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Chinese checkers

July 13, 2009

Brahma Chellaney
Thursday, July 9, 2009 -  IST

By blanketing the oil-rich Xinjiang with troops, China's rulers may have
subdued the Uighur revolt, which began in Urumqi, the regional capital, and
spread to other heavily guarded cities like Kashgar. But this deadliest case
of minority rioting in decades -- along with the 2008 uprising across the
Tibetan plateau -- shows the costs of forcible absorption, laying bare
China's Achilles' heel.

About 60 per cent territory of the People's Republic comprises territories
that historically had not been under direct Han rule. In fact, the Great
Wall was built as the Han empire's outer security perimeter. Today, Xinjiang
and Tibet, by themselves, make up nearly half of China's landmass.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party had gone to unusual lengths to block any
protests from flaring during this symbolically important year marking the
60th anniversary of its coming to power -- an occasion the party is
preparing to celebrate with the biggest-ever party. The 20th anniversary of
"June 4", the date of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy
protesters, went by without any incident because of heavy security in
Beijing. A security siege in Tibet similarly ensured that the 50th
anniversary of the Tibetan national uprising against the Chinese occupation
and the Dalai Lama's consequent flight to India passed off peacefully in
March. A confident Beijing went to the extent of provocatively observing
March 28 this year -- the 50th anniversary of its declaration of direct rule
over Tibet -- as "Serf Emancipation Day", as if it just realised it
liberated Tibetans from serfdom half a century ago.

The Uighur uprising -- in the 60th-anniversary year of the Chinese
annexation of East Turkestan (now Xinjiang) -- thus is a rude jolt to what
is now the world's largest, oldest and strongest autocracy.
The Manchu assimilation into Han society and the swamping of the locals in
Inner Mongolia have left only the Tibetans and the Turkic-speaking Muslim
ethnic groups in Xinjiang as the holdouts. But the events since last year
have come as a painful reminder to the Chinese leadership that its policies
in Tibet and Xinjiang aren't working. Economic development in those regions,
largely geared at exploiting their resources, has only helped marginalise
the natives. While the locals get menial jobs, the Han settlers hold the
well-paying jobs, symbolising an equation between the colonised and the

More importantly, the very survival of the major non-Han cultures in China
is now threatened. From school-level indoctrination and forced political
re-education to draconian curbs on native farmland and monastic life,
Chinese policies have helped instil feelings of subjugation and resentment
in Tibet and Xinjiang. Demographically, what Beijing is pursuing there is
not ethnic cleansing but ethnic drowning. This strategy to ethnically drown
the natives through the "Go West" Han-migration campaign is akin to cultural

The Tibetan and Uighur languages already are disappearing from local
schools. Rapid Sinicisation of their pristine environment, however, has only
sharpened the Tibetan and Uighur sense of identity and yearning for freedom.

We may never get to know the number of casualties and arrests in Xinjiang.
At the first sign of trouble in Tibet or Xinjiang, Beijing cuts off local
internet and cellphone services and imposes a security lockdown through
curfews and virtual martial law. Few believe the official death toll in the
Xinjiang violence. After all, Beijing had insisted that only 13 people were
killed in spring 2008 in Tibet despite the Tibetan government-in-exile
documenting some 220 deaths.

There are important parallels between the Tibet and Xinjiang violence. The
ethnic uprisings in both regions erupted after authorities tried to disperse
peaceful protesters in the local capital -- Lhasa and Urumqi -- where Han
Chinese now outnumber the natives. And just as Beijing was quick to accuse
the Dalai Lama of inciting the Tibetan rebellion, it has blamed the Xinjiang
bloodshed on exiled Uighur leaders, specifically the Washington-based Rebiya
Kadeer. But Kadeer, an ex-businesswoman, is no advocate of violence,
although she spent six years in a Chinese jail and two of her sons are still
imprisoned in Xinjiang.

The policies of forced assimilation in Tibet and Xinjiang began after Mao
Zedong created a land corridor link between the two rebellious regions by
gobbling up India's 38,000-square-kilometre Aksai Chin. This area -- almost
the size of whole Switzerland -- started coming under Chinese control
through furtive encroachment in the 1950s, before Mao consolidated and
extended China's hold by waging open war on India in 1962. Aksai Chin
provides the only accessible Tibet-Xinjiang passageway through the Kunlun

China's ethnic problems won't go away unless it stops enforcing cultural
homogeneity. After the 2008 Tibetan uprising, 2009 will go down as the year
the Uighur revolted, sullying Communist China's 60th birthday.

The writer is the author of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and
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