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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."


July 17, 2009

Jul 9th 2009 

The Uighurs' revolt undermines China's idea that its people will always
happily trade freedom for prosperity

SPOT the odd one out: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan,
Uzbekistan, Xinjiang. Since the unravelling of the Soviet Union and the
birth of the Central Asian republics, the vast swathe of China known as
the Xinjiang Autonomous Region has seemed a cartographic anomaly.
"Uighurstan" has never been on the cards for the ethnic-Turkic Muslims
of the region, who now make up slightly under half its 20m population.
But Communist Party officials in Beijing have nevertheless fretted
about the linked threats of extremist Islam and secession. Vicious race
riots this week in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, have caused the deaths
of over 150 people and shown just what a hash the regime has made of
fostering stability.

The bloodiest known incident of unrest in China since the massacre that
ended the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 embarrassed China's
president, Hu Jintao, into skipping the G8 summit in Italy. That is not
surprising. Though distant from Beijing, the unrest in Xinjiang calls
into question basic assumptions about China made by both the government
and foreign investors: that Chinese citizens are ready to trade
political dignity and fairness for economic progress and wealth; and
that irrational forces, such as religion and ethnic nationalism, are
distractions that can be bludgeoned away to enable the smooth
technocratic transformation of society.

 The Uighurs' plight is like that of the Tibetans: unfairness is not a
side issue. Like the anti-Chinese riots last year in Lhasa, Tibet's
capital, the savagery in Urumqi shows that modernisation does not
always dampen resentment against Chinese rule. For both the Uighurs and
the Tibetans, economic development has been inseparable from
immigration by ethnic-Han Chinese, 92% of China's population. But the
two minorities present very different problems for the Beijing regime.

The Uighurs have never captured the West's attention in the way that
Tibet has. While the saintly Dalai Lama has won the Nobel peace prize
and become a friend to Hollywood stars, few outside the Islamic world
have heard of Isa Yusuf Alptekin, exiled head of the Islamic Republic
of East Turkestan, who died in 1995, aged 94, or of Rebiya Kadeer, a
Uighur businesswoman who is the movement's new figurehead. The Chinese
have also managed to persuade foreigners that the protests in Xinjiang
are linked to jihadist terrorism: there are connections to the Taliban
in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and almost two dozen Uighurs have spent
time in Guantanamo Bay.

Although Tibet has garnered more headlines, the Uighurs probably
represent a greater threat to the regime in Beijing. An uprising in
western Xinjiang around Kashgar in 1990 was swiftly put down;
pro-independence protests in 1997 led to bloodshed, and last year there
were several terrorist attacks, including one in Kashgar in which 17
policemen died. The Uighurs' resentments also have the scope to inflame
Muslim sentiment not just in China (which has more Muslims than Saudi
Arabia) but throughout the Islamic world.

The rioters were obviously not terrorists, so China has tried to make a
scapegoat out of Ms Kadeer this time. But the idea that this revolt was
planned seems fanciful. The pent-up anger vented on the streets of
Urumqi was chaotic, ignited by reports of the deaths of at least two
Uighur toy-factory workers after they had been falsely accused of rape.
The violence in Xinjiang was crude, racist stuff on both sides, with
the Han Chinese suffering the brunt of it.

 The fighting was nasty enough in itself, but its underlying causes
should worry Beijing even more. Many Uighurs believe their land,
traditions and religion are being swamped by decades of Han
immigration, which has seen the proportion of Uighurs in Xinjiang
shrink from about 75% in 1949 to 45% now. They are less likely to
advance in the civil service, and many feel that Han Chinese do better
in business too. They are fed up with their lot as despised,
second-class citizens. Like Tibetans, Uighurs feel colonised, as
Xinjiang's natural resources--it is rich in oil and gas--benefit the
rich coastal regions. Meanwhile, for some Han Chinese, the Uighurs seem
ungrateful and backward, pampered by the state with preferential
policies, such as being allowed to have more children.

These prejudices are fed by another Chinese failing: the habit of
secrecy and censorship. Lies and partial truths spread fast. Confronted
with a choice of ugly rumours--as about the toy-factory case--many are
inclined to believe the ugliest. At least China seems to have learnt
from the riots in Lhasa last year: the ethnic-Tibetan violence against
innocent Han Chinese got less coverage than China's repressive
response. This time, China allowed foreign reporters into Urumqi.

That aside, China's response to the Uighur revolt has been pretty
standard. It poured troops in, rounding up hundreds of people and
putting them behind bars. If the past is any guide, many will be
detained for months; some will be tried and sentenced to death. China
will blame an evil minority at home and abroad. It will make no attempt
to acknowledge--let alone redress--the grievances behind the outburst.
Tibet and Xinjiang will be suppressed as if they were unruly colonies.

But is this sustainable? Tibetans and Uighurs are only two of the
groups which may not accept the growth-for-freedom trade-off that
China's government offers. There are the unknown numbers of adherents
to the Falun Gong movement; tens of millions of Christians who cannot
follow their faith freely but already probably outnumber the 75m
members of the Communist Party; farmers who have been victims of
local-authority land-grabs; and many young who, unlike their parents,
take economic prosperity for granted and are frustrated by the
restrictions on their liberty.

By resorting to repression, Beijing can easily contain the disruption
in Xinjiang. Despite its xenophobic propaganda, the integrity of the
People's Republic's territory is not under threat. But something just
as important is: the harmony which the government espouses as China's
greatest national value, and without which the regime will find it
harder to survive.

See this article with graphics and related items at

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