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Monday, November 03, 2003

China's Far West

As part of the 'fair and balanced' policy, after an article singing the praises of China's potential, here's a fascinating one one the downside problems. China's ethnic diversity. I have only produced a trucated excerpt here, the whole peice is well worth reading. And if I say that the US is demographically 'condemned to grow' just imagine China's problems, and the potential consequences fro the rest of us.

This is Beijing's nightmare: a people within China's border who speak their own language, keep their own time, and face Mecca when they pray. The Uighurs of Xinjiang province embody Mao's "super-chaos" - and Beijing doesn't like it. Roving Eye Pepe Escobar reports on the start of a trip along the ancient Silk Road.

KASHGAR and URUMQI, Xinjiang - At the Mother of All Bazaars, the atmosphere still evokes Marco Polo's Travels. A monumental traffic jam of donkey carts coils around the muddy borders of the Tuman River - trespassed by horses, Bactrian camels, acres of melancholic sheep and elders brandishing sickles and testing horseshoes, saddles and whips. Sandy alleys bear the conspicuous accumulation of carpets from Hotan, mountains of spices, laminated dowry boxes, bits and pieces of dead animals, very much alive chickens and ducks, the famous Yengisar knives, hats in all shapes and colors, pots and pans, fruits, vegetables, riding boots, prehistoric transistor radios, Pakistani silk stockings, any imaginable agricultural tool hand-made from wood or steel, and the usual paraphernalia of items available in any self-respecting Oriental souk. The food is delicious - from bread sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds to lahgman - noodles topped with mutton and vegetables; from jiger (liver) kebab to girde nan - Uighur bagels.

One hundred thousand nomads and villagers converge every week on this anthropological delirium, the Kashgar Sunday market. Solemn barbers with long sharp knives perform in the street. Multitudes gather in front of karaoke-TVs. The cast of characters - with their long, pointed beards, decorated hats, dark cloaks and black boots - are all Uighurs: an ethnic subdivision of the Turks who dominated Mongolia in the 8th and 9th centuries. The language, of course, is Uighur. The music, still on audio cassettes, is gecekondu arabesk, Turkish pop. Most women wear multicolored scarves, but quite a few wear a chador or a thick brown cloth thrown over their heads.

Spiritually, the area points to Mecca. We are more than 4,000 kilometers from Beijing, and two hours behind Beijing time which is supposed to apply to the whole of China. But here, everybody is guided by Xinjiang local time. There's not a single Han Chinese face in this bazaar.................

To top it all, Beijing has radically cut off aid to the so-called "ethnic minorities": there are 12 in Xinjiang alone, and apart from Uighurs (42 percent of the population) they include Hui (Chinese Muslims), Manchu, Mongolian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek and Tatar. Only Han Chinese could come up with a concept like "minority food street". Beijing is only interested in promoting "mysterious" Xinjiang for tourism purposes: but it has to be a Xinjiang reduced to theme-park status. If you are a Uighur and you happen, by a miracle, to work for a Chinese company, you cannot go to the mosque. Signs on many mosques, in Arabic, say they are forbidden to teenagers - which is a frankly absurd ruling that has nothing to do with Islamic law. All public demonstrations by Uighurs are forbidden. And if you are an Uighur in Urumqi and you talk about independence, you are arrested on the spot, assures a trader in Yengisar knives. In March 2000 Beijing formally adopted an ambitious plan for "the large-scale development of the West". The key point of this massive "Go West" campaign is to resettle millions more Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Beijing would not be too displeased if in the long run this official policy exports many of the 7.5 million Uighur and 1.3 million Kazakh "minorities" toward the more unstable pastures of the former Soviet Central Asian republics.

Mao Zedong used to talk about the possibility of a "super-chaos" in China. Arguably the mindset remains the same in Beijing, as the Politburo knows very well that Uighurs and other "ethnic minorities" are less than 6 percent of the total population of 1.3 billion, but they occupy more than half of Chinese territory. Xinjiang is almost as big as Western Europe. Beijing's greatest fear is the - at least for the moment - remote possibility of new alliances between regional chiefs and business elites capable of redrawing China's map, as happened many times in the past. Since the implosion of the Soviet Union and the birth of the new Central Asian republics, Xinjiang has had a constant influx of people from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan: both parts of Turkestan started in a way to unify. That's exactly what Beijing does not want. Beijing wants very well defined - and patrolled - borders (more in Part 2 of this series).

But the fact is that here, amid mighty Central Asian mountain ranges, it's impossible to talk about defined borders. Xinjiang anyway remains the laboratory of the future of this China riding a tiger at full speed and at the same time trying to control all the "super-chaos" it is capable of creating. With more than 25 percent of the world's population and the most coercive of birth-control policies, China still has not managed to contain its population explosion. Ten percent of Chinese territory, inhabited by two-thirds of the overall population, and producing 70 percent of the national wealth, is prone to inundation by major rivers. China's economy needs to grow at least 10 percent every year just to absorb new contingents of job seekers.

According to Minister of Labor and Social Security Zheng Silin, in his latest report to the National People's Congress, a staggering 150 million Chinese rural workers are unemployed of a total of 485 million; and of 94 million farmers who have recently migrated to big cities, the majority are still unemployed.

Growth at a median 8 percent annually - something the West can only dream about - is still not good enough for China. While some sectors of "market socialism" have degenerated into gangsterism, and human rights, from Beijing's point of view, means only economic development, hundreds of millions of people are involved in the largest internal mass migration movement in history. Dozens of millions of unemployed threaten social cohesion. In the event the Dragon starts to disintegrate, the implosion will begin on the periphery, at the last frontier, in the wilderness that shot from the 14th century straight into the 21st: Xinjiang.
Source: Asia Times

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