Thursday, December 08, 2022

Settler colonialism helps explain current events in Xinjiang and Ukraine, as well as the history of Australia and the United States.

Settler colonialism helps explain current events in Xinjiang and Ukraine, as well as the history of Australia and the United States.

Global hotspots, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s actions in Xinjiang, have a common background: a previous history of invasions and occupations.

The northwestern region of Xinjiang, for example, became an autonomous region under Chinese rule in 1955. Officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, this largely Turkic, Muslim region is viewed by the Chinese as a possible threat to China’s security and territorial integrity.

The government in Beijing encouraged the mass migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang, which caused resentment among the local Uyghurs. After clashes in 2009 that killed more than 200 people and the Tiananmen Square terrorist attack in 2013, the Chinese cracked down with aggressive police and heavy surveillance. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been imprisoned, more than 1 million detained in “re-education camps”, and China is accused of genocide.

This invasion-and-occupation tactic can also be seen in the way 250,000 Russians resettled in Crimea after its annexation in 2014.

Academics sometimes refer to this tactic as “settler colonialism”. As a strategy of submission, it has many historical precedents and provides an important lens for understanding geopolitics in various parts of the modern world.

Two types of empire

History is littered with empires. Generally speaking, there are two types.

British rule in India is an example of an empire of control where the imperialists extract wealth and resources without large-scale emigration from the colonizing country. Importing India’s wealth, especially its textiles, was an important requirement of the British Industrial Revolution.

There are also settlement empires that occupy colonial territories by moving large numbers of settlers. All over the world, especially in the sparsely populated open grasslands of Australia and America, indigenous people have been displaced and marginalized as their homelands have been taken over by treaty, sale, trickery and theft.

This process often included brute force or ethnic cleansing as the land was seized and given to immigrants. In Australia, the British justified colonization by declaring the continent “terra nullius” – that is, empty and uninhabited.

Settler colonies were used to defend the frontiers of empires. The policy of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), which resettled ethnic Chinese in the newly conquered territories, is still applied in Tibet and Xinjiang. Both imperial Russia and the former Soviet Union encouraged citizens to settle in border regions, which is why today at least 20% of Ukraine’s population is ethnic Russian.

People Dressed In Winter Coats Carry Their Belongings Through The Snow, Against The Backdrop Of A Destroyed Bridge
Civilians continue to flee Irpin due to ongoing Russian attacks in Irpin, Ukraine March 8, 2022.
Emin Sansar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Settler colonialism

Many settler empires emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries and lasted into the 20th century. In Africa, for example, settler societies were founded by the British in Kenya, the French in Algeria, and the Dutch in South Africa.

The colonists who entered, often in large numbers, were generally white Europeans who took control of the land, life, and economy of the indigenous peoples. Although there were exceptions. In Liberia, black Americans settled in the land of black Africans; in Israel, mostly Jewish immigrants occupied the lands of the Arab population; and in China, most of the Han people moved to non-Han areas.

My research into interactions between Indigenous peoples and European settlers in North America and resistance to cultural integration by the Indigenous movement in central Australia offered me a different perspective on history. Looking at the past through the prism of settler colonialism significantly changes the way we look at the history of many countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.

Today’s problems through the colonial prism

Most settler societies have a biased history in which racial categories determine who has power. One strategy was to make full citizenship only available to settlers and their descendants. Some of the more extreme examples include racial rule in South Africa, which led to brutal apartheid and traumatized generations of Indigenous Australians.

There is also a long history of child abuse, where indigenous children were taken from their homes to be assimilated into settler society. Emerging evidence of this practice, including that experienced by Indigenous children in Canadian boarding schools, is helping to rewrite the history books from an Indigenous perspective, not just from a settler perspective.

By restricting immigration, some countries, including Australia, Canada, and the United States, have attempted to maintain their racial or ethnic identity and their power. Many of these policies have only been relaxed in recent years.

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But with surprising resilience, indigenous peoples resisted cultural assimilation, political marginalization, and economic insecurity.

Horse-Drawn Carts Are Scattered Across A Deep, Flat Landscape In A Black And White Photograph.
Settlers flocked to what was then known as “Indian Territory” when the sound of a gunshot opened the area to white settlement on September 16, 1893. The land rush marked the early beginnings of the state of Oklahoma.
Associated Press Photo/AA Forbes

Land is a key issue as indigenous groups continue to make claims to land and resist land grabs. From the ongoing Mapuche claim in Chile to the successful Aboriginal Australian campaign to repeal the legality of “terra nullius”, the land claimed by the settlers is being contested.

New facts and a wider awareness of the racist nature of settler societies challenge the triumphant view of progress. The new information provides a darker picture of the impact of settler colonialism on indigenous peoples, including ethnic genocide and the devastating effects of the loss of both land and cultural identities.

It’s not just a story. Unequal, mistreatment of settlers and indigenous peoples continues in today’s settler societies, not least in Xinjiang and Ukraine.

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