The riots between the majority Han people and the Uighur minority in China’s far northwest are only the latest upsets in a region that has seen civilizations clashing as long as there have been civilizations. Xinjiang Province in Chinese means “new frontier,” a name that was given to it in the late 19th century when China was consolidating its far west at about the same time Americans were subduing the Sioux and the Comanche on the Great Plains.
But the Uighur people who inhabit Xinjiang call it “Eastern Land of the Turks,” and therein lies the rub.
Most Americans had never heard of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China, until a handful of them turned up in Guantanamo. It soon became obvious that the few youths rounded up in Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion were interested in independence
from China, not terrorism against the United States, and some have now been resettled in Bermuda.
The dominant Han people of China probably began rubbing up against the indigenous inhabitants of Xinjiang around 60 B.C. when the Chinese established a protectorate, only to lose it to the locals. The Tang dynasty expanded Han Chinese control westward again, and
established a settlement near where the provincial capital of Urumchi is today — the scene of recent race riots between Han and Uighur — only to lose control again.
The golden age of the Uighurs came in the 8th and 9th centuries when they controlled territory from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria, only to lose it as successive waves of conquerors swept through. Xinjiang was alternately an important center of trade, lying astride the silk routes from Europe and India, with contacts with the Roman Empire and later Marco Polo, and a backwater when wars and unrest shut down commerce and when sailing ships took trade away from camel caravans. Buddhism swept in from India along these same trade routes, and later Islam.
The Chinese emperor Yongzheng began taking control of the region in the early 18th century when the British empire was still sorting it out with the French in North America. But, in the 19th century, Xinjiang became the scene of a three-cornered Great Game as British, Russians and Chinese all intrigued for influence in Central Asia.
Like Tibetans, the Uighurs are supposed to have an autonomous region in the People’s Republic of China. But like the Tibetans, autonomy has existed more on paper than in reality, and both populations feel themselves under occupation while Han Chinese settlers pour in to make them minorities and second-class citizens in their own cities and towns.
As far as the West is concerned, the difference is that Xinjiang has never captured the imagination as has Tibet, nor does it have a towering leader like the Dalai Lama to keep the flame burning. The similarity is that the West’s relations with China are more important to it than the fate of Tibetans and Uighurs.
Trouble erupts in Xinjiang periodically, as it does in Tibet, because two unreconcilable forces are at work against each other. One is the desire of ethnic, linguistic and racial minorities for real autonomy, if not independence, to keep their culture and traditions alive.
The other is China’s age-old obsession with keeping the empire together. For thousands of years China has fallen apart into warring states, only to unite again under a strong emperor. “States cleave asunder and then coalesce,” is the way China’s classic 14th-century epic “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” puts it.
By 1940 China was split into three kingdoms by Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao and the Japanese who overran the coast and set up their own puppet government in Manchuria. The Japanese were driven out, Mao prevailed over Chiang, and neither Tibet nor Xinjiang have never really enjoyed a moment’s autonomy ever since. But a strong emperor had once again reunited most of China.
The Chinese looked on with horror as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and all the Muslim Khanates of Central Asia were reborn again as independent countries. They became determined not to let it happen to them.
In Xinjiang oil and gas have replaced jade as commodities the Chinese don’t want to let go of, and the resurgence of Islam as a political force is another threat to their kingdom, as the Chinese see it.
The triumph of more technologically advanced societies over less was completed in the 19th century. The 20th century saw an age of mass decolonialization. China’s humiliation at the hands of foreigners has ended, but the Chinese are not willing to see themselves as foreigners in Xinjiang or Tibet.
Having gained control over its own destiny, China is determined to remain united and a world power. But the resistance of peoples who bridle under what they consider an occupying power continues, as it always has.
Read more from columnist HDS Greenway:
In Afghanistan, lessons from empires past
The fissures of Tehran
US should respond carefully to Iran crisis
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct spelling errors.