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Scholars discuss ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet

May 30, 2016

By Emily Feng and Edward Wong

New York Times, May 26, 2016 - Since violent ethnic protests and riots erupted in the western borderlands of China in 2008 and 2009, many scholars have been trying to pinpoint the sources of the unrest. They include Ben Hillman, a senior lecturer in comparative politics at Australian National University, and Gray Tuttle, associate professor of East Asian languages and cultures at Columbia University. They have edited a volume of papers and essays looking at the roots of these tensions, “Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Xinjiang and Tibet: Unrest in China’s West”, ,” recently published by Columbia University Press. The issues explored range widely, be it environmental degradation in Tibet or economic disparities between ethnic Uighurs in their homeland of Xinjiang and Han migrants from other parts of China. In an interview, Mr. Hillman and Mr. Tuttle discussed the grievances behind recent protests and the likelihood of their resolution.

Q. One of your contributors, James Leibold, draws a distinction between ethnic conflict and ethnic protest. Could you explain?

Ben Hillman: It is important to properly characterize the unrest in China’s western regions. The term “ethnic conflict” generally refers to conflict between ethnic communities, whereas “ethnic protest” refers to protests by an ethnic community against state policies. The vast majority of “mass incidents” that have taken place in recent years can be characterized as ethnic protests. Although intercommunal violence has been on the rise in recent years, both in Tibetan and Uighur areas, it has not reached the level of “ethnic conflict.”

Gray Tuttle: I would add that most of the intercommunal violence that has occurred has grown out of the resistance to state policies, so focusing on ethnic protest seems more important.

Q. Access to Tibet and Xinjiang is increasingly difficult for foreign researchers, and some have been banned from China as a result of their writings on these regions. How has this affected scholarship?

Mr. Hillman: It was difficult to assemble a group of experts who have recently conducted research in the region. Tibet and Xinjiang are highly sensitive topics in China. Even Chinese researchers face difficulties in accessing the region.

The Chinese government’s official view is that unrest in Tibetan and Uighur areas is being manipulated and orchestrated by external forces seeking independence from China, which raises national security concerns. Chinese authorities are generally suspicious of foreigners, especially Westerners, who are interested in the region, believing many to be sympathetic to overseas exile groups. This creates problems for independent researchers and journalists.

Q. One theme running through your book is how local bureaucracy often is not only ineffective at addressing conflict, but actually reinforces conditions that produce conflict. How does this happen?

Mr. Hillman: Laws and policies designed to protect the rights of ethnic minorities are often ignored — for example, the requirement that local government business be conducted in both Chinese and the local language — and officials are not held accountable for these failings. Further, the central government has pumped billions of dollars into Tibet and Xinjiang as part of efforts to win hearts and minds, but resources are too often captured by venal local officials, which increases inequality and fuels resentment.

Local officials have also largely failed to make people feel secure about the future of their regions’ cultural identity, and this plays out in a number of areas.

Accountability is a problem throughout China because it flows upward and not downward, and without other channels to settle grievances and right wrongs, citizens are often forced to take to the streets.

However, there are important differences between protests in Tibet and Xinjiang and protests in other parts of China. Protests by Tibetans and Uighurs are officially characterized as antagonistic and a threat to national security, which effectively delegitimizes them. Local officials can and do play the security card in response to any manner of local complaint, making people extremely vulnerable. The long-term consequences of this disenfranchisement are unpredictable, but will doubtless hinder the Chinese Communist Party’s nation-building project.

Q. The contributors in your book cite increased news coverage, social media and information sharing within minority groups and a more coherent language of human rights as factors behind ethnic protests.

Mr. Tuttle: These may be true of Xinjiang, but I think in Tibet it has everything to do with frustration at the constant failure of the state to deliver on its promises, from autonomy to economic benefits related to the “Open the West” campaign. The good news is that if the state would indeed live up to its own promises, I think the situation would improve very quickly. Unfortunately, I do not think this is likely.

Mr. Hillman: I, too, cannot imagine policy settings changing in the near future. As China expands trade ties with Central and South Asia under the aegis of its One Belt, One Road strategy, authorities will be even more determined to keep a lid on unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang. Because dissent in the region is now characterized as a security threat, any form of protest, including complaints filed through formal government mechanisms, will be dealt with harshly.

Ultimately, I think Beijing is confident that its carrot-and-stick approach to the region will work in the long run, and that problems will dissipate once the region is more economically developed. The collected research in our volume suggests that this is a misreading of Uighur and Tibetan concerns, and that authorities should be very concerned about peoples’ fears for cultural survival as the juggernaut of Chinese modernization rolls west.

Q. What patterns do you see in protests in Xinjiang and Tibet?

Mr. Hillman: Our book shows how local dynamics vary from place to place, including across the urban-rural divide. However, with some exceptions, there does appear to be a pattern of higher levels of violence occurring in areas that are less socially and economically integrated with the rest of the country — i.e., areas that have only recently been exposed to large-scale state-funded development projects and Han Chinese migration. These are places where peoples’ ways of life are undergoing major disruptions, and where people feel most insecure about the future.

Q. The Tibetan capital, Lhasa, was also the site of protests in the late 1980s. What is different about more recent unrest?

Mr. Tuttle: The biggest difference between the 1980s and 2008 and afterwards is the locations and distribution of protests. Most of the demonstrations in 2008 and after took place outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, to which they were largely confined in the 1980s. Also different is that many, if not most, of the demonstrations since 2008 are not seeking independence, but are just seeking to realize the autonomy and/or support that the state has promised.

Mr. Hillman: An important difference in Tibetan areas in recent years has been the increasing diversity of protesters. In Lhasa in the late 1980s, most demonstrators were monks and nuns. In recent years, people from all walks of life and social classes have taken to the streets.

In Xinjiang, a major development has been the increase in terror attacks perpetrated by fringe extremists against civilian targets, including targets outside of the region, which is very troubling.

However, as the Chinese authorities work to combat this scourge, it is vital that policy makers maintain a clear distinction between the tiny minority of religious extremists unleashing terror and the ethnic Uighurs who express legitimate concerns about how state social and economic policies affect their well-being and their future as an ethnic community within China.

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