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Ethnic Tensions, Mad Libs, and other dysfunctional relationships

I’m back from Hunan and I’ve got some great posts from our trip, but I did want to take a moment and comment on the recent unrest in Urumqi.

The violence on both sides has been shocking and horrifying and only threatens to worsen as vigilantism and revenge add fuel to the fires of racial mistrust, economic grievance, and the lingering problems of post-colonialism.

In response, the Chinese government is calling the only play they know how to run: Propaganda as Mad Lib.

(MINORITY GROUP) and the Han Chinese have long historical ties dating back (ABSURD AHISTORICAL NUMBER) years.  Since the opening and reform era began, economic development has brought prosperity to (RESTIVE REGION) including schools, hospitals, and infrastructure.  Unfortunately, outside “splittists” led by (ADJECTIVE YOU WOULD USE TO DESCRIBE YOUR FIRST WIFE) + (NAME OF EXILED LEADER FROM MINORITY COMMUNITY) will stop at nothing to destabilize China and spread ethnic discord.  We resolutely stand in support of a harmonious stable society, the union of all Chinese nationalities and (ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF CCP PABLUM THAT NOBODY REALLY BELIEVES MASQUERADING AS RHETORIC).

Try this game at your next party, MUCH more fun than Mafia.

There are several problems with this response.  The first of which is that it fails to acknowledge that Uighurs, like many other ethnic groups in China, have legitimate grievances.  Ignoring those grievances and playing a game of “All is Well” when one of your cities is in the midst of a brewing ethnic war isn’t just inane, it’s nearly pathological.

It reminds me of this guy I knew a couple of years ago back home.  His girlfriend would routinely do batshit insane things like torch his car, trash his house when he wasn’t home, make out with other guys in bars and try to get those guys to beat up my friend, and one day even tried to run him down in the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart.  When asked why he stayed with this lunatic, he would grimace and say, “Well, we have a lot of history together and its a complicated relationship.  If people (meaning her ex-boyfriend, his family, and the local police) would just leave us alone we could work it out.”  Note to the CCP: He finally had to get a restraining order when she showed up at his workplace and tried to cave in his skull with a 9-iron.  Not good times, bad times.

The other problem with the CCP response, especially the heavy emphasis on ‘benefits for the benighted’ is that not only can’t they seem to find a new script to run, but that they’re plagiarizing the one they’re using now.

Modernization? Economic benefits? Liberation from the yoke of tradition and backwards superstition? Schools? Hospitals? Civilization?  Yep…sounds awfully like the justifications used by Europeans in the 19th century treaty ports, and the shocked response by the Han when faced with collective resistance to their presence is eerily reminiscent of the hurt and outrage expressed by Europeans in the wake of the Tianjin Massacre of 1870 or the Boxer Rebellion.

(On a side note, the US government has also tried running this play for the past six years with similar mixed success.  Attacks on US troops in Iraq are blamed on ‘outside forces’ seeking to destabilize a ‘democratic Iraq,’ rather than acknowledging the depth of resistance and fear which exists among many Iraqis.  As I said recently during a talk on the Tianjin Massacre, what the 19th century US press lambasted as  “The heathen forces of barbarism and xenophobia” we now politely call “insurgencies.”)

Collective violence is a funny thing.  Grievances, hatreds, jealousies, and resentment can linger in the collective consciousness for a long time without being expressed through bloodshed, but the longer it simmers the more extreme the reaction when the barrier is breached and violence enters the repertoire of resistance.

I personally found the wanton violence on the part of the rioters in Urumqi to be abhorrent.  But it’s also important to remember, as too many people in the United States failed to do in the aftermath to 9-11, that seeking to understand WHY somebody would commit acts of violence is NOT the same thing as condoning those acts.

There’s also a danger that shock and outrage on the part of those in the dominant group, in this case Han Chinese both in Urumqi  and, thanks to the Internet, around the country, will be channeled into acts of collective vengeance, adding to the grievances of the minority group and making it difficult for the society to grapple with the underlying problems of inequality, perceived discrimination, and competing notions of nationhood and identity which sparked the initial outburst.

Racial and ethnic tensions are difficult problems for any state or society.  But ignoring the causes of grievance, papering over the problems of living in a post-colonial age with empty rhetoric and increasingly shrill slogans of “harmonious society” and “family of nationalities” guarantees nothing except that these problems will continue and likely worsen.


*As most people know, in the “autonomous regions” of China, it’s common for the head of the government to be a member of the local ethnic group, but real power is still held by the CCP in the form of the Provincial Party Secretary, almost always a Han Chinese.

6 Comments on Ethnic Tensions, Mad Libs, and other dysfunctional relationships

  1. Just a quick note regarding comments. Over the past year, on this and other blogs, I’ve noticed the level of discourse in comment threads to be steadily declining as more and more discussion takes place on other forms of electronic media, especially those associated with Web 2.0 and social networking.

    So I’ve decided to make some changes. Instead of the usual comments on a particular post, I will be collecting submitted comments, and posting them (semi) regularly in a feature called “The Granite Studio Mailbag.”

    Thanks for reading.

  2. Good luck with the new comments system; I hope it works out.

    Your return is welcome at a time when feelings are running high and a lot of vitriolic nonsense is being churned out in the comments of various blogs.

    I think you and Imagethief are the people so far who have offered the most insightful, balanced commentary on this unfolding tragedy. Great posts, both.

  3. Elise Young // July 8, 2009 at 3:32 pm //


    Just wanted to note that I’ve really been enjoying your blog. It’s really nice to get a dose of life back in China.

    Also, such an accurate parallel between current CCP rhetoric and 19th century imperialists!

  4. I think the scariest thing in regard to the future of ethnic relations is that the Han majority, for the most part, really buys into the government story. This is in contrast to public opinion in reaction to mass incidents in the 内地 (Weng’an, etc) where most people *do not* believe what the government is telling them. This will only further succeed in marginalizing the grievances of ethnic minorities.

  5. That Mad Lib statement is sadly true. It’s funny when you first read that, but becomes quite disappointing and horrifying when you think that is exactly what the government says every time.

  6. Re: lingering problems of post-colonialism…

    I see ‘post-colonialism’ thrown around a lot these days and am often baffled by what the author’s intended meaning could be in using the term.

    Sure, the Europeans have long gone home…but when describing a conflict between Uighurs and Han in Xinjiang, where exactly does the ‘post-‘ aspect of colonialism come into play???

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