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Chinese Imperialism and Its Discontents

July 20, 2009

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Chinese Imperialism and Its Discontents

Beijing has a Uighur problem.

The current constitution of the People’s Republic of China, adopted in December 1982, tells us that: “The People’s Republic of China is a unitary multi-national state.”

That is pretty darn close to the dictionary definition of an empire:  “an extended territory usu. comprising a group of nations, states, or peoples under the control or domination of a single sovereign power”€”€”Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 1993.

Which is not very surprising. China has been an empire, in the dictionary sense, for most of her very long history. What is surprising is that, after so much practice, the present-day Chinese are such lousy imperialists. Last year’s ructions in Tibet illustrated the point. Events in East Turkestan (“Xinjiang”) this past few weeks illustrated it all over again.

The trick of successful imperializing is to leave the locals alone as much as possible, stamping out only the most objectionable of local folkways, picking off only the most troublesome local nationalists, letting the subject peoples use their own languages for any purpose that does not involve addressing the central authorities, and above all avoiding insults to their religion. The British ran India with a few thousand expatriates on this principle”€”most of them, as Winston Churchill pointed out, not feeling very well most of the time. The Romans worked along similar lines, once they had gotten the hang of it. So did the Austrians, the early Arabs, and the descendants of Alexander.

The imperial power has to let the subject peoples know who’s boss, of course. A few salutary demonstrations”€”the suppressions of the Sepoy Mutiny and of Boadicea’s revolt“€”early on in the imperializing process generally suffice. If you’re not willing to break a few heads (actually, in those particular cases, a few hundred thousand heads), best stay out of the empire business. Things can get bloody at the other end of the cycle, too, in the chaos of imperial retreat. Ask an Armenian.

That brings us to the Turks, one of the more successful imperial powers while things were going along smoothly, which they were for several centuries. It brings us back to East Turkestan, too, as the majority people in that region, the Uighurs, share their deep ancestry with the Turks of Turkey. The preface to the Oxford English-Turkish Dictionary tells you that once you have mastered the Turkish language, you can make yourself understood from the Bosphorus to the borders of Mongolia. There was in fact, in the fever-flush of 19th-century Ottoman decline, a pan-Turkic movement with the dream of uniting all speakers of Turkic languages in a single great nation named “€œTuran.”€ Few educated Turks nowadays take pan-Turkism seriously, though the nationalist MHP party sometimes makes pan-Turkic noises for rhetorical effect.

With or without a full-blown pan-Turkic ideology, the Turks of Turkey have generally felt a vague brotherhood with their cousins in Central Asia. The Uighurs of East Turkestan actually had a republic of their own for a few years in the 1940s, while the Russians and Chinese were busy with matters elsewhere. When Mao Tse-tung crushed that republic sixty years ago, its leaders fled to Turkey.

They kept the flame of Uighur independence alive there for half a century. At about the time I wrote this piece for The Weekly Standard, however, the leftish government of Bülent Ecevit, seeking better relations with China, was making the Uighur independence movement feel unwelcome, and they relocated to Munich, where they remain.

Even by the normal dismal standards of emigré groups, the Uighurs’ case looks hopeless. Their homeland has been flooded with Chinese settlers. The Chinese authorities say that the region is now 40 percent Chinese, but they are probably understating settler numbers. Unlike Tibet, East Turkestan has a fairly agreeable climate, and it is not so high that Chinese settlers suffer respiratory discomfort. Also unlike Tibet, the region is Muslim, making it easy since 9/11 for the Chinese to label all Uighur independence activists as “terrorist,” and hitch imperial policing activities to the War on Terror. Even the kindred peoples of West Turkestan”€”the old Turkic republics of Soviet Central Asia, now independent”€”are not inclined to help the Uighurs for fear of offending China and the United States. Russia, increasingly wary of Muslim numbers in its southern “near abroad,” has been cheering on the Chinese goon squads these past weeks as they have clubbed the Uighurs back into submission. Perhaps there never was a people so completely friendless as the Uighurs.

There is still much public sympathy in Turkey for the Uighurs, but it is not likely that any conceivable Turkish government would alienate China on the Uighurs’ behalf. It doesn’t help that this is Turkey, a country not much loved beyond its borders. Prime Minister Erdogan’s July 10 statement, “The incidents in China are a genocide,” occasioned much derision in Europe and the U.S.A.  What?”€”a Turk talking about genocide? When the 1915 Armenian massacres are still a taboo subject in Turkey?

The Chinese therefore have a pretty free hand against the Uighurs. They can be depended on to use it. Short of a Final Solution, though”€”which I think, and very much hope, can be ruled out”€”they will not subdue the Uighurs. If they were competent traditional-style imperialists, instead of Leninist control freaks, they would have left the Uighurs to take care of their own local affairs under a suzerainty rule, with tribute paid in the form of oil and mineral concessions. That’s how the Great Game should be played.

Better yet would have been for the Chinese to take a lesson from post-Ottoman Turkey: to give up the imperialism business altogether, retreat to the metropolitan homeland, and leave the old imperial territories to their individual fates.

After coming to power sixty years ago this fall, Mao Tse-tung did a fine imitation of Suleiman the Magnificent. In the long run, though, it might have been better for China, and for the rest of us too, if he had taken Atatürk as his model.

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