George Graham

Americans Know So Little About Chinese, Depend So Much on Them

Reading an Associated Press story about the riots in Western China this morning, I wondered if anyone could make sense of it. I certainly could not. There was an obligatory reference to the Chinese Government’s “iron-fisted control,” and random quotes from individuals caught up in the conflict. But the story failed to give any hint of the cause or causes of the current flare-up. So, as I usually do when my curiosity is piqued, I went browsing on the web. First the news, as AP reported it:

China flooded the capital of western Xinjiang province with security forces Wednesday, and President Hu Jintao cut short a visit to the G8 summit as Beijing tries to stem a tide of ethnic clashes in the wake of a riot that left 156 dead….

It was not known if any new arrests were made. The government has already said more than 1,000 had been detained.

A “tide of ethnic clashes”? Could it be that bad? Not this time, apparently. Turns out the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) and Han Chinese are beating each other up in Western China again – as they have for centuries. From what I found out on the web, the Han make up 92 percent of China’s billion-plus population, and the Uighurs are one of 55 ethnic minorities.

But I believe the root cause of the riots is the Uighurs’ desire for independence from China. If the name “Uighurs” rings a bell, it’s probably because President Obama caught flak recently for shipping some Uighur detainees from Guantanamo to Bermuda and Pelau (yes, there is a place called Pelau; it’s in the South Pacific). As usual, the media failed to explain why the 17 detainees were not shipped back to China when American authorities determined they were not “terrorists.” But, as you might gather from reports about the “tide of ethnic clashes,” China would be a dangerous place for a bunch of Uighurs accused by the “iron fisted” government of urging independence for their part of the country.

And, since Americans seem to have a morbid fear of “foreigners,” who might well be “terrorists” armed with “weapons of mass destruction,” the Uighurs were not welcome on U.S. soil. (I know all about the “huddled masses yearning to be free,” but that obviously does not include anyone held – justly or unjustly – at Guantanamo.)

chinaAnyway, as a fan of ancient Chinese poetry (translated into English, of course), I wonder why Westerners don’t care more about that mysterious and enchanting country. American schools don’t do nearly enough to provide a window on the world, especially that part of the world. After all, China makes most of the stuff sold in American stores and holds a big chunk of America’s national debt.

The Chinese were writing poetry when Westerners were fashioning spears from elk bones, or whatever. And I wonder at the insouciance of Western politicians who chide Chinese authorities for “human rights abuses” as if China were some upstart Third World nation that requires guidance from more civilized world leaders.

(Photo above shows a Chinese New Year Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall , which offered a glimpse of China’s Tang Dynasty.)

tanksLook, I don’t condone the Chinese government’s “iron fisted control.”  I revere democracy and individual freedoms as much as anyone.

I agree that China’s ruthless subjugation of Tibet is shameful. And certainly the kind of violent oppression exhibited in the Tiananmen Square massacre 20 years ago is intolerable (photo at right). But don’t you ever wonder how you would manage a billion-plus people from 56 different ethnic groups that don’t get along with each other?

I wonder how American politicians would cope if they had to govern more than a billion citizens from a multitude of minorities spread out over 3,696,100 square miles of mountains, valleys, plains, forests and cities. The way I see it, they haven’t managed all that well historically with the few ethnic minorities they have had to deal with.

If you have time, you can read about China’s ethnic makeup here:

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for