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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

China's tale of two restive regions

August 28, 2009

By Kent Ewing
Asia Times
August 28, 2009

HONG KONG - Why is it that, as cocktail glasses
clink and urbane voices clatter across the
Western world, China's repressive policies in
Tibet are generally regarded with outrage while
the plight of Muslim Uyghurs in the restive
Xinjiang region rarely rates a mention?

No one hung a "Free Xinjiang" banner from San
Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge ahead of last
year's Summer Olympic Games, hosted by Beijing,
while "Free Tibet" protesters turned the iconic
landmark into a billboard for their cause. And
now that the central government of China has put
Xinjiang under lockdown in the wake of last
month's riots in its capital, Urumqi, Western
protests have been virtually all but non-existent.

The only Western country to raise a real fuss
about Xinjiang - Australia - isn't even located
in the West. But Canberra's row with Beijing, now
subsiding as both sides realize how much they
need each other, was over whether a biopic on
exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer should be
shown at the Melbourne International Film
Festival, held July 24 to August 9; it only
tangentially concerned the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Indeed, Kadeer, the 63-year-old chairperson of
the World Uyghur Congress, has become accustomed
to such low-level publicity that, tongue in
cheek, she thanked the Chinese government for the
free advertising provided by its heavy-handed
attempt to block her visit to Australia for the
showing of the film, The 10 Conditions of Love.
(See Xinjiang crisis creates ripples abroad, Asia Times Online, July 30.)

Speaking in Uyghur through a translator to
Australia's National Press Club, she said, "I
deeply appreciate the support of the Chinese
government in raising my profile. I could not
have spent millions of dollars in getting this
sort of publicity, but thanks to the Chinese
government for raising my profile and informing
Australians of the plight of the Uyghurs."

It's true. After several Chinese filmmakers
withdrew from the festival in protest over the
Kadeer documentary and China's Foreign Ministry
went into high dudgeon over Canberra's refusal to
ban her visit, Kadeer was showered with attention and sympathy in Australia.

Meanwhile, the China Daily, the Chinese Communist
Party's official English-language mouthpiece,
accused "Sino-phobic politicians" in Australia of
striking up an "anti-China chorus" over the
Kadeer visit. Australia's ambassador to China,
Geoff Raby, then returned home last week for
"consultations", although Canberra denied any
connection with the diplomatic wrangle over Kadeer.

With relations between the two countries already
sour over Beijing's recent detention on charges
of espionage of an Australian executive working
for the multinational Rio Tinto mining and
resources group, the Kadeer flap only exacerbated the rising ire.

Realizing that trade between China and Australia
added up to US$53 billion last year, however,
both sides cooled their rhetoric, took a step
back and vowed to get along despite their
differences. In fact, while Raby retreated to
Canberra last week, the two nations added
substantially to that trade, announcing a
20-year, $41 billion deal for China to buy
natural gas from the Gorgon gas field off
Australia's northwest coast. (See Australia approves gas megaproject

Ultimately, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd,
a fluent Putonghua (Mandarin) speaker, offered
this diplomatic bromide, "The China-Australia
relationship is always full of challenges, and it
always has been thus and it will be thus for a
long time to come. We approach this relationship
mindful of our interests in China, mindful of Chinese interests in Australia."

For anyone paying attention, this was a
weeks-long diplomatic drama with telling
implications, but it caused only minor ripples in the Western media.

Now imagine that the Dalai Lama, the long-exiled
Tibetan spiritual leader and adopted darling of
the West, had stood at the center of this
controversy. While China's policies in Tibet and
Xinjiang are remarkably similar, there is no
doubt that the chorus of disapproval for Beijing
would have resounded internationally, with French
President Nicolas Sarkozy perhaps once again
leading the rallying cry, if the biopic shown in
Melbourne had featured the Dalai Lama.

Why the difference? Why would American talk-show
hosts like Larry King bow, scrape and grovel for
an interview with the Dalai Lama but not give
Kadeer the time of day? The answers to these
questions take us straight to the heart of
Western, particularly American, prejudice and hypocrisy.

Xinjiang and Tibet are vast, contiguous western
regions rich in natural resources that China
needs to fuel its continuing economic boom.
Xinjiang has substantial mineral and oil
deposits, and Chinese geologists have discovered
major new deposits of copper, iron, lead, zinc
and other minerals in Tibet, which also has
tremendous potential for tourism if only Tibetans
would stop their demonstrations against Chinese rule.

Beijing has made a huge effort to modernize the
two autonomous regions, pumping billions of yuan
into new infrastructure, education and industry.
It has also encouraged legions of Han Chinese to
migrate to Urumqi and the Tibetan capital of
Lhasa to lead the charge toward modernization.

While this tremendous push into modernity has
substantially improved the standard of living in
both regions, it has not won over the loyalty of
the people, many of whom believe the central
government is trying to "Sinicize" their culture.

For Tibetans, that culture is steeped in Buddhism
and, for many, the Dalai Lama is the living,
internationally recognized symbol of their faith and traditions.

The Western romance with the Dalai Lama goes back
to the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule
that led to his flight to Dharamsala, India,
where he established a government in exile. The
US Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA's) alleged
backing of that revolt, its assistance in the
then 23-year-old spiritual leader's escape from
the Chinese army and its subsequent support of
his cause - all still points of debate in the
West - are accepted facts life in China and much of the rest of Asia.

Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama were once
seen as important pieces in the chess game of the
Cold War. Even now, with the stress on
cooperation rather than antagonism in US-Sino
relations, that legacy continues. Moreover, the
Dalai Lama's pleas for religious freedom and
cultural integrity in Tibet continue to resonate
among ordinary people in the West.

In 1989, he won the ultimate Western accolade,
the Nobel Peace Prize, and his popularity -
especially among Hollywood stars such as Richard
Gere and Harrison Ford - continues.

The same cannot be said for Kadeer and the
Uyghurs of Xinjiang. Although their complaints
against the central government of China are
strikingly similar to those of Tibetans, their
different history and religion have elicited far
less sympathy and none of the crazy passion
evinced by pro-Tibet demonstrators who dogged the
Olympic torch relay last year.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic people with a long and
rich history in Eastern and Central Asia and a
culture rooted in Islam. Instead of the CIA in
their corner during the Cold War, it was the former Soviet Union.

Now, ironically, there are allegations of CIA
support for Kadeer, who since 2005 has lived in
the US, and of CIA sponsorship of unrest in
Xinjiang. Those charges notwithstanding, the
anti-Muslim, post-September 11, 2001, environment
in America - buttressed by Cold War history - has
elicited little sympathy for Kadeer and her cause
in the US or anywhere else in the West.

China, which denounces the Uyghur leader as a
"terrorist", has its own reasons, also rooted in
history, for forcibly imposing unity and
stability on these two troublesome regions.

At least Beijing has been consistent. As China's
influence grows, the West is increasingly choosy about its darlings and causes.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and
writer. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk
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