Every nation is unique, yet they all follow a well-worn path to development. Nations must define their identity, create symbolism (languages and culture), and somehow pay for the migration from agriculture to industry and beyond. Young developing nations often lack the wealth to make the leap to a modern economy. America paid for its development because it had a nation full of free resources, timber, and empty land for new settlers. Uhhh… empty land if you forget about millions of Native Americans. For more than two hundred years America tried to either assimilate or kill natives. They were “in the way” of economic expansion. Today, China is now following a surprisingly familiar path in developing its own Western frontier. Does economic development always require… Genocide? Let’s dive in and see.
Genocide is surprisingly common in human history. The 19th and 20th centuries run red with the blood of native people and minorities. Sometimes, the pages of history run white, as indigenous people are forced to assimilate and disappear as a people. This isn’t just a “new world” phenomenon. Europe developed on the backs of displaced and murdered minorities. It just happened so long ago that massacres became ancient history, and ancient history became legends and myths. Myths like the Tales of King Arthur and the fall of Camelot. It is a tale of romance and adventure, but if you look a bit deeper you see that King Arthur’s people become the minority, were butchered at first, and finally assimilated into what would become England.
Rome was famous for conquering generals and legendary battles. When Rome conquered new lands, they gave local farmland to retired soldiers, who often married local women. Eventually, the locals were assimilated. At the height of the Roman Empire, France and England assimilated so well that they were more roman than Rome. But it took a lot of killing before the locals accepted the Roman way.
In America, genocide is more recent, and in some ways still ongoing. The conquering of America’s West is so recent that some of what happened was recorded in photographs. While Europe went through most of it’s genocidal phase in the distant past, there were always next-door neighbors that became fellow citizens after a war or two. And there were many wars in Europe in the last 200 years.
In the last two thousand years, between the time of the Roman Empire up to just a few years ago, the global human population (and wars) were limited by the availability of food and land. The more fertile land, the more we could grow, which fed a rising population, and supported larger armies. Cycles of growth, war, and recovery limited the human population to between 300 to 500 million. Then, the industrial revolution broke this cycle. New strains of grain, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, railroads, barbed wire, harvesting machines, and tractors changed everything. We could grow more food, in poorer land, that was farther away. The population skyrocketed, and crowded city dwellers left in droves to find their fortunes in undeveloped territories.
Whether in China, America, or elsewhere in the world, the central government is considering how they want to manage this situation. Obscure “alien” people have a claim on the land, but they aren’t interested in exploiting the land, or accelerating the economy. For the nation as a whole, the locals are… inefficient. On the other hand, there are people in the developed areas who have big plans to sell the timber, dig mines, build factories, lay rail lines, and make money. Of course, these “settlers” don’t speak the local language or follow their customs. It would be SOOOOOO much more convenient to just get your brothers, sisters, cousins, and anyone from your home town to fill the new jobs you’re going to create.
Governments usually side with development over native rights. Even with good relatively intentions, settlers usually favor bringing in more of their own kind (language, ethnicity, religion) rather than providing all but the lowest level jobs for locals. And then resentment builds up. Locals feel that their land is being stolen and that people who are s supposed to develop the economy are keeping all the best jobs (and eventually homes, schools, restaurants, stores, villages, etc.) for themselves.
It begins with an argument, perhaps with a labor strike. Maybe there is an altercation. Resentment by locals grows, and settlers say that local anger is another reason why they need to be excluded from work and public life. Local police escalate their aggression, then national police replace the local police, and these are eventually joined by the military.
In China’s western territories, in Xinjiang where 12 million Uyghur people live, this was the way that things were developing up to around 2000. Then the U.S. experienced its worst terrorist attack on 9/11. We now know that this caught China’s attention. They began to wonder if the Uyghur people, who are Muslim, were truly loyal to China. And at that time there was a spike in protests in Tibet, over religious beliefs. The government decided to ramp up surveillance, and arrests.
In 2014 there were bombings at train stations, knife attacks, and other acts of terrorism. At least that’s what China called it. Without any context, you could call it terrorism. Not surprisingly, the Uyghurs in China and the Uyghurs just on the other side of the Chinese borders began having more and more discussions about a “Uyghur national movement”. With the majority of Uyghurs living in China, it sounds like a plan to carve our a piece of China and make it a new nation.
Now China really turned up the heat, passing laws that largely make being Uyghur illegal… religious services are monitored, use of Uyghur language makes you a “suspect”, owning a passport or communicating with relatives outside China is a “terrorist” act, all phone calls and texts are monitored. This is in addition to the national firewall, and perhaps 600 million surveillance cameras across all of China. That’s a lot of cameras, but in Xinjiang the density of surveillance cameras is supposedly several times higher than anywhere else in the nation.
By themselves, those cameras are a powerful weapon of oppression. But China has massively invested (and in many cases stolen) facial recognition technology that can track individuals from camera to camera, can identify generic Uyghurs and track their individual actions, such as crossing the street against the light. Supposedly, by the time you finish crossing the street, you have received a ticket on your phone.
All of this is managed by increasingly efficient Artificial Intelligence software. Attempts have been made around the world to predict crimes, just like the movie, “Minority Report”. So far, the results have been underwhelming, but the software is learning. And as more and more of the world’s events are picked up by surveillance cameras, and profiles are compiled for every citizen, thinking about a crime may someday be the same as committing a crime.
With its technologically enhanced ability to find criminals, China has been on a building spree, adding perhaps as many as 1,000 prisons and one million prisoners. China, however, is quick to point out that these are not prisons, they are education centers where individuals have their minds re-programmed to get rid of bad thinking and replace it with good thinking and good citizenship. Maybe something is lost in the translation, but that pretty much sounds like a prison… or worse.
It’s not a good time to be a Uyghur. The techniques and technology that China develops and perfects will soon undoubtedly be sold to other countries or at least used by China’s business partners in other countries. Africa is a key market and source of resources for China, and African development will son be accelerated by China’s ambitious Band and Road Initiative (BRI) or New Silk Road. China is the largest investor in Africa, and their expansion of ports and rail systems throughout Africa may make it resemble China’s Western Frontier, but many times larger.
Are the Chinese more self-aware, or morally superior to the empires that preceded them? Are they morally superior to the US or Europe? If not, we may HOPE that China will find an alternative to genocide… but can we EXPECT that they will do better and be more humane than all the Empires that came before them? Is the Western World willing to make compromises with China in other policy areas, in exchange for more humane treatment for the Uyghurs? At the moment, we in the West have been willing to point at the Uyghur problem, but we don’t seem ready to take action.
What do you think? Can China be convinced to accept a more diverse nation, with more cultures, and less centralized authority? As China exerts ever more economic control around the world, will they seek to shape the world to look like China? Tell us about your ideas, readers would like to know what you think!