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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Cultural Faultlines in China

July 20, 2009

By John J. Metzler,
OPINION Korea Times, July 20, 2009

BENINGTON, Vt. ? The ethnic uprising in Mainland China's far western
provinces, has sent seismic political jolts to Beijing.

The rioting by Turkic Muslims in the vast Xinkiang region reminded
Beijing's Marxist Mandarins that non-Chinese minorities, be they Muslim
or Buddhist as in Tibet, are not exactly on the same page as the rulers
of the People's Republic.

Given that in October the People's Republic will celebrate the 60th
anniversary of communist rule on Mainland China, such ethnic rumblings
in Central Asia are particularly embarrassing as much as they could be
foreboding.

Embarrassing because President Hu Jintao was forced to hurriedly leave
the G8 Economic Summit in Italy to return to China; this humiliating
loss of face for the communist leader in the midst of an international
gathering was a bitter pill.

Foreboding, because the PRC authorities have flooded affected cities
with military forces and pledged ``severe punishment'' to the
ringleaders. China's rulers may handle the disorders the old-fashioned
way in this remote but beautiful region, spanning the Old Silk Road.

The Communist Party's Politburo convened in Beijing and promised that
stability in Xinjiang was the ``most important and pressing task.'' The
civil unrest was likely the largest in China since Tiananmen Square in
June 1989.

Inter-ethnic violence in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi saw bloody clashes
between Uighur Muslims and the Han Chinese. Hundreds died. Yet while the
roots of the unrest are deep, they rest in fact that the region's Muslim
majority (45 percent) is being diluted by Han Chinese settlers who now
comprise 40 percent of the population.

As in Tibet, the local populace is being deliberately diluted as a way
to change the demographic reality on the ground.

But beyond the political platitudes, the bottom line remains that
Xinjiang has long been a restive region which happens to comprise one
sixth of the PRC landmass.

While Islam has been suppressed under communist rule, the political wild
card remains that Xinkiang or East Turkestan as it is also known, just
happens to border a number of former Soviet Muslim states who gained
their independence when communist rule collapsed in Russia.

When Uighurs who are ethnically Turkic look east, they glare upon the
vast sea of China where 92 percent of the population is ethnic Han. When
they glance west, they look upon countries like Kyrgyzstan and
Kazakhstan, former Soviet satraps, now independent.

Interestingly the Turkish government (who has a non-permanent seat on
the Security Council) grandstanded and has called for the Xinkiang
violence to come before the U.N. Security Council.

While Turkey's Islamic-lite rulers have long been enchanted with Turkic
communities in Central Asia, their sentiments have never forgotten the
``brothers in East Turkistan.'' Beijing stopped the diplomatic proposal
cold.

The PRC rulers blame the violence on what the communist party calls
``the three forces'' of terrorism, separatism and extremism at home and
abroad.

China has regularly raised the specter of al-Qaida and other Islamic
terrorist groups as a convenient cat's paw to slap down any opposition.
Since September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, this was an
easier task as much as it was for Moscow.

While some Uighurs have been linked to al-Qaida (even some in Guantanamo
Bay) this is a minority. Separatism is equally a broad-brushed charge
aimed at anyone among China's 55 ``minority groups'' who does not
willingly fit into a neat folkloric and ethnic cookie mold of the
communist regime.

As to extremism; look at Beijing's hysterical condemnations of the World
Uighur Congress to see how ``extremists'' are variously viewed as both
ungrateful and vicious.

An official communique added with characteristic PRC polemic, calling on
comrades for ``holding high the banner of ethnic unity'' and carrying on
the tradition that people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang ``breathe
together, share the same destiny and have their hearts linked to each
other.''

In many ways Xinjiang is more of a dagger to the heart of Beijing than
Tibet. It's bigger, more populous, with Islamic fervor as compared to
Buddhist tolerance, and bordering regions which were once bridling under
Soviet rule but are now independent.

Geopolitically, Xinjiang is nothing short of vital; it holds large oil
fields, China's nuclear testing facilities at Lop Nor, and space
facilities. It borders on seven countries including Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Mongolia, Russia and former Soviet Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan.

The rifts between Uighurs and Han Chinese have less to do with political
ideology than with cultural and religious issues, recalling Samuel
Huntington's ``Clash of Civilizations.''

As with last year's disorders in Tibet, Xinjiang's violence tarnished
the polished myth of communist China's ``multi-cultural'' harmony. It's
a jolting wakeup call.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic
and defense issues. He is author of ``Divided Dynamism ? The Diplomacy
of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China'' (University Press, 2001).
He can be reached at jjmcolumn@att.net .
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