Three years ago I visited the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. It's a spectacularly beautiful place, with thick oak, pine and bamboo forests blanketing a soaring topography, the green mountainsides capped by scores of jagged, snowy peaks.
These mountains, along with strict tradition-bound government policies, have allowed Bhutan's religiously rooted culture to remain, to this day, relatively free of outside cultural influences.
Bhutan is wedged between China to the north and India to the south. Land access from India is easy, via subtropical lowland roads, and diplomatic and trade relations between the two nations are strong.
China's a very different story. Himalayan peaks more than 20,000-feet-high make land travel between the two nations virtually impossible. For the Bhutanese, that's been a blessing.
That's because, historically and to this day, the Himalayas have impeded expansionist China's desire to push southward. Energy and resource-hungry modern China would love to harvest Bhutan's forests and abundant hydroelectricity power, the latter now largely exported to India. (Bhutan has no formal diplomatic relations with China, or, for that matter, the United States.)
Were China to succeed it would undoubtedly mean the collapse of Bhutan's carefully preserved Vajrayana (Tibetan-style) Buddhist culture. Bhutan, in effect, would go the way of the nation of Tibet and the region known as Xinjiang.
Xinjiang? More in a minute.
Regular GetReligion readers are aware of how China has acted in Tibet, slowly eradicating that occupied land's religiously based and ethnically distinct culture. Several of us here at GetReligion have written about it. Click here and here for refresher posts.
GetReligion readers should also be well-versed on Beijing's heavy-handed treatment of its dissidents and various religious believers -- Christians who refuse to join government-sanctioned "registered" churches in particular.
(China's current economic crunch could slow this process, but certainly won't end it. Unless Beijing's spending policies crash the global economy, that is. But that's a story for another blog site.)
But then there's Xinjiang, with its own set of religious and cultural dynamics -- all of it complicated by the undeniable truth that Xinjiang has its own bad actors. This recent New York Times piece sums up the Xinjiang situation quite well. Here are correspondent Andrew Jacobs' lede graphs:
KASHGAR, China -- Families sundered by a wave of detentions. Mosques barred from broadcasting the call to prayer. Restrictions on the movements of laborers that have wreaked havoc on local agriculture. And a battery of ever more intrusive ways to monitor the communications of citizens for possible threats to public security.
A recent 10-day journey across the Xinjiang region in the far west of China revealed a society seething with anger and trepidation as the government, alarmed by a slow-boil insurgency that has claimed hundreds of lives, has introduced unprecedented measures aimed at shaping the behavior and beliefs of China’s 10 million Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority that considers this region its homeland.
Driving these policies is the government’s view that tougher security and tighter restraints on the practice of Islam are the best way to stem a wave of violence that included a knife attack at a coal mine that killed dozens of people in September.
So that's the rub. Xingiang is the homeland of a religious and ethnic minority. Moreover, its majority inhabitants, the Uighurs -- or more precisely, a radicalized subset of them -- can get pretty nasty themselves.
Uighurs have been identified as joining jihadi groups across the Muslim world, including the Islamic State, or ISIS. Read this Reuters story for background on Uighur jihadis involvement in Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
In short, it's a highly complicated situation that defies quick or simple answers. But here are two questions about this situation I'd like to pose to journalists, religion journalists in particular.
The first is, what part does Confucianism play here?
I'm not an expert on Confucianism. Few if any American religion writers are.
But I do know that despite decades of communism and what I'll call fascist capitalism, Confucianism (upon which some bestow the title of religion, as well) remains China's philosophical and social cultural touchstone. Here's a short tutorial on Confucianism, and here's a much longer and far more scholarly one.
And it does, as I understand it, embody on the political level an authoritarian insistence on obedience to the given order rooted in a sense of cultural superiority. I was not able to find any news coverage online addressing this. But I did come across this academic paper that affirms my suspicions.
Journalists interested in China might find it worthwhile to explore this angle further, as China won't be dropping out of the news anytime soon.
I'll make my second question very brief, though it's perhaps even knottier than my first.
Is China's policy of religious and cultural oppression in Xingiang the cause of Uighur terrorism? Or is Uighur terrorism responsible for the Chinese repression?
Sure, that's just another way of saying how do you apportion responsibility and at what point in time can you say a conflict began?
It's a question one can, and should, apply to any number of global crisis points, most assuredly those raging in the contemporary Muslim world, of which Xingiang is a part.
Your answer will depend upon which side you favor, on your world view, of course. But it's a question every journalist should consider when trying to report in context and fairly on the bloody and often confounding world in which we exist.