China’s minority problem is a global problem

May 31, 2020 by

By Tom Watkins

What happens in China does not stay in China. Everything and everybody is connected in today’s world. Neither China nor America is an island. What happens in one country impacts the other – and often, all humanity.

This makes China’s minority problem a world problem.

A moral voice is a terrible thing to lose. And yet, America’s national debt is producing collateral damage. As the U.S. debt rises, our forceful global voice goes soft and our moral outrage diminishes.  This can be seen in how, not only America, but other nations respond to alleged human rights violations against China’s minority populations.

Let’s be clear: America’s record in its treatment of minorities is less than stellar. From stealing the land from Native Americans/American Indians, to enslaving people from Africa, to abusing Chinese laborers, the list of atrocities is long.  Yet, it is just this history that tells me that, unless China addresses the needs of its minorities in a humane fashion, there will be a boiling pot ready to explode.

China’s rise is historic. The country represents an ancient civilization that continues to evolve and change. More than 400 million Chinese have moved from abject poverty to the equivalent of a Chinese middle class in just three decades. This should be celebrated. China is on the rise and is re-emerging  as the “Middle Kingdom” of old. London-based Goldman Sachs macro-economist Anna Stupnytska says: “The rise of the Chinese consumer will be the most important trend in the coming decade.”

Yet, there are other trends that bear watching, and how they are managed will define China –  and the world.

Some  91 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people are classified as ethnic Han. Many  mistakenly view China as homogeneous while those that look at the Chinese underbelly see a rich ethnic blend that is seething under the dominate ethnic rule of the Han. There are 55 nationalities officially recognized within China.  These include the Miao Bai, Dai, Xibe, Jingpo, Usbek, Hui, Mongolian, Yao, Li Wau, Manchu, Dong and Uighurs, and so on. Minorities make up a small percentage of the 1.3 billion Chinese but constitute a large portion of internal tension.

Through China’s 5000-year history,  there have been numerous minority uprisings. Yet I suspect it’s two Chinese minorities – the Uighurs (pronounced “we-gar”) and the Tibetans – that the world will be hearing more about in the future.  I hope for the sake of the Chinese, Uighurs, Tibetans and all of humanity that we do not hear of these ethic groups as a result of conflict, terror and bloodshed.  However, I  suspect we will.


They are a Turkish people and once constituted a major empire. The Uighurs converted to Islam several centuries ago. The Uighur population is disputed and ranges from 8 to 15 million strong. They are found throughout China but are concentrated in the Xinjiang (meaning “New Territory” or “New Frontier”) Autonomous Region in Northwest China. Xinjiang is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Mongolia to the northeast, and Kirghizstan and Tajikistan to the northwest and west. To the west and southwest lie Afghanistan and Pakistan; to the south are Tibet and India. To the east—1,500 miles away—lies Beijing. Xinjiang is so remote that it is obscure to most in the West.  The Uighurs refer to this area by its historical name, East Turkistan or Uyghuristan.

Many call the Uighurs the Tibetans’ Muslims. The Uighurs, like the Buddhist Tibetans, are asking for more accommodations for their disparate culture and beliefs. The Chinese say many Uighurs are terrorists in bed with al-Qaeda and bent on violent, separatist activities.

Crackdowns on the Uighurs have been stepped up since 9-11. Some believe the Chinese have used the “War on Terror” as justification to tighten the grip on the Uighurs. Human rights groups contend the Chinese government exaggerates Uighur terrorist threats so it can clamp down and arrest and torture those they suspect of being dissidents.

Like the Tibetans, the Uighurs believe the Chinese government has visited cultural genocide on them. The Chinese say that, after the 1949 liberation, old feudal religious habits and privileges were abolished and they have removed the control of the “reactionary ruling class.” They say the Uighur people enjoy a higher standard of living today – and more economic opportunities.


There has been tension between the Chinese Han majority and the Tibetan minority for centuries. The Tibetans feel the situation under Chinese Han rule is suffocating.  Over the last several years Tibetans have taken to self-immolation in a desperate attempt to bring the world’s spotlight to their plight.  More than 110 ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire in recent years to protest Chinese rule.  This method of protest demonstrates the profound sense of helplessness and perceived lack of other means to demonstrate anger and personal feelings of hopelessness on the part of Tibetans.

The Chinese government blames Tibetans outside China—particularly the Dalai Lama—for stirring up trouble. The Dalai Lama disputes these claims and says that he advocates a “middle way” with Beijing, seeking autonomy but not independence or a separate country for his people. The Communist Chinese government rejects criticism of its control, claiming that Tibetans enjoy religious freedom and higher standards of living directly attributable to its rule.

Given these extreme differences between the ethnic minority Uighurs , Tibetans and the Chinese government, it is only a matter of time before the internal, festering Chinese sore will come into full view.   Will the cause be seen as oppression, cultural genocide, employment and economic deprivation as charged by the Tibetans and Uighurs? Perhaps the spark will be internal uprisings longing for independence – viewed as an act of civil war by the Chinese government.

To many, the U.S.-China economic seesaw has the Asian giant in the ascending position. China will pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy as early as midway through this decade.  Our government is in debt to the tune of nearly $16 trillion, with more than $1 trillion borrowed from China to keep our economy going. It appears that it has become increasingly more difficult to bite the hand that feeds us. It is said, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

These new realities have created a, “moral laryngitis” in America that serves China’s interests well, as the Chinese government regards Tibetans and Uyghurs as troublemakers attempting to disrupt that country’s “harmonious rise.” The thinking of the ruling Communist party is, the less noise made by America and other Western countries regarding these issues, the better.  So, while Uighurs and Tibetans attempt to draw the world’s attention, America finds itself biting its lip.

I do not raise these issues to cast aspersions on China or to interfere with their internal affairs. I do not wish to denigrate the remarkable progress China has made throughout recent history.  I do not wish China to fail. But unlike Las Vegas, what happens in China does not stay in China. Unrest among ethnic Chinese minorities in China will impact not only China, but the entire world.

For everyone’s sake, let’s hope for a positive outcome.

Source: China’s minority problem is a global problem | Uyghur American Association

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