In the beginning of October 1949, the bloody Chinese Civil War was nearing its end, and Mao Zedong had proudly declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). With the Nationalists defeated, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could now focus on its aims on fully reuniting the country and instituting socialism. The disastrous effects of the latter aim are well-known. However, the vagueness of this first notion – of fully “reuniting China” – has plagued the policymakers of the CCP for decades. As the PRC claimed to be the legitimate successor of The Republic of China (now in exile on Taiwan) and the more importantly the vast Qing Dynasty, huge tracts of inner Asia were claimed for the new nation, far away from the traditional Han Chinese homelands in what is now Eastern China. Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia (all of what is today the country of Mongolia was once claimed by the Chinese, on top of the already vast Chinese territory of Inner Mongolia) were all on the menu, and the first step in fulfilling the PRC’s claims to these territories. The 1950-1951 invasion of Tibet is perhaps the most famous of these campaigns, and the 1959 Tibetan rebellion and the Dalai Lama’s escape to India have been made famous by a global network of Free Tibet activists. What is now the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was conquered in a similar manner. Mongolia was recognized as an independent nation by the Chinese due to pressure by its strategic partner, the USSR.
After the conquest (or perhaps more fairly, re-conquest) of these lands, the next and more important step was integrating them into the People’s Republic of China. This process is still ongoing, and it is proving much more difficult than was previously imagined by CCP policy-makers. With Tibet and Xinjiang as the most prime examples of this process, the first and most important step is to send an influx of ethnic Han Chinese to the wild frontier regions of the far West. No ethnicity in China comes close to the sheer numbers of Han Chinese (more than 92 percent of the population), and so even a relatively small number of Han migrants can have a massive impact on the demographics of a minority region. For example, in the Xinjiang autonomous region, the Uyghur, which was the former majority, now make up less than half of the population. In Lhasa, the ancient Tibetan capital, Chinese greatly outnumber Tibetans.
The next steps in the process of integration are attempting to erase pervasive regional and ethnic loyalties and replace them with loyalty to the state. The primary tool of this step is economic development and closer economic interdependence with the rest of China. Recently, Kashgar in the far west of Xinjiang was declared a new special economic zone – with the hopes that future economic development would not only stem the tide of terrorism in the region but also erase “backwards” mindsets and set the people on a course towards a secular, civic identity with the PRC. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway and other extremely expensive development projects in Tibet were designed with a similar aim, as well as achieving the all-important goal of importing Han settlers.
It is easy when addressing the sensitive issues of Tibetan or Uyghur independence for both sides to become belligerent, and in briefly summarizing this process here I do not wish to pass judgment on either side. Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and other minority regions are a part of the PRC and half been for over half a century, but if the aim of the central government is to truly make these people feel civic pride in being PRC citizens, then it has clearly failed. The Dalai Lama’s persistent popularity, the 2008 riots in ethnic Tibetan regions of China, the 2009 riots in Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang), and the persistent separatist activity in both the Tibetan and Uygur communities should be proof enough that indigenous peoples of China’s Wild West consider themselves first Tibetan or Uyghur – being a PRC citizen doesn’t seem high on either group’s list of priorities.
I would say that the situation faced by the Chinese in the early 1950s was akin to the situation faced by the Founding Fathers in 1783: The nation was technically founded and much territory had technically been won, but only by moving settlers west and meaningfully integrating them into our nation and society could that land ever reasonably be held and secured. Just as I was born in a region that was once considered remote wilderness to the Founding Fathers, millions of Chinese have been born in China’s Wild West, and Tibet or Xinjiang is just as much home to them as to their indigenous neighbors. On the other hand, as long as the denial of many of the basic rights of the Tibetans and Uyghur continue, there can be no hope for a true reconciliation. Only through mutual understanding can either the PRC government or the local populations of the Wild West ever hope to progress. Unfortunately, that could be a long time coming. Stay tuned as these internal tensions continue to plague China’s image in the future.