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The Tibetan and Uighur struggles for justice

April 5, 2008

Tony Iltis
Green Left Weekly, Australia
4 April 2008

Chinese authorities had detained more than 1000 Tibetans by April 3 in
the wake of protests and riots calling for self-determination that
started on March 10, the BBC reported on April 4.

According to Tibetan sources, 140 protesters have been shot by police
and troops. The Chinese government has only acknowledged 18 deaths:
those that occurred on March 14 when crowds rioted in Lhasa. Most of
these victims were Hui and Han Chinese, killed by rioters who were
burning and looting non-Tibetan businesses.

The protests began on March 10 with commemorations by Buddhist monks and
nuns in Lhasa of the anniversary of the unsuccessful 1959 uprising
against Chinese rule. Perhaps seeking to avoid a public relations
problem in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, the response of the
Chinese authorities was initially relatively restrained.

However, this restraint disappeared after March 14, when the clergy’s
protests triggered spontaneous outpourings of anger by ordinary Tibetans
that spread throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region and the
Tibetan-majority areas of the neighbouring Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan

Uighur struggle

Meanwhile, on March 23 and 24 more 1000 people from the Uighur
nationality demonstrated in the city of Khotan in the south of Xinjiang.
The protests were sparked by the killing in police custody of Uighur
businessperson Mutallip Hajim and restrictions on women wearing Islamic

The Uighurs, along with most of the non-Han nationalities in Xinjiang,
are Muslim. More than 500 Uighurs have been detained by Chinese
authorities who blamed the Khotan protests on the “three evil forces” of
seperatism, terrorism and religious extremism.

The grievances fuelling both Tibetan and Uighur opposition to Chinese
rule are broadly similar. In both cases, while incorporation into the
People’s Republic of China in the decade following the 1949 revolution
brought economic development and the elimination of oppressive
pre-capitalist class relations, this was offset by cultural and
religious persecution and discrimination vis-a-vis Han Chinese,
reflected in significantly lower indicators in education, health and

In both Tibet and Xinjiang, the market-driven economic reforms of the
1980s and ’90s that lead to the integration of China into the global
capitalist economy increased national tensions. The boom in Chinese
manufacturing has been largely concentated in the coastal provinces of
the east, with Xinjiang and Tibet confined to being sources of raw

Furthermore, the sparsely populated autonomous regions have become
destinations for Han Chinese transmigration. The discrimination and
educational disadvantage faced by the local population has meant that,
in both Xinjiang and Tibet, the rapidly growing modern sector of the
economy and the work force is dominated by transmigrants.

National movements

The Chinese government portrays the separatists movements as
backward-looking. However, it is the exclusion of the local populations
from the benefits of development, not development itself, that is
fuelling anti-Chinese sentiment in Tibet and Xinjiang.

In both Tibet and Xinjiang, the national movements have a religious
aspect: Buddhist in the case of the former, Muslim in that of the
latter. That the Tibetan protests have become a major issue in the
Western media while those of the Uighurs have been largely ignored can
be partly explained by the Islamophobia that has become a central
feature of imperialist propaganda since the “war on terror”, which has
replaced the anti-Communist Cold War as the main justification for
Western aggression against the Third World.

The main pro-independence organisation in Xinjiang, the East Turkestan
Islamic Movement, is classified as a terrorist group in the US as well
as in China. During the Cold War, the CIA supported armed nationalist
groups in both Tibet and Xinjiang until the rapprochement between China
and the West in 1972.

However, the prominent coverage of Tibet also reflects a popular Western
myth that portrays the isolated, Himalayan country as having been a
spiritually inclined utopia.

In reality it was a society comprised mainly of impoverished, overworked
and illiterate serfs whose subservience to the theocratic nobility was
enforced with institutionalised torture. During the Cold War the myth of
a utopia was promoted and it was successfully exploited by the leader of
the theocratic elite, the Dalai Lama, after he fled to India following
the crushing of the 1959 uprising.

Notwithstanding that he started his political career as theocratic
despot, and took 60 tonnes of treasure with him into exile, the Dalai
Lama’s saintly image has seen him win the Nobel Peace Prize. Not
surprisingly, Western politicians are as keen as rock gods and movie
stars to be seen meeting him.

Western support?

However, while verbal support for Tibet is sometimes used by the Western
politicians to strengthen their position with respect to China, it would
be a mistake to assume that, as was the case during he Cold War, Western
imperialist powers are seeking Tibetan independence.

Not only is China embracing capitalism, it has become essential to the
globalised economy. The booming manufacturing industry of eastern China
is either directly or indirectly controlled by Western capital.

While many leftists and anti-imperialists see self-determination for
Tibet as tool to open up Tibet to the imperialist global market, this is
ignoring the fact that the imperialist global market is reaching Tibet
through the Beijing-Lhasa railway.

The Western desire not to see China dismembered is reflected by the
Dalai Lama, who supports autonomy, as opposed to independence, as makes
moral strictures against rioting. This is creating a divergence between
his government-in-exile and Tibetans inside the country.

For its part, the Chinese government are using the similarity between
the self-determination struggles in Tibet and Xinjiang to tar the
Tibetans with the terrorism brush. On April 1, public security ministry
spokesperson Wu Heping accused the Dalai Lama of preparing squads of
suicide bombers to attack the Olympics.

From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #745 2 April 2008.
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