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42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Breeding more resentment., October 28, 2008
This review is from: Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (Hardcover)
I read this book in pursuit of an understanding of claims of Tibetan exceptionalism. (See my reviews of books on Tibetan history.) I had thought a history of Singkiang (sorry for the spelling but it is hard to teach old dogs) or Chinese Turkistan, might illuminate puzzles about Tibet and China. I was mostly wrong. Singkiang seems very different from Tibet although there are similarities in how China treated it.

It is very salutary to read about a part of the world whose history is so different from that of the West. First of all, until recently we gave little credit to the civilizations of the Silk Road, yet Iranians, Bactrians, Kazaks, Kirghizians, Mongolians and Uyghurs of various stripes built vigorous societies which flowed back and forth across what is now Xinjiang. The bewildering multiplicities of peoples and societies which coexisted or drove one another out is hard to keep straight. Although I had thought the desiccation of central Asia a thousand years ago ended most civilization, it would be truer to say that it just withdrew to the edges which retained agriculture as the deserts grew. Meanwhile merchants continued to cross the dried expanses. From the time of the Qing (Manchu) reinvasion of the area in the 17th and 18th centuries, I could more easily grasp the history of Singkiang. Its ebbs and flows seemed more Europe-like.

Although the myriad of ethnicities is bewildering, Millward's book is a good history. It allows the reader to see that the historical generalizations about Western, Christian domination of lesser peoples hardly touches the complexities of the world. Iranian merchants were influencing Mongols a couple of thousand years ago and various Turkic peoples were chasing each other across a huge map. When Fahsien crossed the Taklamakan desert in the 5th century on his way to India, Central Asian Zoroastrians conversed with Buddhists of many views, or Animists, or Confucians, or Taoists. After a sojourn in India Fahsien took a boat home by way of what is now Indonesia. It was by no means a frozen Asiatic world.

Then several hundred years later Muslims of various persuasions entered Singkiang. Islam tended to push out its competitors but you could not pick allies or enemies based purely on religion, and only occasionally what we would now call Muslim fundamentalism ruled--and most people did not like it. Then there were the Chinese, both majority Han (but they too came from different parts of China) and the Manchus who ruled them for several hundred years. Somewhere in there some Han became Muslims, the Hui.

Besides Millward's interesting historical detail, what people focus on now is the current conflict between Uyghurs and Chinese. First, as the author shows Uyghur is not some ancient indigenous race but an identity emerging in the last few hundred years. I used to think that Sinicization went hand in hand with Chinese expansion. Elsewhere in China, Han military expansion, was followed by soldier and peasant colonists from the heartland along with a policy of intermarriage, linguistic domination and cultural assimilation. But in Singkiang that did not happen. Although Han generals made it all the way to the mountains above what is now Pakistan or Afghanistan, besides traders and a few agricultural communities, the Han did not remain in numbers until very recently and Singkiang did not absorb Chinese ways. Nonetheless, like claims to Tibet, China saw Singkiang as part of its empire, and when the Russians and British began to move east and northward in the 19th century, Singkiang became more important to China as a strategic buffer.

So until the communist revolution, China influenced Singkiang but its rule did penetrate too deeply. Then the communists consolidated power, peacefully occupied Singkiang and the ebb and flow of warlords and various sub-ethnicities stopped. Muslims were no longer killing Chinese merchants or each other. As in Tibet, for a while things went not too badly. Chinese policy on nationalities and the inability to make instant socialist change, where there was neither consensus nor shared ways of life, kept the impact somewhat in check. But unlike Tibet until the uprising of 1959, where Mao's criticism of Han chauvinism led to policy of a silk glove, China instituted more changes in Singkiang. These ran into resistance as among the pastoralists who fought back, killed their stock or fled to avoid settlement. But then the chaos of 1000 Flowers, the Great Leap Forward reached an apogee when the Cultural Revolution tore across Singkiang. To escape, thousands fled into the Soviet Union where they remained in the so-called Stans when the Soviet Union collapsed. Although the province may not have suffered more than elsewhere in China, the natives regarded the violence which occurred as coming from the Han. During the restoration of order and the gradual improvement of economic life, nationality was accorded less special status and religion not fully restored. Then followed a tremendous influx of Han moved to Singkiang for political reasons or immigrating for economic opportunity. The renewed prosperity did not achieve one of the intended goals: to more fully convince Uyghurs that they are Chinese and their future lay in identification with the China and its economic development. Resistance grew despite the fact that Uyghur merchants grew rich on trade with central China and external trade with Singkiang's new neighbors.

The situation now is another of the world's insoluble ethnic conflicts and presents a situation where the development of Singkiang now exceeds its carrying capacity. While Han now equal the number of Uyghurs, Kazaks, Hui, etc. there is resentment against both Chinese control and immigrants. It is not clear how widespread the resentment is (in the recent violence in Tibet some Hui Muslims were attacked and killed.) or against whom exactly it is directed. Exile groups in the Stans and bombers in Singkiang proclaim the existence massive anti-Chinese sentiment. Although the US has gone along with Chinese labeling these groups as terrorist, it is not clear how the Singkiangese feel about them. So we are again faced with a conflict like those in Chechnya, parts of old Yugoslavia, Kashmir, Tibet, Irian Jaya, and Aceh, Assam, Israel, Palestine, the Baltics, Sudan, the Congo, Kurdistan, etc. etc. What is the resolution where ethnic majorities in larger states dominate minorities who are majorities in their own regions? And what to do when the communities are interwoven. There is resentment all around. Repression brings on violent reaction and peoples do not want to live with the "others." The Chinese now use disproportionate punishment for rioting and what may often be imagined conspiracies. Hundreds in Singkiang may have been executed. Tiananmen square gives good evidence that the Communist Party will not tolerate threats to order and the reaction to Falun Gong shows the leadership is still paranoid about religion. In the last couple of thousand years, who the "others" in Singkiang have constantly changed. Millward has given us a striking picture of these changes. We should take the complexities of this story to heart when we hear competing claims from the Chinese and the Uyghur nationalists.

Charlie Fisher author of Dismantling Discontent: Buddha's Way Through Darwin's World
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Initial post: Jan 24, 2011 12:02:18 PM PST
Julie says:
China didn't accept East Turkestan "peacefully". In 1949 Stalin's authorities killed President of East Turkestan. USSR invited President of ETR(East Turkestan Republic) to Almaty the capital AKSSR (Autonomic Kazakh SSR) and then killed they guy and gave away the whole country to Mao. East Turkestan was independent at this time and didn't agree to become an Autonomy os USSR, like Kazakhs. That was a tragic mistake of Uyghur people. Kazakhs got their independent country finally after decades of suffering and lost best 10 millions in Stalin's concantration camps. But Uyghurs still suffer under Han-Mandarin, who hate them since Ghengis Khan times. As for Hui. Han relocated them to East Turkestan territory in purpose to let them kill Uyghur people in their "holly" religious arguments, how manipulative. BTW, somehow, Han-Mandarin is only an ethnic group, but their language ANNOUNCED "one with many "dialects". In analogy Turkic people, like Uyghur&Kazak&Kyrgyz are belong one ethnic group Turk people, but all those nations have their own independent language of Turkic group. And those nations modestly called "CentralAsian nations Turkic speaking", although it's a big ethnic group Turks, united for ages by their common culture, language, mentality. Anyway, if Han have their "cultural" revolution it calls progress; on the other hand if Turks wanna unite it calls aggressive behavior. If Armenian genocide happen, then WHY Uyghur, Kazakh, South Azri and many other TURKS like Hazari, Krym Tatary, Yakut, Buryat, Altaic people genocide is NOT announced and recognized as well. I can see only one pattern here. Russia (Slavic), Persian, East Indian, Han-Mandarin-Chinese united to tear apart Turks with great success and big lie to whole Universe.
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