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Tibet and Xinjiang -- Marking time at the fringes

July 12, 2010

A calendar like a minefield
The Economist (UK)
July 8, 2010

Beijing -- AS IT struggles to strengthen its grip
on the restive minority regions at its periphery,
China usually feels that time is on its side. In
both Buddhist Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang, China
hopes that economic development, improved
infrastructure and steady demographic shifts will
gradually ease the ethnic tensions that periodically erupt into violence.

But in one sense, time works against Beijing.
Sensitive dates have often been catalysts for
renewed trouble. This week saw both July 5th, the
first anniversary of deadly riots that shook
Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi, and, the
following day, the 75th birthday of Tibet’s
exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, reviled by Beijing as a conniving splittist.

Both Xinjiang and Tibet this week remained in the
quiet but tense state that has become the norm.
The authorities are betting that a heavy police
presence and the aggressive prosecution of
activists can stave off serious unrest without
big concessions to ethnic-minority grievances.
These include government interference in
religious affairs, discrimination in economic
opportunities, and a steady influx of Han Chinese
that threatens to erode both regions’ cultural identity.

China seems to calculate that the eventual death
of the Dalai Lama, a charismatic and
internationally popular figure, will make its job
in Tibet easier. Each passing birthday brings
that day closer. But it also offers supporters of
the Dalai Lama and his cause a chance to sing his
praises. This year, a crowd of 5,000 joined him
for a birthday celebration at his base in India.

Asked by a reporter about the occasion, a Chinese
government spokesman, Qin Gang, said he was
thinking instead of two other important dates:
March 28th 1951, the day of Tibet’s "peaceful
liberation," and May 23rd 1959, now marked as
"Serf Emancipation Day”. Many foreign historians
see the earlier event as a one-sided military
rout in which 5,000 Tibetans were killed, and the
later one as an important date in the brutal
suppression of an uprising, which led to the
flight of the Dalai Lama and 100,000 of his
followers into exile in India. In 2008
demonstrations marking the anniversary of the
1959 uprising led to more violence in Lhasa,
resulting in at least 19 deaths and hundreds of
injuries. Most victims were Han Chinese attacked by Tibetan rioters.

Last year’s violence in Xinjiang killed nearly
200 people and was followed by a severe crackdown
that saw mass arrests of accused rioters and a
near-total shutdown of the internet and
international telephone service, lifted only two
months ago. In a recent report Amnesty
International, a human-rights watchdog, accused
the Chinese authorities of using excessive force and torturing detainees.

Tibet, too, is still enduring a crackdown. In two
recent verdicts, brothers who had once basked in
official praise for their environmental work were
convicted on charges which, say their families,
were contrived. On July 3rd Rinchen Samdrup
received a five-year prison sentence for inciting
subversion. In late June his younger brother,
Karma Samdrup, a wealthy antique collector
pictured on the previous page, was sentenced to
15 years on previously dismissed charges of robbing graves.

Activists fear that such cases--against men who
had studiously shunned involvement in Tibet’s
fraught ethnic politics -- mark a widening of the
net by China to include any prominent Tibetans.
This may indicate Chinese insecurity, but
officials insist otherwise. Hao Peng, China’s
second-ranking official in Tibet, has told a
group of visiting journalists that Beijing has
"the ability and confidence to maintain stability in Tibet for ever."

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