Uighur woman confronts Chinese cops
My Turkish language professor at Columbia University once made an interesting observation. He said that variations on the Turkish language (Turkic) can be heard from Turkey to China and that he could understand it from country to country if he proceeded eastward. But the further east he went, the harder it would be for him to understand. Azeris would be quite easy to understand; Kazakhs somewhat more difficult; and Uighurs (or Uyghurs) the most difficult of all.
On the Uighur Language website, there’s a comparison between Turkish and Uighur drawn from the Nasreddin folklore, a series of tales about a wise and humorous elder that I had occasion to read in Turkish class. “Bir gun” in Turkish means one day; in Uighur it is “bir kun”. Hoca is Turkish for teacher; in Uighur it is “hoja”, etc.
Bir gun sevmedigi bir komsusu Nasreddin Hoca’nin kapisini caldi; bir gunlugune esegini kendisine vermesini rica etti.
Bir kun yahxikurmeydighan bir hoxnisi Nasirdin Hojaning ixigini urup, exigini bir kunlik otnige berixini soraptu.
Uighur ballad (sounds very Turkish)
During the rise of the Mongols, the Turks, who were also a nomadic people historically, settled into the region that became known as Turkestan. As such, it was a key element in the Silk Road that facilitated trade between Europe and Asia until the end of the 15th century.
This area languished for centuries until competition between China, Russia, and European powers during the 19th century prompted an invasion by the Manchus into East Turkestan with the encouragement of British banks who were participating in the “Great Game”. “Xinjiang” or “Sinkiang”, which means “New Dominion” or “New Territory”, was annexed by the Manchu empire on November 18, 1884.
Meanwhile, Czarist Russia was seizing control over West Turkestan in its own expansionist bid. In their victory over the old regime, the Bolsheviks had to contend with the problem of oppressed nationalities, in particular the Muslim peoples to the south in what had been known as West Turkestan. In a fascinating debate between Lenin and Bukharin in 1919, there are some issues that are relevant to today’s struggles. Bukharin questions the need for self-determination of such peoples, using arguments similar to that of Rosa Luxemburg. Responding to Bukharin’s assertion that “I want to recognise only the right of the working classes to self-determination,” Lenin refers to the Bashkirs, a Turkic people who had petitioned the Soviet government for the right to form an autonomous Soviet Republic.
What, then, can we do in relation to such peoples as the Kirghiz, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Turkmen, who to this day are under the influence of their mullahs? Here, in Russia, the population, having had a long experience of the priests, helped us to overthrow them. But you know how badly the decree on civil marriage is still being put into effect. Can we approach these peoples and tell them that we shall overthrow their exploiters? We cannot do this, because they are entirely subordinated to their mullahs. In such cases we have to wait until the given nation develops, until the differentiation of the proletariat from the bourgeois elements, which is inevitable, has taken place.
Our programme must not speak of the self-determination of the working people, because that would be wrong. It must speak of what actually exists. Since nations are at different stages on the road from medievalism to bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois democracy to proletarian democracy, this thesis of our programme is absolutely correct. With us there have been very many zigzags on this road. Every nation must obtain the right to self-determination, and that will make the self-determination of the working people easier.
As most of you probably know, this policy was reversed within two or three years as Stalin consolidated power and reintroduced the Great Russian chauvinism that made people such as the Bashkirs miserable. Just before his death, he wrote an article that has been described as his testament. It included the following warning:
It is quite natural that in such circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.
Probably no Turkic people had it worse under Stalinist rule than the Crimean Tatars who were exiled from their homeland as a measure intended supposedly to help the USSR defend itself from the Nazis. Since there was a Tatar Legion in the Nazi army and since some of the Tatar clerics were sympathetic to the Nazis, Stalin decided upon collective punishment. The Soviet government described the forced migration as “humane” but the Wiki on the Tatars claims that 46.3% of the resettled population died of diseases and malnutrition. In other words, they suffered the same fate as Cherokees or Armenians.
In 1967, when I joined the Trotskyist movement, the party press, especially Intercontinental Press that was edited by Joe Hansen (one of Trotsky’s body guards), was taking up the cause of Soviet dissidents, including General Pyotr Grigorenko who was such a forceful defender of Crimean Tatar demands for justice that he had been put in a mental hospital in 1964. You can judge his mental status based on a speech he gave to the Tatars in 1968:
After having lost forty-six percent of their numbers in the forced exile disaster, they began to gather strength and to enter into battle for their own national and human rights. This struggle led to certain successes: the status of exiled deportees was lifted and a political rehabilitation of the people was achieved. True, this rehabilitation was carried out quietly … which in significant degree rendered it valueless. The majority of the Soviet people, who previously had been widely informed that the Crimean Tatars had sold the Crimea, never did learn that this ’sale’ was transparent fabrication. But worst of all, the decree on political rehabilitation… legalized the liquidation of the Crimean Tatar nationality. Now, it appears, there are no Crimean Tatars, there are just Tatars who formerly lived in Crimea.
Some would say—and they did—that the SWP was in a united front with the imperialists since the United States Information Agency had decided to publish a collection of documents written by the dissidents, including Grigorenko. Interestingly enough, they appeared in the journal Problems of Communism that was edited by Abraham Brumberg. Brumberg, who had impeccable anti-Communist credentials, developed some sympathies for the Sandinista revolution and defended Nicaragua against Reagan’s counter-revolutionary intervention throughout the 1980s. For those who think in terms of black-and-white, Brumberg would be too hard to figure out.
For all those leftists who harp on American support for the Iranian reformists as proof of its reactionary character, we can only assume that they would have opposed repatriation of the Crimean Tatars as well. If the USIA took up their cause, that’s all you need to know. In the 30s through the 50s, this kind of knee-jerk support for the Soviet government was the stock in trade of the Communist Parties. It is particularly unfortunate to see people such as James Petras, who were educated in Trotskyist politics in a previous lifetime, making the same kind of rotten arguments today.
As might be expected, the people of East Turkestan were treated just as badly as their brethren under Soviet rule since Mao, for the most part, agreed with Stalin on how to build socialism. Although China had fewer nationalities to forcefully assimilate, it did so with little regard to Lenin’s warnings about avoiding national chauvinism. In China, this was essentially expressed as Han nationalism that was intended to serve as a battering ram against non-Han peoples, first and foremost the Tibetans and the Uighurs.
China decided to swamp the Xinjiang province, the homeland of the Uighurs, with the dominant Han nationality not long after Mao took power. Between 1949 and the mid-80s, more than 5 million Chinese were sent to Xinjiang from eastern China in order to help assimilate the Uighurs, as well as other Turkic peoples including the Kazakhs, Kirghiz and Mongols.
In utter disregard of Lenin’s comment about having patience with people who still follow the lead of their mullahs, China organized a campaign against Islam under the rubric of combating a desire to restore “the old rule by capitalists, feudal lords, slave-owners” in the words of Liu Ke-ping, the Chairman of the Committee of Nationalities of the National People’s Congress. This included a ban on teaching Arabic in Xinjiang schools, a measure that would undercut the study of the Koran but likely to have little effect on the development of communism.
On January 14, 1985 the Washington Post reported:
The assimilation effort reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 when the Arabic alphabet was outlawed in favor of the Latin alphabet, mosques were closed and turned into workshops, Moslem classics were burned, restrictions were imposed on the number of sheep minority peasants could raise, and Han officials delivered speeches in Chinese without providing interpreters.
So much for the Cultural Revolution as returning China to the communist road, unless of course your idea of communism is inspired by Stalin rather than Lenin.
The Post article continues:
In 1981, ethnic tension flared in Kashgar when a young Uighur peasant who was digging a ditch got into a fight with a Han Chinese. Neither was able to speak the other’s language. In a fistfight the Han was beaten by the stronger and bigger Uighur. Angered, the Han went into his store, took out his hunting gun and shot the Uighur.
Not much has changed in Xinjiang apparently. In recent clashes with the Hans, more than 150 people were killed. With a population numbering about 8 million, this would be the equivalent of 6000 killed in the U.S. in a day or two.
As is so often the case today, oppression of Muslim peoples seems to go hand in hand with the need to control petroleum resources. On August 28, 2008 the Financial Times reported:
The increasing importance of the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang autonomous region as a source of the energy and minerals needed to fuel China’s booming eastern cities is raising the stakes for Beijing in its battle against separatists agitating for an independent state.
“The Chinese didn’t want to let Xinjiang be independent before, but after they built all the oilfields, it became absolutely impossible,” said one Muslim resident in Korla, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution by government security agents.
The desert around the city is punctuated every kilometre or two by oil and gas derricks, each of them topped with the red Chinese national flag, an assertion of sovereignty over every inch of the energy-rich ground.
In 2005, Xinjiang’s local government was allotted only Rmb240m ($35m, €24m, £19m) out of the Rmb14.8bn in tax revenue from the petrochemical industries that are based in the region.
In Korla, the oil industry is under the control of a subsidiary of PetroChina, the state-owned energy giant, which answers directly to its head office in Beijing.
“We don’t have the power to tell them to do anything – they only listen to their bosses in Beijing,” said one local government official who asked not to be named.
Many of Korla’s original Uighur residents feel they have missed out altogether on the few benefits that have trickled down to the region from the rapid extraction of its energy resources.
It is no wonder that China put so much pressure on the U.S. government not to release the Uighur men who were kept in Guantanamo after being falsely accused of being Al Qaeda operatives. In the war on terror, which is really after all a war to control oil resources, the U.S. and China clearly see eye to eye.