English plebs’ food riots is found and whose Chinese translation came out in 2002, twenty-two years after his visit to China, Thompson had staked his future political hopes in the Chinese and African villages. He also admitted that such hopes were on the order of “whistling into a typhoon.” Today this “typhoon” involves the U.S.-centered Western global capitalism now in systemic crisis as well as the new monsoon emanating from rapidly expanding Chinese capitalism, whose Homo Economicus boasts as much single-minded zeal for profit and mercilessness to the traditional moral economies of the Homo Communis – such as they survive and are reinvented imperfectly by Ugyhurs, Tibetans, Han Chinese peasants and proletarians – as his Western antecedent. A year after the publication of Customs in Common, as the Zapatistas were preparing their indigenous uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, Subcomandante Marcos spoke prophetically of a storm that would be wrought from two winds, one from above (neoliberalism) and one from below (anti-capitalist-globalization struggle, including their own): “From the clash of these two winds the storm will be born, its time has arrived. Now the wind from above rules, but the wind from below is coming...” The Ürümqi riots are a fratricidal part of this “wind from below,” but whether the coming storm will finally make the “enemy” of the dead and dying Han and Uyghur workers in China cease to be victorious remains as unforeseeable as it was for Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.