Race War

Our innate fear and contempt of strangers often turns ugly. Now it’s China’s turn.

A charismatic president who blends two major races has had a healing effect on the wounds of a secular racial conflict in the United States. At the moment he is in Ghana visiting and speaking—eloquently as always—about the places where freshly bought slaves were imprisoned, awaiting shipment to new lives in chains across the sea, or, very often, to a drowning death on the way. The president’s wife and daughters, descendants both of those slaves and their owners, are with him, learning and, hopefully, healing.


Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the world from Washington, an oppressed people called the Uighurs rose up against the Chinese empire and were quickly put down. But this was not just another of the countless unheralded protests that the Chinese government must quietly deal with every year (last year alone, an officially admitted 100,000 “mass events”). It was a race war between the Muslim Uighurs and the dominant Han Chinese in a large northwestern city, Urumchi.

Reportedly, the trigger for these riots was a racial incident in late June in the opposite corner of China, in the southeastern province of Guandong, where an apparent incident of sexual harassment (against a Han woman factory worker) led to a false rumor of rape and a Han riot that killed two Uighur men.

A protest by Uighurs in Urumchi on July 5 turned ugly when at least a thousand rioters in the city burned down a Han-owned grocery, smashed cars, and stoned, knifed, or clubbed many Han to death. Reverse riots by Han against Uighurs ensued the following day, and a race war erupted before paramilitary police could stop the violence. The official death toll was 184 (46 Uighur, the rest Han), with thousands more wounded.

A bicyclist stoned to death in Urumchi rioting

Some think the toll was much higher, and that the government understated Uighur deaths. But apparently the official Chinese press had unprecedented access to these events, so the government clearly thought it would not look too bad on the news. China blamed outside agitators in the form of foreign Uighur groups. Uighurs blamed China for preferential treatment of Han.

Yesterday (July 12) police shot dead two armed Uighurs, but a tense calm more or less prevails. China has always valued stability above all things, but has always faced destabilizing challenges from minority groups. The government officially counts 55 of them, totaling over 100 million people, about 9 percent of the country. But even the dominant Han speak eight mutually unintelligible languages, and many are experiencing a resurgence of ethnic pride.

So with extremely uneven prosperity and a massive economic downturn, it seems likely that China’s well-known iron fist will come down more often within its borders. To an anthropologist this is not surprising. We expect ethnic conflict because we have seen it everywhere in the world. It stems ultimately from the xenophobia that emerges in early life as infants become naturally wary of strangers. It then becomes a matter of cultural and educational priority to try to reduce it, increase it, or leave it alone.

If you increase it or leave it alone, then under certain conditions you get race war. Rape accusations are often involved, not accidentally; adult xenophobia has evolutionary roots that often put sex at center stage. But there are many other things to blame your ethnic enemies for, once fear and hatred are aroused. And it is always so much easier to blame the other.

Not that it isn’t sometimes legitimate; that’s the rub. Logic doesn’t always intervene on the side of racial peace. But the tendencies are there regardless of the logic. Chimpanzees periodically aggregate in groups and go looking for hapless victims to kill on the edge of the next-door territory. That is our evolutionary legacy.

Germans exterminate Jews and Gypsies, to the delight of the Poles and Ukrainians. The Soviet empire falls and ethnic conflict breaks out in Chechnya and Azerbaijan. In the former Yugoslavia, groups that have mingled happily for decades become mortal enemies overnight. In Rwanda, Hutu call Tutsi grasshoppers and murder almost a million.

And these are just a few of the really big events. Smaller ones beyond number occur throughout the world every day, and each has the potential to become deadly. Sometimes blame is appropriate, sometimes not. Often we have no idea what is going on until it is too late. Last week, it was China’s turn. It’s all too predictable, and all too human.

(For pronunciation of “Uighur” and “Urumchi” click here.)

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