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China's Latest Tibet

July 7, 2009

Why Beijing won't compromise in Xinjiang.

BY JOHN LEE | JULY 6, 2009

After scolding the West for interfering in the internal affairs of Iran,
Beijing's public relations department will now be on the defensive following
riots in Urumqi, the capital of the westernmost region of Xinjiang. Chinese
state media has admitted that 140 people have been killed and almost 1,000
arrested. Hundreds had taken to the streets to protest the local
government's handling of a clash between Han Chinese and Uighur factory
workers in far southern China in late June, in which two Uighurs died. The
police responded to the rallies with force, claiming that the unrest was the
work of extremist forces abroad and that a heavy reaction was necessary to
bring the situation under control.

Given the region's population of 20 million -- barely 1.5 percent of the
country's people -- many are wondering: Why has Beijing taken such a hard
line in Xinjiang? The reason is summed up in one of the ruling party's
favorite mantras: "stability of state." Unrest of even a small magnitude,
the Chinese authorities believe, can spell big consequences if it spirals
out of control.

Instability of the sort in Xinjiang today is hardly new for China. Behind
Shanghai's glamour and the magnificence of Beijing, there are large swaths
of disunity and disorder. Taiwan, which mainland China still claims as its
own, remains recalcitrant and effectively autonomous. Residents of Hong Kong
want guarantees that Beijing will not dismantle the rights they enjoyed
under British colonial rule. And traditional Tibetans, who fear a complete
political and religious takeover by the ethnically Han majority, want
cultural and administrative autonomy -- even if most have abandoned hopes of
achieving outright secession. Many of the 10 million Uighurs in Xinjiang
want the same. The current violence is just the latest manifestation of
their simmering anger.

There is widespread disorder even in provinces that pose no challenge to
Beijing's right to rule. In 2005, for example, there were 87,000 officially
recorded instances of unrest (defined as those involving 15 or more
people) -- up from just a few thousand incidents a decade ago. Most protests
are overwhelmingly spontaneous rather than political; they arise out of
frustration among the 1 billion or so "have-nots" who deal with illegal
taxes, land grabs, corrupt officials, and so on. To deal with the strife,
Beijing has built up a People's Armed Police of some 800,000 and written
several Ph.D.-length manuals to counsel officials on how to manage protests.
Those documents detail options to deal with protest leaders: namely the
tactical use of permissiveness and repression, and compromise and coercion,
on a case-by-case basis. The tactics are designed to take the fuel out of
the fire. Sometimes leaders of protests are taken away; other times they are
paid off; still other times they are given what they want.

Much of this is done quietly, which is perhaps why the current riots stand
out. When it comes to what Beijing sees as separatist behavior, subtlety is
no longer an option. Although their populations are relatively small,
Xinjiang and Tibet together constitute one third of the Chinese land mass,
and Beijing will not tolerate losing control over these territories. To be
sure, the protesters in Urumqi and their supporters cannot spark an uprising
throughout China. The protests will eventually be quelled, and their leaders
will no doubt be dealt with brutally. But as the history of the Chinese
Communist Party tells us, when the regime's moral and political legitimacy
is threatened, the leadership almost always chooses to take a hard,
uncompromising line.

President Hu Jintao, who incidentally earned early brownie points within the
party by leading a crackdown of political dissidents in Tibet in 1989,
understands better than anyone that authoritarian regimes appear weak at
their own peril. Losing face, he believes, will only embolden the "enemies
of the state." The Communist Party's Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which
is chaired by Hu, has often spoken warily about the democratic "viruses"
behind the "color revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia, and perhaps
eventually Iran -- the same kind that could conceivably take root in places
such as Xinjiang and Tibet. This is why Chinese authorities are deeply
suspicious of any group with loyalties that might transcend the state and
regime or at least cannot be easily controlled by the state, such as the
Falun Gong, Catholics, or independent trade unions.

It's important to remember that, at home, the government's hard line is not
wholly unpopular. Most Chinese do not support the separatist agendas of
Tibet, Xinjiang, or Taiwan. They would rather see a strong and unified China
restored to historic glory. No wonder then that the Chinese state media has
been quite upfront about reporting on the current unrest in Urumqi.

Chinese leaders learned much about control in their extensive studies of the
collapse of the Soviet Union. Their conclusion is clear: It was Mikhail
Gorbachev's ill-fated attempts to be reasonable that brought down that
empire. The current generation of Chinese leaders is determined not to make
the same mistake. And that means no compromise in Xianjiang.
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