Sailing Towards World Significance

Last Tuesday, June 25th, marked the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese from Beijing to Kashgar put on their finest slacks and ties, spent extra money at the barber shop and went to the local danwei recreation center to sing songs of praise.

I was watching the most recent music video advertisement for Beijing’s 2008 Olympic bid, marveling at the lyrics sung by Jackie Chan, Gong Li and other notables:

“3000 years of history
3000 years of glory
Great Olympics, New Beijing
inspire us all …”

when my television went fuzzy and suddenly I was watching amateur footage of the afternoon’s singing at Southwest Agricultural University, my danwei, I suppose. The lyrics were older and better known – all Chinese students wake up and sing them before they go to school – but the main theme is the same:

“Without the Communist party
There can be no New China …”

There is indeed a new China and a new Beijing. The Olympics certainly supplied the catalyst to clean up the city and address the city’s problems: garbage, dust, traffic congestion and inadequate water facilities. Whether or not the Communist party is a prerequisite for a new China is highly questionable – but the fact remains that 80 years ago China was carved up and on its knees. Today China is reaching across borders while opening its own, flexing economic muscles, and exerting growing influence in troubled areas like the Balkans and Iraq. Some examples of the New China:


Four years ago, a troupe of 20 Uzbek dancers received one-year visas from the Chinese government so they could perform high-kick, high-energy ethnic dances in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. Now, they are split into groups of five to six and they tour the country, bouncing from one seedy club to another making money and introducing Central Asia to the East.

Every year Duarsin and Ablekim return to Uzbekistan to recoup, renew visas and exchange renmenbi into greenbacks. Uzbek currency is worthless pretty much anywhere – it can’t be converted into foreign currency and most Uzbeks buy bread with rubles. They return in January to China with their three dancing partners, or “wives,” and get a gig for a few weeks. The five of them get paid 1,800 renmenbi a night, food and lodging are paid for, and drinks are usually on the house as well.

In Guangdong, there are hundreds of such acts – Turkish, Uzbek, Romanian, Russian – and the crowd appreciates them and gets a kick out of the folk-techno fusion and crazy clothes and high-pitched yelps that make up the show. But in Chongqing Province and Chengdu, Sichuan Province, Chinese customers don’t know what to make of the “Russians.” Although Sichuan is much closer to Xinjiang, where Turks hide behind every kebab stand, the Chinese here know nothing of Uzbek ulture.

The Uzbeks consider themselves, and the Uighers, and the Kashgaris, to be members of one big Turkestan – from Urumqi to Istanbul. Conversations sometimes got heated after a few bottles of Blue Sword Lager. When Duarsin told the club’s boss not to cheat his “Xinjiang brothers, who are Turks,” the boss retorted, “How could I cheat my fellow Chinese?”

Things ended peacefully amid backslaps and ganbei’s and the newly formed Shanghai Cooperation Organization aims to keep things that way. The SCO is the first step by the New China to create an alliance between three old enemies.

Uzbekistan is the SCO’s newest member and hopes to benefit from stronger economic and trade relations with China and Russia. China is the strongest of the six-nation group in terms of economic growth, which includes powerhouses like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

The -stans see a chance to develop their mineral and oil reserves through cooperation with the two bigger countries, as well as political support and recognition from two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. China also has economic interests, aside from the development of oil, in the smaller countries – Xinjiang is reported to have vast mineral and oil resources, all untapped and inaccessible … and Central Asian dancers are getting real popular. But the real impetus for the cooperation is border control and crime prevention. In April 1996, the top leaders of SCO members (sans Uzbekistan) met for the first time in Shanghai and signed a Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions. The next year, in Moscow, the leaders signed the Treaty on Reducing Military Forces in Border Regions.

With Taliban soldiers training Muslim fighters, Tajik rebels crossing over into Kyrgyz territory and Uigher dissidents blowing up cars every Spring Festival, both China and Russia see a need for an anti-terrorist organization to keep the peace and keep the borders intact. The differences between Duarsin, Ablikem and their audience are striking and underline the need for China to address its Xinjiang population. The languages are different and so far not a single Han Chinese the Uzbek dancers have met can understand the language spoken by a – shrinking – majority in Xinjiang. Initial contact between the Turks and the Chinese seems very cautious: the language of communication is smiling Mandarin, with both sides turning to local Sichuan dialects and Turkish for serious intra-clan consultation.