The Screaming Pen

Providing Global Insight, Context, and Perspective

Classic Pen: The New Amsterdam

Minorities Crime & Drugs in China

The meanest bowl of la mian – steaming sweet noodles and meat that renew life on a frosty winter evening – you’ll ever find will be in a Uighur restaurant. Fortunately for survival, the dish can be found for 40 cents in noodle stalls located in neighborhoods throughout China. Less auspiciously for Chinese authorities, the widespread presence of ethnic minorities is, combined with the drug trade, making domestic control increasingly harder to maintain.

People from the Xinjiang (the place) Uighur (the people) Autonomous Region, China’s most western province, are noticeably different-looking than the ethnic Han that make up around 95% of the nation’s population. On average, the Uighurs are taller, with sharper features and lighter eyes. They appear more like Central Asians as they are indeed from that corner of the world. Unlike the officially atheistic Chinese, they are Muslim and wear a doppa, or Uighur hat.


Visine: Gets the Red Out

Uighurs are overwhelmingly a friendly, hospitable, and decent people. As is inherent in human nature, however, a small minority exists with less savory motives and the will to resist. They also have legitimate grievances: Xinjiang was only really pulled into Beijing’s orbit in the 1950’s when the People’s Army arrived. In a successful effort to prevent independence – similar to that witnessed in former Soviet states with similar histories in Central Asia – China has been moving its citizens to the province by the millions in an effort to pacify the Uighurs through demography and breeding; the Han now make up 50% of Xinjiang’s population. Furthermore, widespread human rights abuses and the absence of choice in the political arena lead to increasing frustration and unrest among Uighurs. Beijing’s solidarity with America’s war on terror is frequently thought to stem from domestic desires in Xinjiang. Remember the screeching woman on the White House lawn during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s speech in April? She was Uighur, and never would’ve been heard in China.

Yet as long as the central government possesses a monopoly on force restive groups find it virtually impossible to challenge its rule directly. Instead, dissent will undermine the state through other outlets. With little stake in a system that discriminates against them, some minorities seek profit through street crime and drug smuggling. Noodle stalls and niu rou (meat stick) vendors often sell hasheesh alongside their edibles. During 2005 they became even bolder, approaching shaggy-looking foreigners on Shanghai’s main tourish promenade. They also sustain a healthy trade in stolen goods, lifting cell phones and wallets, and push imitation Marlboros.

An Unhappy Bunch

The Uighurs are not the only groups in China with varying loyalties: Tibet has long been a high-profile cause celebre, and the people in Southern China – Guangdong and Hong Kong – don’t consider themselves Chinese because they aren’t Han and don’t speak Mandarin, but Cantonese. Economic dynamism has led to relative calm from Hong Kongers who were more than a little uneasy when the People’s Army arrived as the British pulled out in 1997. And while they have very different aspirations and live under widely divergent conditions than the Uighurs, they are increasingly pushy about their freedoms. Mongolian, Laotian, and Burmese groups also call the PRC home.

Definitely Worth the Trip

Nationalities from far beyond Asia are developing a presence in the country as well. In May, in conjunction with the United States, China seized 300 pounds of cocaine from a Colombian narco-gang with local partners in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Even more disturbingly, less than a mile from Zhongnanhai – the Chinese leadership’s central headquarters in Beijing- lies Sanlitun Rd and its shady cousin, Sanlitun South. The former is a dull stretch of karaoke bars with awful beer that guidebooks tout as having the best nightlife around. Just a few blocks away, hidden on all sides by apartment blocks, emerges an expatriate college student’s dream: a dusty dirt road where animals roam freely, lined by tiny alleys with wild-west bars that stay open all night serving Coronas for 50 cents. Indeed, the latter looks more like Mexico than what you’d expect to find in the heart of the Chinese capital. Less benignly are the Nigerian lookouts that man each end of the street offering everything from marijuana to crack to the passerby.

In a country that places a premium on prying into both its own citizens’ and foreigners’ lives, combined with the blatant visibility of the practice, one wonders how it can exist without the authorities’ complicity. This is doubly so given that the Nigerians are legally in China on student visas. How they got the visas is not so difficult to discern: Nigeria is a significant source of Chinese oil imports, and thus the necessary immigration papers get filed rather quickly. Yet the opacity of the government means that its role in the drug trade – whether through tacit approval and taxation or active facilitation – cannot be ruled out. Do high-ups have knowledge of it? Could it be that the Colombian drug bust accomplished two tasks at the same time: cracking down on a rival gang without connections while showing America’s Drug Enforcement Agency that it’s a good-faith partner in the War on Drugs?

If so, not only is it grossly illegal and disingenuous but illogical. Both petty and violent crime are on the rise in China, and figures will continue to climb in the future. China’s leaders should be careful about the short-term profits they seek from the trade, as the networks it creates will undermine their authority and prove impossible to stamp out. Politically, the communist party exerts a firm hold on power, but increasing revolts – numbering 87,000 last year according to party reports – will lead to a day, unlikely to be soon, when this changes. When it does the Uighurs, Tibetans, Cantonese and others will hardly help slow its fall.

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August 26, 2006 - Posted by | Asia, Business, China, Emerging Markets, War on Drugs

1 Comment »

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    Comment by xshefiriwh | March 25, 2007 | Reply


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