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Governing a complex China no easy task

BY JOHN POMFRET - WASHINGTON POST | JULY 13, 2009 7:15 AM

Most Americans have never heard of Gen. Zuo Zongtang, but when they hit the local Chinese takeout and order a greasy carton of General Tso’s chicken, they’re invoking his name. By 1878, Zuo, or Tso, marching west from his base in Shaanxi province with 120,000 troops, had extended China’s imperial reach deep into Central Asia. The boundaries set by Zuo’s campaign in a region called Xinjiang, or the New Territories, have remained essentially untouched to this day.

Chinese like to point out that Zuo’s victories in Xinjiang occurred just two years after Gen. George Armstrong Custer died at the Battle of Little Bighorn trying to corral members of the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes back into their reservations. They compare their treatment of China’s minorities such as the Tibetans or the Uighurs — who speak a Turkic language, read Arabic script, and are culturally if not altogether religiously Muslim — and the white man’s handling of Native Americans.

See, I’ve been told countless times by Chinese friends, it’s not just the white man’s burden to bring civilization to the “natives,” it’s the yellow man’s burden, too.

The violence last week in Xinjiang between Uighurs and Han Chinese underscores two nettlesome issues for China. First, despite its world-beating economic growth rate, its maglev trains in Shanghai, and its postmodern Olympic Village in Beijing, China is still an empire in the throes of becoming a country. And second, if this empire really is going to “rule the world” someday, as a recent book predicts, is its treatment of Xinjiang a harbinger of how it plans to deal with us? And are the violent reactions to China’s power something that will erupt not just on China’s streets but around the world?

Continuing the policies of the Qing Dynasty, China’s communist leaders have always treated Xinjiang more like an imperial outpost than a province. In 1949, Chairman Mao dispatched one of his most trusted generals to tame it. Wang Zhen then became its first governor, and its economy remains dominated by a state farm system established by the People’s Liberation Army. Millions of Han Chinese were initially forced and then encouraged to populate Xinjiang in a scheme to dilute its Uighur majority. In 1949, Han were 6 percent of Xinjiang’s population; in 2000, the year of the last census, they made up 40 percent.

A program to develop China’s west launched in the early years of this century has had the air of an imperial edict to settle savage lands — and extract all the available oil, gas, and minerals while you’re at it. Chinese scholars invoked America’s concept of Manifest Destiny and its Wild West when writing about the plan. Others saw a parallel to Israel’s Jewish settlements in the West Bank; even the irrigation technology Han settlers use is designed by Israeli engineers.

Xinjiang isn’t the only place where, for better or worse, China seems more empire than nation-state. There’s Tibet, of course, which has been under military occupation since the 1950s and erupts spasmodically in anti-Chinese violence, most recently last year.

And there is Hong Kong. The city passed from British to Chinese control in 1997, but it remains a colony — except its overlords are no longer in Whitehall, they’re in Beijing. Meanwhile, the deal China is offering Taiwan, the final piece in China’s decades-old imperial dream to unite the motherland, parallels the one in place for the old British colony.

As for Manifest Destiny, the Han commonly view Uighurs in stereotypical terms. Landing at Kashgar’s airport once, I asked a Han cabbie whether his wife was Uighur, knowing full well that mixed marriages are as common there as they were in the segregated American South. The guy practically veered into an oncoming truck and then proceeded to regale me with anecdotes about the wanton sexuality of Uighur girls. “But we’re civilizing them,” he assured me.

As China rises, what will be the face of its civilizing mission to the rest of the world? And how will the world respond? Will we chafe at China’s power like the Uighurs did in Xinjiang? They countered violently, wantonly killing Han Chinese, burning cars and ransacking stores. And if that happens, will the face of Beijing’s reaction mirror those chilling photographs of grim-faced Han men armed with big sticks, prowling the streets of Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi?

Earlier this year, an American chief executive mused that he’d rather be China’s President Hu Jintao, who cancelled his participation in the G-8 summit to deal with the Xinjiang crisis, than President Obama. But Hu has the tougher job. Leading an empire in the 21st century is no joke, especially if that empire is the People’s Republic of China.

John Pomfret is the editor of the Washington Post Outlook section and the author of Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. This commentary appeared in the July 11 Washington Post.


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