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China’s westward expansion and its discontents

In southwestern China, the site of a recent terrorist attack recalls forgotten ethnic violence from generations ago

March 31, 2014 7:00AM ET

On March 1, eight assailants wielding foot-long sabers stormed the Kunming train station in southwestern China, killing 29 people and injuring 143. There has not yet been a full accounting of the victims, but we might imagine them: Chinese train stations are perpetually jammed with people, often migrant workers covered in dust and hauling woven plastic bags. They are the country’s floating population, driven to pursue what Communist Party leaders are now gamely calling the Chinese dream.

Chinese authorities announced that four of the attackers were killed on the spot and that the other four were subsequently captured, identifying them as Uighur separatists from the distant northwestern province of Xinjiang. China has experienced several mass stabbings in the past few years — horrifying anomalies in a society that generally is safe but not without an undercurrent of violence — but there had been no attacks recently like the one in Kunming, at least outside the restive provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet. The date 3.01 is the name given to China’s rage and sorrow; “We are all Kunmingers” has been the message flashing across the Chinese Internet.

“Why here?” is the question that many Kunmingers are asking. The capital of Yunnan, China’s most diverse province, Kunming is home to dozens of ethnic groups, a place where the villagers and farmers of a far-flung mountainous region first encounter the wider world. Cultures here have always been in contact, sometimes in unstable equilibrium. And while the city’s tolerance feels deeply embedded, invisible threads connect what seems a tranquil present to a troubled past. The horror of 3.01 echoes a dark hour of the city’s history, a mostly forgotten 19th century massacre perpetrated against Chinese Muslims in Kunming.

The 3.01 attack underscores the fact that coexistence is not enough. In its ambitious westward drive, China must be sensitive to the region’s past instead of bulldozing it. China’s long-term colonial project on its western flank has been brutal and benign by turns, though in Yunnan it is much farther along and thus more welcome than in Xinjiang or Tibet. But however unlikely it may seem today, a restoration of historical memory represents the only honest basis on which to build a future for western China.

Kunming’s dark past

Kunming’s two oldest landmarks, the Western and Eastern Pagodas, have been standing since the days of the Nanzhao Kingdom, a multiethnic Buddhist empire that flourished during the eighth and ninth centuries C.E. and dared defy the Tang Dynasty. After the region was conquered in 1253 by Kublai Khan, the city became a beachhead for the Han, China’s majority ethnic group. For seven centuries it has remained an outpost perched at the edge of a hyperdiverse borderland. Soon the province also had a substantial Muslim population, whose most famous figure was the admiral Zheng He, who sailed the Chinese fleet to the shores of Arabia, India and the Horn of Africa in the early 15th century.

The Quran Belt runs across northwestern China, where most of the country’s Muslims, including the Central Asian Uighurs, live. Intersecting it but often overlooked is the old western flank of imperial Chinese rule, which extends 3,000 miles south, to Kunming and beyond — dotted with market towns dominated by the Hui, partially assimilated Chinese-speaking Muslims, as the historian Jonathan Lipman has pointed out. Many Hui were artisans and merchants who made the Silk Road trade possible, constituting a classic middleman minority analogous to the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Chinese of Southeast Asia. Persecution followed.

Amnesia and oblivion are now all too often China’s answer to religious and ethnic tension: Past repression goes unrecounted, historic communities are leveled by wrecking balls, and people are shunted offstage.

On May 19, 1856, as the historian David Atwill writes, local officials representing the Qing Dynasty carried out a three-day massacre of Kunming’s Hui population, “in which Han townspeople, the local militia and imperial officials methodically slaughtered between four and seven thousand Yunnan Hui men, women and children.” Mosques were burned to the ground, and orders were given for a provincewide massacre, precipitating an 18-year war throughout Yunnan, called the Panthay Rebellion by Western historians (“Panthay” roughly means “Hui” in Burmese). The Hui put up a fierce resistance, and their leader Du Wenxiu even proclaimed himself sultan, boldly banning pork and promoting Arabic. But by the war’s end, Muslim power and identity in southwestern China had been crushed. Up to a million people are thought to have died in the violence.

Fighting amnesia

The Hui are today still fiercely entrepreneurial, but their middleman role has diminished. In 2003 I spent a day in Kunming’s Muslim quarter, then still a thriving enclave in the city’s heart, packed with ancient mosques and white-tiled restaurants dangling air-dried beef on hooks above open entrances. Just a few years later, I discovered that the quarter had vanished, a victim of insatiable urban development, its oldest mosque demolished, its inhabitants dispersed, its markets replaced by a mall. Amnesia and oblivion are now all too often China’s answer to religious and ethnic tension: Past repression goes unrecounted, historic communities are leveled by wrecking balls, and people are shunted offstage, as in the recent reports that hundreds of Uighurs are being summarily deported from Yunnan and bused back to Xinjiang.

The tolerance of ordinary Kunmingers brings some relief. I lived in the city from 2009 to 2011, documenting endangered minority languages while my wife worked in public health. What we experienced was a city that was not just tolerant but espoused a local cosmopolitanism all its own. Instead of a hulking opposition between two groups, as in Xinjiang or Tibet, Yunnan has the advantage of multiplicity (though there can sometimes be an ethnic pecking order). We cheered a local Hui friend’s wedding, held at the Dubai Club, and we eagerly lined up with Han, Bai and Yi art students to see DJ Lordmo, a lyrical rapper from the Wa minority, who calls himself “China’s black man.” We met Burmese refugees trickling in from an ongoing civil war and Han anthropologists discovering their own country’s diversity.

Today high-speed trains and a brand-new international airport are meant to link Kunming and its hinterlands irrevocably to the rest of China, continuing an uneven process of incorporation seven centuries in the making. (In Xinjiang and Tibet, that process is less than a century old.) Some Kunmingers are undergoing a triple assimilation, progressively adapting to Yunnanese, Chinese and even globalized Western norms, while others shape modern indigenous identities. Locals like to say that heaven is high and the emperor is far away — civil society is more open, dissidents and outliers a little more welcome.

Though state policy is focused on opening and developing western China, reprising 19th century U.S. history, there are long-standing cultures and histories on the ground. Since the 1950s, a system of semiautonomous counties, prefectures and provinces, each one designated for certain local ethnic groups, has been in place almost everywhere in China’s west. But true autonomy — as demanded by the Dalai Lama, Ilham Tohti and countless others — has remained an unfulfilled promise, the semiautonomous regions standing as unfinished homelands nudged by creeping development. Despite certain progressive policies (akin to affirmative action) that benefit minorities in the realm of education and family planning, many Han feel a looming impatience with China’s 110 million minority citizens. In that light, the broader tendency toward cultural amnesia takes on a darker significance.

The attackers’ real motives may eventually come to light, or they may remain obscured. Many privately question the government’s tightly controlled version of events. Highly local or personal issues may have been at stake, as with the Kunming bus bomber in 2008 and many other so-called mass incidents in China — or there may be global implications. What is clear is that China must reckon more substantively and soberly with its rapid westward expansion. Above all, with 3.01, we must remember the nameless victims who were trying to catch a train and move on or move up in the world.

Ross Perlin is a writer and linguist based in Brooklyn. His writing on language and labor has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian and Harper’s magazine. His first book is “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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