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China: Empire of “The People”

July 9, 2009
An SVG map of China with the Xinjiang autonomo...
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This New York Times story about a Han Chinese couple who lost their son during the clashes in Urumqi has at least one effect beyond making me wonder when The Gray Lady plans to come out with a similarly sympathetic story about a family of Uighurs whose child was killed (or just disappeared) by the police. It also reveals one way in which the so-called People’s Republic of China continues to resemble so many other empires.

In the PRC, the poorest among the Han Chinese are the likeliest to heed calls (and accept help) from the government to move into what are otherwise minority-dominated areas including Tibet and Xinjiang. The government talks about development but really wants two things:

  1. to use these lands as a way to relieve pressure that builds in poorer provinces by providing opportunity for Han Chinese who are willing to leave
  2. to do away with potential disunity by either thoroughly marginalizing and displacing the Tibetans and Uighurs or causing them to assimilate, to become Han, as so many ethnic groups have done throughout history

Sound like anything you’ve heard before? The first part is, in some ways, reminiscent of European powers sending second sons disinherited by primogeniture to engage in colonization, but when you look at both points it sounds like something more recent: the way the U.S. took dominion over the western lands that now fall within its borders. Many of the white settlers were first generation immigrants, some of whom had fled abhorrent conditions in their countries of origin. They were also, in leaving the cities of the east, sometimes trying to escape poverty for promises of land. It wasn’t just settlers either: poor immigrants, in particular Irish immigrants who had escaped a colonial regime, built much of the railway system.

Let’s return to the New York Times story:

“We wanted to do business,” Lu Sifeng, 47, the father, said Tuesday, his eyes glistening with tears as he sat smoking on his bed. “There was a calling by the government to develop the west. This place would be nothing without the Han.

Look at the sentences I’ve emphasized: if you just change the name of the ethnic group, they could have been said by the very same people who believed in Manifest Destiny. They could have been said by a white settler who saw what he had built burned down by the people he had displaced to build it.

Sunny Afternoon in LonghuAnd yet I do feel sorry for Mr. Lu and the bereft mother, Zhang Aiying. They came from Henan Province. In the year and a half I lived there, I witnessed the poverty of that area first hand.  Many families there would split up, with one or both parents traveling to more prosperous parts of the country in search of work. Because of this, Henanren (people from Henan) were often looked down upon by other Chinese, as I heard when I traveled to other parts of the PRC and mentioned where I was living. It is difficult to blame them for seeking a better life.

Then again, if they could seek that better life in solidarity with people who are not Han instead of becoming disposable pawns in the government’s efforts to dispose of other groups, maybe the whole country could find that better life. In the end, it comes down to the cliché of divide-and-conquer.

The logic of empire doesn’t change, and it will always be difficult to see the system of which you are part. Especially when you’re hungry. Especially when you lack education and access to information.

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