Since December, the viral outbreak known as the Coronavirus has killed at least 425 people worldwide, infecting more than 20,000. Chinese officials have seemingly done well to contain the outbreak—Wuhan, the source of the outbreak, is bigger than New York City—and the virus will likely not terrorize the world like a Plague Inc superbug. We should be wary of the Coronavirus, but a larger plague has swept across China in recent years. Islamophobia has gained enough steam that officials feel comfortable subjecting a large portion of Xinjiang’s Muslim population to forced captivity.
In 2014, eight supposed Uyghur separatists unsheathed long knives from under their all-black garments, killing at least 29 people and wounding 130 at the Kunming railway station in Yunnan, China. It was a brutal terrorist attack, one which proved a flashpoint for anti-extremist rhetoric in Chinese politics. Following the attack, the recently elected President Xi Jinping said China would “sternly punish the terrorists according to the law and resolutely put down their arrogant audacity.” The state has done just that, and much more.
The violent Kunming attack was reportedly part of a larger revolt by radical Uyghurs who felt suppressed by the ethnic Han government. Whatever suppression the Turkic population of China’s west had endured before 2014 was certainly less suffocating than the situation today, with a reported one million Uyghurs locked up in Xinjiang’s detention camps. The government is using the camps to “re-educate” the Muslim population, attempting not only to prevent domestic terrorism but also to ensure “ethnic unity”.
The fall of the Soviet Union signaled a shift in global bipolarity; China’s production and military capacity now trounces that of Russia and rivals that of the United States. But the Russian Federation has maintained a largely authoritarian political system, successfully amassing domestic control and maintaining a semblance of global supremacy. (Russia has its hands in Syria and Venezuela, and its military fighting in Ukraine. Domestically, officials at regional and local levels answer to Putin, in one way or another—see Putin Country.) A hunt for domination abroad almost invariably subjects a domestic populous to some form of suppression: America’s foreign interventions starve its citizens of much-needed economic prosperity, for example. Xi is attempting to contain domestic terror with prison camps as China pursues capitalistic expansion in Asia and Africa, while Russia is “unifying” their ethnic minorities and indigenous people, bringing them against their will into the collective culture of the nation state.
Minorities, especially indigenous peoples, almost always have cultures at odds with the majority. In China, the Uyghurs differ by ethnicity, culture, and religion to the Han Chinese. Russia is comprised of hundreds of minority groups, which differ from ethnic Slavs in the same categories. They face an uphill battle not only to develop their identity, but to preserve their traditions against the nation-sanctioned culture. China’s casus belli to justify the persecution of Muslims is an uptick in ethnic violent extremism. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has no such justification, but is currently implementing a policy of Russification, to whitewash minority cultures with a dominant Russian culture.
When I set off to study the Buryats—an indigenous group in Siberia—I wanted to compare and contrast two governments with vastly different ideologies, that of Joseph Stalin’s USSR and Putin’s Russia. China does not feature in my research, but the Uyghur detainment proves an apt comparison. What Russia is doing now, and what they’ve been doing for decades, is not so different to what the People’s Party is doing in Xinjiang: using unjust force to destroy a culture, propping up the majority way of life in its stead.
The communism of Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks took a turn towards murderous authoritarianism as Stalin rose to power in the 1920s. Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan forced peasants onto communal farms in which all grain profits would be given to the state to sell abroad, funding industrialization in Soviet cities. This plan succeeded in the sense that Stalin had enough firepower to fight and defeat the fascist Nazi Germany, but it failed by causing many deaths along the way.
Buryat peasants revolted against collectivization, suffering imprisonment or death. But their aversion to a collective lifestyle wasn’t so much for individualistic, property-oriented reasons. The Buryats are traditionally a nomadic people; they roam across pastures surrounding Lake Baikal. Confining a nomad to land is like subjecting a prisoner to solitary confinement. The Buryats were indeed prisoners ever since Tsarist Russia’s conquest of Siberia, much like the Native Americans were imprisoned by American expansionism and genocide. To force them into collectives was to constrain the largely Buddhist group to a further degree.
Russia’s Buryats are still around and fighting for their right to sovereignty. Putin isn’t corralling these people in collective farms, though. Modern Russia, an illiberal militaristic country, stokes xenophobic fear in its population while attempting to forcibly conform minorities. This process of Russification does not exclude indigenous people like the Buryats; the Buryat language is dying, both from an influx of ethnic Russians into Siberia and from Putin’s linguistic policies, such as On the national language.
Anti-minority and indigenous movements aren’t unique to China and Russia. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro once said: “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians”. In 1989, Donald Trump called for the deaths of five black and Latino teens accused, and later exonerated, of sexual assault. Trump stands by his comments despite DNA evidence proving their innocence. Indigenous leader Evo Morales of Bolivia was ousted in a coup last year before a right-wing government took over and murdered indigenous protestors. From China to Brazil to Hungary, rightist governments are suppressing minorities and indigenous peoples by any means possible.
The brutality of our current situation solidifies the importance of a pro-indigenous and pro-minority political stance. The Coronavirus is spreading, but a dangerous virus has already inflicted millions across the globe. If we don’t learn from the Buryats, overcome with linguistic genocide, or the Uyghurs, enduring unjust imprisonment, or any of the countless other global examples, then minorities and indigenous people within our own communities won’t receive justice.
Orlando Figes’ Revolutionary Russia provides insight into the reign of Stalin from the 1920s to 1950s. For more on Vladimir Putin’s strongman authoritarianism in Russian politics, see Putin Country (Anne Garrels). A great resource for Buryat history is Dr. Melissa Chakars, whose Socialist Way of Life in Siberia gives a great account of Soviet actions in Buryatia.
Email me at email@example.com with any comments, questions, or recommendations for further columns.