Unrest in Xinjiang

The Times reports that 17 people were killed by rioters in Lukqun, Xinjiang Province, before police opened fie on the rioters and shot ten of them dead. The notion of China as a nation state is a very recent – at least by Chinese standards – one. Well into the last dynasty (Qing) China had no official borders as such. There were areas of Imperial control, and these faded into ‘barbarian lands’ beyond. Modern China has famously been described as a culture masquerading as a nation state.

It was not until the arrival of the West that the Qing his can be understood in the context of the land grab that was taking place for China by nations such as Britain, France and Japan (all with colonies which bordered with China) as well as with Russia, with a long border with Russia. The best illustration of why demarcating the borders was needed is the case of Mongolia.

The entire lands of Mongolia were once part of China. Today there is the sovereign state of Mongolia, and the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, in northern China. The idea that the land closest to Beijing is called Inner Mongolia is clearly a sinocentric one. The modern state of Mongolia was formed in the 1920’s heavily influenced and encouraged by the Soviet Union. Russia had historically had similar aims in Xinjiang, whilst the British sought control over Tibet as an extension of their control of India.

The fact that foreign powers were so aggressive in their attempts to acquire Chinese lands in part explains why modern China is so steadfast when it comes to issues of national sovereignty. China’s view of itself in terms of territory is one firmly routed in the Westphalian concept of nationhood. And although this is often a perspective not enjoyed by the West today, it was in fact the only conceptual framework available to the Chinese in which to respond to nineteenth century Western (and Japanese) aggression.

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