An Unalienable part of China

I was once having a “discussion” with my friend Kong (a dyed in the eyes and proud CCP member) about Xinjiang province. This was several years back, well before the stuff kicked off this year. I may have been provoking him slightly. “So Xinjiang wasn’t always part of China. I wonder if there are any people who wish it still wasn’t?”. “Uneducated foreign nonsense! Of course Xinjiang has always been part of China!” “Then why is it called Xin – Jiang? (Xin Jiang means new border) Surely if Xinjiang is the new border, then once upon a time, when we had the old border, it wasn’t in China!” “Aiyorr, that’s coincidence, it’s just a name, it doesn’t have any meaning”. “Come on, all names are there for a reason. Ningxia is named after the Western Xia dynasty, Qinghai comes from the lake. Don’t tell me Xinjiang isn’t named for the border.” “Well China has a long long history. Perhaps Xinjiang once was not in China. But that was a very long time ago. Before most of your European countries even existed. Xinjiang is an unalienable part of China!”   

As ever, when confronted with the completely different scale of Chinese vs European history, it is difficult to know how to reply. Certainly the history of Xinjiang is far more complicated than either Kong or I would admit. As with many outlying areas under fluctuating levels of Chinese control and influence, its historical political situation depends entirely on definitions. It’s clear that from the international relations perspective, China was from quite early on able to set up a garrison, sign some documents with local leaders, and proclaim to international approval that officially speaking it owned the place. (An approach similar to British colony-collecting behaviour). It’s also clear that until 1949, there was only a tiny number of han chinese in the province, most of them on temporary assignment in garrison posts etc, and they had no direct influence over the vast majority of the population. Most local people spoke no Chinese, and had no interest or identification whatsoever with China. Most Chinese dreaded being sent to this wild and uncivilized outpost, and hoped for any opportunity to leave and go home. But that is history.

Today the newness or oldness of Xinjiang is irrelevant. The majority of the population is Chinese (almost all arrived in the last 50 years), and CCP territorial control is 130% complete. OK some Uyghur people want independence, but they have about as much chance as the Dalai Lama has of succeeding Hu Jintao in Zhongnanhai. We can debate local rights and autonomy, treatment of dissidents, religious freedoms and the spread of minority languages, but the ultimate question – the symbol, flag, border question, is not up for debate. But does that really make Xinjiang an unalienable part of China?

That word, the unalienable word is the absolute favourite of the Chinese nationalist lobby et al, and it is also a big problem. Literally 不可分裂的 – cannot be separated, it appears from red banners and official documents to online posts by 愤青 (fen qing – computer-savvy and sexually frustrated young hypernationalists). The particularly unalienable parts of China are the new three T’s – Tibet, Taiwan, and Turkestan cough cough sorry Xinjiang I mean. (New to distinguish from the old 3 T’s,which are the topics you’re not supposed to mention when teaching in the mainland – Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen). But the term also extends to a variety of disputed islands no ordinary people given a flying eff about in the pacific, some chunks of uninhabitable mountain in the himalayas, and anything else which has had the glory of being graced by Chinese hobnobs at some point in history. But if you think about it for just a second, the choice of word is pretty bizarre.

For one thing, it is not true. Nothing is unseparable. Your head may seem a pretty inseparable part of your body, but try telling that to Marie Antoinette. Ireland was once considered an integral part of the UK, but that, er, didn’t last. Humans have been around for about a million years, and the longest potentially unbroken civilization (yes yes, the Chinese, well done) even at a generous 5000 years, is well under 1%of that. And who seriously thinks that China/the US/Azerbaijan will still be around 500,000 years from now. Any takers? Philosophically speaking the term is just stupid. So lets take a tolerant, short-term perspective. Erm, Taiwan anyone? In what way is Taiwan still a part of China? Beijng has only ruled it for four of the last 100+ years. OK so there are many on both sides who feel it should be part of China, and that at some point in the near future, it will be. In neither of those cases does cannot-be-separated apply. Because right now, politically and realistically speaking, it is very much separated. Unless….

… unless we redefine China. China, rather than being any political identiy (eg the PRC, or the RoC) is a culture. It is the culture of any place which is Chinese. Now that obviously does include the mainland as well as Taiwan, they’re both very much Chinese. It also includes large sections of other countries, too… Singapore is mostly Chinese… Penang Malaysia… how about China Town New York? Why shouldn’t they be part of China too? The only sticking point is that the Chinese who dominate these areas showed up at a time when the land had already been claimed and recognised by someone else. When the Chinese rocked up in the new borders (Xinjiang), the local Uyghur people were disorganized, had belonged to too many other empires, and were simply uanble to get them themselves together to convince anyone that they should be allowed to rule themselves. And once the Chinese had some official documents to “prove” it, they could as with Tibet, claim that they had rights to this land for eternity, that the people were their people, and that it was an unalienable part of China. But since neither Xinjiang nor Tibet is culturally Chinese (except in the harmonious 56 minorities sense of the word which should therefore also include Mongolia, Korea, most of central asia and Russia), we need another definition… how about history? Anywhere that has historically been part of China, is also an unalienable part of China today?  

If I were a Chinese nationalist I would take this and run with it. Going by historical dominance at some period of time, China can justify posession of lots of cool places. Forget Xinjiang and Tibet, the Chinese empire has also had as colonies Korea, Vietnam, and during the Mongol lords of the Yuan dynasty (which many will claim as being Chinese), probably most of Asia. At a pinch we could take in Japan and Myanmar too. The problem is that outsiders might want to muscle in. As a Brit I could be a bit of a spoilsport and point out that if we define “British” as “has ever been ruled by Britain”, we can not only nick Hong Kong back but also about 1/3 of the entire world. Indeed the Portugese presence in Macao is pretty much just as old as Chinese presence in Taiwan.

Quite clearly, this term “an unalienable part of China” has been used to the extent that it has lost any consistent philosphical/cultural/historical basis. It is not a fact that provides truth. Instead it is a statement of desire. “Cannot be separated from China” has come to mean “If you try any funny stuff I’ll scream and scream and if I can I’ll fekking annihilate you. And If I can’t (see Taiwan) I’ll sulk and throw a tantrum.” It is nothing more glamorous than realpolitik, and another example of how our political masters prey on constructed feelings of duty and patriotism in order to harness our energies in their favour. Is the “new border” of Xinjiang an unalienable part of China? Absolutely! Why? Because Beijing says so! Personally I think it’d be kindof cool if my flat in Edinburgh were an unalienable part of China too. As an official tenant with a name on the lease, perhaps I am entitled to call up the Chinese consulate in Edinburgh for a wee chat.


NB I am obviously not seriously trying to suggest that China has a roughly equal territorial claim over my room in Edinburgh as it has over Xinjiang. I’m just moaning about an expression which is a pet-hate of mine, and also very rationally suspect.


3 Responses to “An Unalienable part of China”

  1. Jia Says:

    Wow. Well, now, I’m going to say what Bush should have had the guts to say:
    “We want the oil.”

    (Btw, what’s Britain’s excuse for Iraq?)

  2. elliepant Says:

    I believe Britain’s excuse for Iraq involved something roughly 13 inches long and hanging between George Bush’s legs. Also known as Tony Blair’s tie.

  3. Mark Says:


    I have had so many discussions with Chinese friends about this subject. I am always hearing about how Xinjiang has “always” been part of China, that is simply not true, it has had periods were certain Chinese Dynasties have occupied and ruled over it, but to say always is a huge exaggeration. At the end of the day the only reason way Xinjiang is currently part of China is because they had the expansionist leader Mao Zedong, this brings me to another topic, the riots. Why is it that mainland Chinese hate the rioters so much, Chairman Mao is responsible for the deaths of millions of Hun Chinese, yet he is praised for his leadership, sorry but some things wrong there. All you Chinese out there, you’re great, you have a great country with an amazing history, but there have been some terrible things that have happened in your resent history. If we don’t acknowledge the mistakes of the past we are destined to repeat them.

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