Wednesday, July 8, 2009
The New Dominion in Flames
Will the Emperors in Beijing read the writing on the Wall of History?
July 6 was the Dalai Lama’s birthday. It was certainly not the kind of birthday present the apostle of non-violence would dream of.
In the morning, the news flashed that in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang (The New Dominion in Chinese), violence had erupted the previous day, resulting in at least 156 people dead and more than 800 wounded.
The background of the bloodiest-ever riot in the restive region is not clear. Apparently, it started with a peaceful protest which later turned violent. At one point, the crowd (between 1,000 to 3,000 people according to agencies reports) angered by the brutal reaction of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) started overturning vehicles, attacking houses and clashing with police. A few hours later, the Chinese TV began showing images of the riots.
For Uygurs groups abroad, the trouble was triggered when the police violently cracked down on peacefully demonstrating students who were protesting against the killings of two Uygurs by Han Chinese in a factory in South China.
According to Wu Nong, a spokesperson for the Xinjiang provincial government, 260 vehicles were attacked or set on fire and 203 houses damaged. The figures are quite astonishing. The number of dead and wounded and material damage seems extraordinarily high compared to the number of participants.
Tensions are not a new phenomenon in a province which over the past decades, has been flooded by millions of Han settlers. Part of the Republic of East Turkistan till 1949, the Uygurs, Muslims of Turkish origin have sporadically demonstrated their resentment against Han colonization. Today the overwhelming majority of Urumqi's 2.3 million inhabitants are Chinese.
The Communist Party’s satraps were quick to blame the incident on a ‘foreign’ hand. Xinjiang CCP boss, Wang Lequan declared that the riot in Urumqi showed the violent and terrorist nature of the separatist World Uyghur Congress leader (and businesswoman) Rebiya Kadeer. Similar declarations had been issued when unrest erupted in Tibet in March 2008. The Dalai Lama was then called by Party Chief, Zang Qingli, a ‘wolf in monk’s dress’.
In an interview with Xinjiang TV, Wang added: “The riot has destroyed the spiritual support with which the terrorist, separatist and extremist forces cheated the people to participate in the so-called Jihad”.
His conclusion was that “all Party members should take the strongest measures to deal with the enemies' attempt at sabotage and keep regional stability”. No doubt that ‘extreme measures’ have been taken!
The motivation for the revolt in Urumqi seems to be the same as in Tibet: both are fuelled by a deep resentment against the Han Chinese settlers. When ordinary people risks demonstrating against a repressive totalitarian State like China, it means that they are desperate. For the past 50/60 years, Tibetans and Uygurs have gone through a similar history: they have had no say in their own lives and the affairs of their respective provinces. In both cases, Beijing has reacted similarly: put blame on ‘foreign hands’ for the unrest and used force to counter ‘splittist’ elements. In the case of Xinjiang, ‘jihad’ label has been added to make the repression more palatable.
In Xinjiang however, there is a difference: the swiftness of the repression.
In 2008 in the New York Times, Tibet-expert Robbie Barnett had thus described the authorities’ reaction after the first riots in Central Lhasa: “No reinforcements were sent into the area for at least three hours (one Western journalist who witnessed the events saw no police for twenty-four hours), though they were waiting on the outskirts. It was the traditional response of the Chinese security forces to serious unrest — to wait for orders from Party leaders on whether to shoot or not. …In this vacuum, a number of Tibetans turned from attacking police to attacking the next available symbol of Chinese governance, the Chinese migrant population.”
In Urumqi, the repression was swifter and perhaps even more brutal than the Roof of the World.
Interestingly, a report, prepared by a Chinese think-tank, Beijing Gongmeng Consulting has recently given an interesting picture of the 2008 unrest in Tibet; it contradicts the official version. The authors, Li Kun, Huang Li, Li Xiang and Wang Hongzhe are lawyers “committed to building a modernized China and promoting human rights, democracy, and rule of law in China."
Their research team spent one month in Tibet “interviewing Tibetan monks, nomads, farmers, scholars, migrants, artists, and businesspeople”.
Their objective was to come into personal contact with voices which can give “a clear and objective outline of ordinary people’s living conditions in Tibetan areas”.
The lawyers point out “major errors in government policy" after March-April 2008 protests. One was ‘over-propagandizing of [Tibetan] violence’; another, encouragement of racist sentiment towards Tibetans: “The excessive response of government all over Tibet was to regard every tree and blade of grass as a potential enemy soldier.”
According to them, this further strained the relations between the local Tibetans and the Han migrants.
One of their conclusions is: “Understanding is a precondition for discussion, unity and development. If the promotion of healthy development in Tibetan areas is truly desired then there must be a change in thinking and an adjustment in thinking behind the current nationality theories and policies.”
Another issue was the emergence of a new aristocracy in Tibet (it is not different in Xinjiang!). The Chinese Revolution is supposed to have wiped out the old aristocracy and emancipated the masses.
For the Chinese lawyers, this new aristocracy, which is ‘legitimized by the Party’, is even more powerful than the old one.
The Report analyses in detail the rapport between the new aristocracy and the masses: “there is a lack of any effective supervision over the local officials …who have learned how to use stability to protect themselves. …‘Foreign forces’ and ‘Tibet independence’ are used by many local officials as fig leaves to conceal their mistakes in governance and to repress social discontent …elevating everything to the level of splittist forces in order to conceal their errors.”
The final conclusions are not far from the Tibetan Diaspora’s views: “Earnestly listen to the voices of ordinary Tibetans and on the basis of respecting and protecting each of the Tibetan people’s rights and interests, adjust policy and thinking in Tibetan areas to formulate development policies which are suited to the characteristics of Tibetan areas, and which accord with the wishes of the Tibetan people.”
One important issue is religious freedom: “Fully respect and protect the Tibetan people’s freedom of religious belief, resuming and supporting normal religious lives and activities. Fully recognize the important significance of religion and a religious life to Tibetan areas and to the Tibetan people.”
Beijing is also advised to “promote rule of law in governance processes in Tibetan areas”, if it is interested in a stable Tibet. All this could apply to Xinjiang.
The Report made similar points than the 70,000 character petition sent by the late Panchen Lama to Premier Zhou Enlai in 1962 for which he spent 17 years in jail.
The CCP General Secretary Hua Yuabang had also presented a report in the same vein after a visit to Lhasa in May 1980. His was soon removed from the political scene, though his disciple, Zhao Zyiang continued as Premier till the Tiananmen events.
Obviously, the Beijing leadership had not read these Reports before giving the order to the PAP to ‘strike hard’. But in the long term, the use of brutal repression to subdue genuine resentment and injustice can only weaken the State and lead to an implosion of the Middle Kingdom.