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Opinion: Why China’s iron fist will land on its own face

September 2, 2009

Ricardo S. Malay, Contributor
Business Mirror
August 31, 2009

THE violent unrest by the minority Uighur
population in China’s Xinjiang province has
dwindled down. Yet it would be erroneous to
conclude that the Chinese leadership has
effectively doused the fire begun by the most
serious challenge ever mounted by its
second-largest ethnic group against Han political
control. To the contrary, China’s vigorous
repression of the resurgent Uigher
nationalists—coming after Tibet’s ongoing
hand-over-fist defiance of Beijing’s rule—bodes
ill for China’s self-vision as a unified and
mighty global power with few equals.

If there is a constant in China’s approach to the
threats to its sovereignty, it is found in the
word "force." In a modern world where diplomatic
options are increasingly the preferred means to
resolve conflicts, the Asian Goliath stands out
as a conspicuous non-conformist.

Externally, it has served noticed that the use of
force will apply to Taiwan should it attempt to
break free from the mainland. For its part, the
island-nation has wisened to this show of
truculence with a positive response. It helped
that their sworn enemy eventually dumped its
communist identity. And to its credit, Taipei
further elected national leaders in the
post-Chiang era who proved to be friendly cross- straits partners.

Not even ideological affinities are sacred to the
People’s Republic when it comes to dealing body
blows to its territorial adversaries. With the
end of the Vietnam War, the paramount leader Deng
Xiaoping sent his armies into their former ally’s
territory to “punish” the Vietnamese for
reigniting their age-old border dispute laid
dormant by the conflict. Thereafter, the former
comrades-in-arms engaged in bloody naval scrapes
over who owns the Paracels, a Vietnamese
contested group of islands in the South China
Sea. It didn’t matter that the battle-tested
Vietnamese handed the People’s Liberation Army a
resounding defeat in both cases.

More than its extraordinary use of force and
violence in Xinjiang, it is Beijing’s rendition
of brutally suppressing the Tibetan, secessionist
movement that has set the model for Chinese-style
solutions to ethnic unrest. The Tibetans, who are
neither of the Han family and are devout
Buddhists in a country where religion has few
adherents, have long earned the right to be
called China’s original ethnic rebels..

Why would an emerging global power, the  world’s
oldest civilization at that, choose the path of
force and suppression at a time when diplomacy
and engagement trump non-peaceful options? A
state rooted in its anti-fascist struggle that is
not above using the methods of its ideological
enemy, is this the dreaded contradiction China has come to represent?

The answer lies in China’s deep sense of national
pride in its history and aspirations to be a
significant stakeholder in global affairs. It
asserts that fielding a soft approach to its
ethnic dissidences is a misstep that could only
lead to its tragic dismemberment on the order of
the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia—dashing
its monumental ambitions for the century. Tibet
and Xinjiang combined occupy almost a third of
the mainland and their declaration of
independence, though far-fetched in the immediate
future, would reduce China’s geographic map to a sorry caricature.

For the moment, the lid has been clamped on the
Tibetan and Xinjiang cauldrons of discontent,
outwardly at least. The world’s outrage at
Beijing’s mailed-fist responses to the explosive
situation in China’s western flank is the least
of its concerns. Remember how the government
spitefully ignored the universal shock and
disbelief that greeted the Tiananmen massacre in
1989? Just like the columns of tanks that
ploughed through the massive ranks of protestors,
the central government in China has no problem
putting paid to the value of public opinion.

Plus ça change.... The escalating repression of
the Tibetan and Uighur minorities, much to
Beijing’s consternation, can only stiffen their
resolve to banish the tyranny they have long
suffered in silence. China’s ruling class,
steeped in historical materialism, should heed
this lesson before the rock it is lifting drops on its feet.

The author is a longtime journalist who was based
in China in the 1970s and became a keen observer
of the momentous changes that swept the country.
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