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China's Western Front

August 31, 2009

Can Beijing Bring Order to Its Restive Provinces?
Christian Le Mière
Foreign Affairs
August 14, 2009

Summary -- Recent violence in China's western
provinces shows that the state's dual policy of
migration and development has failed. A political
solution for Xinjiang and Tibet, however, could
be closer than Beijing may think.

Early last month, the mayor of Urumqi, the
capital of the western Chinese province of
Xinjiang, described the struggle to maintain
China's unity as "a political battle that's
fierce and of blood and fire." His description
was apt: a spate of ethnic violence in the city
had left almost 200 people dead. For several
days, armed mobs occupied the streets, and arsonists set the city ablaze.

The recent violence in Urumqi resembles the
unrest that occurred in March 2008 in Lhasa,
another city in China's far west. Although the
two cities are one thousand miles apart and home
to two very different ethnic groups -- the
Uighurs in Xinjiang are Turkic Muslims, the
Tibetans are Asian Buddhists -- local
demonstrations in both places quickly inflamed
existing discontent and ethnic tensions.

In each case, Chinese paramilitary officers were
eventually able to restore order. But on both
occasions, at the national and provincial levels,
Chinese politicians did little to address the
root causes of the unrest -- namely, the state's
encouragement of Han Chinese transmigration and
the consequent subjugation of local cultures.

China's central planners have keenly eyed the
country's sparsely populated far western frontier
for decades. In a country that has more than one
hundred cities, with more than one million
inhabitants, and where 90 percent of the
population lives on only ten percent of the land,
Beijing has seen the vast expanses of the west as
unfulfilled potential. It is not just the vacant
earth that interests China's leaders but what
lies beneath it -- Xinjiang holds more than a
quarter of China's oil and gas reserves, and the
Tibet Autonomous Region has nearly half of
China's mineral resources, such as gold, coal,
chromite, lithium, and perhaps the world's largest uranium deposits.

Chinese politicians did little to address the
root causes of the unrest -- namely, the state's
encouragement of Han Chinese transmigration and
the consequent subjugation of local cultures.

The problem for Beijing, however, has been how to
persuade Han Chinese -- the ethnic group that
makes up more than 90 percent of China's
population -- to relocate to a forbidding area
that is several days' travel from the country's
more developed east. In response, the Chinese
government has made enormous investments in
infrastructure, meant to make the remote regions
of Xinjiang and Tibet -- separated from the rest
of China by the Gobi Desert and Tibetan plateau
-- more accessible. At the same time, it has
sought to pacify native populations by stimulating local economic activity.

The main vehicle for this investment has been the
Great Western Development Strategy, first
implemented in January 2000. By 2007, China had
spent 1.3 trillion yuan ($190 billion) and
pledged another 438 billion yuan ($64 billion) in
2008 for infrastructure projects. In July 2006,
China opened the Golmud-Lhasa railway, an
ambitious project that runs at more than 16,000
feet above sea level, a height that exceeds any peak in the Alps.

Encouraged by such initiatives, and lured by tax
breaks and economic opportunity, hundreds of
thousands of Chinese have migrated from east to
west since the 1990s. The ensuing demographic
shift has dramatically changed the face of the
region. In Lhasa, Tibetans are now outnumbered by
Han Chinese by as much as two to one. In
Xinjiang, the change has been even starker.
According to China's 1953 census, Uighurs made up
75 percent of the region's population and Han
Chinese just six percent. The 2000 census,
however, showed that Uighurs represented 45
percent of the population and the Han Chinese 40
percent -- and by now the Han Chinese are certainly in the majority.

Previously living in isolation, both the Uighurs
and Tibetans fear the growing demographic and
cultural hegemony of the Han Chinese. Although
Beijing points to economic growth in the western
regions, local residents are more resistant, as
they have seen their highly traditional and
long-isolated cities change irrevocably. Signs in
Mandarin for new restaurants and shops, as well
as karaoke bars and multistory buildings built by
the Han Chinese, have come to define the region's major towns.

The result has been growing resentment and
self-segregation, which, in both cases, has led
to violence. But instead of viewing these
eruptions of unrest as a warning, the Chinese
government has avoided any shift in its migration
policies. In fact, Beijing has done just the
opposite: the Chinese government seems to regard
a continuation of current migration policies as
the effective remedy. Less than a month after the
violence in Urumqi, the government announced an
investment of 15 billion yuan ($2.2 billion) to
build 20,000 kilometers of highways, which would
create more jobs in the west and make the
province more tempting for internal migrants.

The Chinese Communist leadership aims to stifle
any future dissent in the western regions through
a dual strategy of economic development and
demographic inundation. It is unlikely, however,
that Beijing will be able to subjugate six
million Tibetans and eight million Uighurs with
just cash and karaoke. Higher incomes and modern
lifestyles are seen as scant compensation for the
perceived loss of more than a millennium of cultural and religious heritage.

If Beijing hopes to find a longer-term solution
to its western problem, it will need to implement
a far more radical policy. The best approach may
already exist: China could expand the category of
Special Administrative Regions (SARs), which now
exist in Hong Kong and Macau, to the country's western provinces.

The concept of SARs was created in the 1990s, in
an attempt to appease the United Kingdom and
Portugal, the two imperial powers that previously
ran Hong Kong and Macau, respectively. According
to the laws establishing the SARs, the
territories are afforded "a high degree of
autonomy" and "executive, legislative, and independent judicial power."

In addition, the SAR arrangement requires
security forces to be comprised of local
citizens, while residents inside SARs are granted
protections covering freedom of speech, press,
assembly, privacy, and, perhaps most significant
if such a program were to be adopted in Tibet,
religion. The checks and balances built into the
SARs' governance allows for the guarantee of
these rights far more effectively than under the
Chinese constitution, which nominally provides similar freedoms.

For China's western regions, the most appealing
bylaw of the SARs would be Article 22, which
requires Chinese citizens from outside the SARs
to apply for approval from local authorities for
entry. If not carefully managed, however, such a
provision could heighten ethnic tension and cause
a destabilizing exodus of Han Chinese from
Xinjiang and Tibet. One option would be to grant
a waiver to those already living in the region
(in Hong Kong and Macau, for example, those
living in the territories for seven years were granted permanent residency).

To disregard the underlying motivations of the
recent unrest in Xinjiang -- and in Tibet before
that -- is to guarantee that it is only a matter
of time before the country's simmering ethnic tensions explode again.

The creation of SARs in Xinjiang and Tibet would
not just be in the interest of local populations;
the Communist Party leadership would also
benefit. Beijing would retain control over
foreign affairs and defense and keep the right to
station military forces in the regions. Even more
important, the law establishing the SARs dictates
that the "land and natural resources within the
[SAR] shall be state property." This ensures that
the rich supply of resources in the western
regions would remain under Beijing's authority.

To further assuage Beijing's doubts, the SARs in
Xinjiang and Tibet would not need to be as
autonomous as those in Hong Kong and Macau, which
have separate political systems with their own
partially direct elections. Such a concession
would not be required in Xinjiang, where the
population has never experienced elections, nor
in Tibet, where the population would simply like
to replace an unpopular unelected official with a popular one: the Dalai Lama.

Such an arrangement would remove another thorn in
Beijing's side -- the international attention and
opprobrium created by the Dalai Lama's ongoing
exile. The Dalai Lama would likely accept such a
solution; the SAR closely resembles his own
"middle way" negotiating position, which cedes
the claim to full Tibetan independence and
instead calls for "genuine autonomy." In any
future Tibetan SAR, the Dalai Lama would likely
be less of a problem for Beijing in the region than outside of it.

Ultimately, such a solution would allow for
linguistic and cultural -- but not full political
-- independence from Beijing. The provinces would
remain within China's borders, their resources
would be national possessions, and the cost
savings would be enormous. Estimates suggest that
the Chinese government spends more than a billion
yuan a month to maintain security forces in the region.

It is unclear, however, whether the conservative
Chinese Communist Party, which has maintained its
hold on power through guile, force, and
destruction of all competing centers of
influence, will be able to adopt such a radical
policy. But to disregard the underlying
motivations of the recent unrest in Xinjiang --
and in Tibet before that -- is to guarantee that
it is only a matter of time before the country's
simmering ethnic tensions explode again.

CHRISTIAN LE MIÈRE is Editor of Jane's Intelligence Review.
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