The news over the past few days that large-scale rioting has taken place in Urumqi is a reminder that the Tibetans are not the only people who are not happy with Chinese rule. But to understand the situation in either place it is necessary to be clear on a few background facts. Historically, Tibet and the Central Asian region sometimes known as East Turkestan (known to the Chinese as "Xinjiang") have been inhabited by the Tibetans and Uyghurs (sometimes spelled "Uighur") respectively. Neither of these peoples is Chinese; their languages, customs, cultures and religions are completely distinct from China's. So why does China rule them now? First, it might be helpful to get an idea of the extent of China proper. A look at a historical map of Ming dynasty China shows that Chinese territory in the Ming dynasty did not include Tibet, Turkestan, Mongolia, or the lands that now make up northeast China. This is because these lands were not inhabited by Chinese.
But in the 17th century, China was conquered by the Manchus, a non-Chinese people from the northeast, who set up the Qing dynasty. The Manchus were regarded by the Chinese as foreigners, though over time they eventually were assimilated by their subjects. In the first decades of Manchu rule, they expanded their empire far beyond China, conquering Mongolia, East Turkestan and Tibet. These territories were imperial possessions, just as India was an imperial possession of the British, Central America was an imperial territory of Spain, and so forth. The main thing these regions had in common with China was that they were all part of the same empire.
In 1912, after a long period of decline, the Qing dynasty fell and the Republic of China was proclaimed. The ROC laid claim to all the territory of the Manchu empire, despite the fact that much of it was not Chinese. The new government was unable to enforce its claims, so most of the non-Chinese regions became independent. However, they maintained their questionable claims of sovereignty over all the empire, so when the ROC government was forced out of China to Taiwan and the People's Republic of China was set up, the PRC in turn claimed all of the same empire (except Outer Mongolia, which their Soviet allies forced them to recognize as independent).
Unfortunately for places like Tibet, which had been a de facto independent country for several decades by this time, the PRC was able to enforce its claims militarily, conquering all of the non-Chinese areas that had once been part of the Manchu empire except Outer Mongolia.
Are the Chinese claims to sovereignty over these places justifiable? One way to answer that is to ask whether other imperial claims are justifiable. Did Britain have the "right" to rule India, Malaysia, and all its other imperial possessions? Did the French have the "right" to its colonies in West Africa, Indochina, and so on? Did Russia have the "right" to rule Poland, which it did throughout the 19th century? Most people now would agree that imperialism and colonialism as practiced by the Europeans was wrong, and all of those countries were justified in struggling for independence. So is Chinese rule in historically non-Chinese areas justified? China runs these places, which they "inherited" as part of an empire, in exactly the same exploitative fashion that the Europeans ran their colonies. In some ways Chinese rule is even worse, as the Chinese government, aside from actively trying to suppress local culture, is using the vast population of Chinese to swamp the local people by encouraging the Han (as the ethnic Chinese are called) to move to these places in large numbers to make money. Most of the money from economic development in places like Tibet and East Turkestan goes into the pockets of Han Chinese, so the local people see that not only have they lost their independence, but their homeland is being turned into a Han-majority region in which they will be an impoverished minority with a culture that is slowly withering away. It's no wonder that some of them are inclined to riot.
In the case of Tibet, China tries to blame any rioting on the Dalai Lama, despite the fact that he has bent over backwards to emphasize his opposition to violence and his willingness to settle for autonomy rather than independence. In East Turkestan, China blames all violence on Islamic fundamentalists and "terrorists." This is a particularly disingenuous effort to lump Muslims struggling for independence for their own homeland with al-Qaeda terrorists like Osama bin Laden. Some Uyghurs were indeed captured by American troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan and imprisoned in Guantanamo, but the US has since determined that they were not a danger to it. In fact, their only enemies are the Chinese government, which will happily torture and execute them if it gets its hands on them. But the point to remember is that the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Uyghurs in Guantanamo and those who rioted in Urumqi have something in common -- they are all victims of old-fashioned imperialism and colonialism at the hands of China.
The Chinese like to claim that these "malcontents" are exceptions and most people in Tibet and East Turkestan are happy with Chinese rule. If that is the case, why are they so afraid of letting people speak their minds about it? If a desire for independence is indeed a minority opinion, then they have no more to fear from it than the US government has to fear from the Alaskan Independence Party. More likely, the Chinese know or at least fear that, given the chance to speak freely, most Tibetans and Uyghurs would support independence.
So the question for the rest of the world is, should we acquiesce in Chinese colonial rule in Tibet and East Turkestan, or should we support the Tibetans and Uyghurs in their desire for the same independence that has been granted to most European colonies around the world? Will we be bamboozled by Chinese assertions that these areas are historically part of China and so their colonial rule is justified? Will we be fooled by claims that the rioting Uyghurs are al-Qaeda-allied Islamic terrorists instead of fighters for independence? Will we just sit back and watch as the Chinese government once again crushes a challenge to its rule? Or will we call on the Chinese to let the Tibetans and Uyghurs decide their own future and the future of the lands that were theirs long before the Chinese came? As individuals, if enough of us speak out against Chinese colonialism in Tibet and Turkestan and call on our elected leaders to take a similar stand, perhaps we can put enough pressure on China for it to see that it cannot continue to maintain its empire through repression, and that if it truly wants to be a world leader, it has to respect the rights of all the people in its territory.