Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Uighurs Revolt Threatens Communist Party
Corriere della Sera - July 14th 2009

In most countries, a violent uprising by an ethnic minority which had to be suppressed by mobilising thousands of troops would be considered a sign of weakness for the regime, an indication of potential danger. Not in China. In that country, many things flout conventional analysis, and the riots by Muslim Uighurs last weekend in the far western province of Zinjiang which have now been successfully brought to a halt are no exception. The Communist Party regime in China emerges from this episode stronger, not weaker.

            This does not make the violence in Xinjiang unimportant. If suppressing it had been easy, if the riots had not been worrying, there would have been no need for China’s president, Hu Jintao, to fly home prematurely from the G8 summit in L’Aquila to take charge. Possibly, he may have decided to leave Italy early because he does not think the G8 summit is a vital meeting any more, now that the G20 exists and given that China is a full participant in that summit rather than just a dinner guest as at the G8. If that is what he thinks, he would be correct. More likely, though, he flew home in order to demonstrate to the Chinese people that he was taking the Xinjiang riots very seriously.

            Such a concern about Chinese public opinion represents a big change for the Communist Party, one that has been generated both by the country’s new affluence and by the spread of information technology. What is most notable, however, about the Uighur riots and Chinese public opinion is how successful the Communist Party has been in getting the Chinese public to support its harsh response. President Hu flew home to take charge of that harsh response and, in effect, to bask in the glow of public support for that policy.

            Like in Tibet in March 2008, when violent clashes threatened to disturb the preparations for the Olympic Games, the Chinese authorities have succeeded in persuading the majority of Chinese that the Uighur riots represent a threat to the stability and unity of the country, a threat posed by militant groups based abroad. As a result, China, and in particular the Han Chinese who make up more than 90% of the country’s population, is the victim of these disturbances, not the cause. Separatist troublemakers deserve harsh punishment. This week’s quite swift success in delivering that punishment will therefore strengthen the Communist Party.

            It would be quite different if the uprising were to have occurred in Shanghai or Beijing, as was the case 20 years ago when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred. Then, Chinese would be fighting Chinese, challenging the Party and the regime itself. Xinjiang and Tibet, however, are more like colonies than ordinary provinces, even though both have been under Chinese control for most of the past two centuries. They are strategically important, since they represent vast borderlands with India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia through which, in theory, China could be vulnerable to invasion. That is why China fought a border war against India in 1962 to take control of the small mountain area of Aksai Chin, which is now administered from Xinjiang.

            Physically and historically, Xinjiang and Tibet are part of China. Politically and psychologically, they are not. Rather, they are primitive lands populated by people who in Chinese eyes should be grateful for the stability, prosperity and opportunity that has been brought to them by Chinese rule. The uprisings show that many Uighurs, like many Tibetans, are ungrateful. As in many European colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries, such ungratefulness can certainly be punished and suppressed, for quite a long time.

            Eventually, China will pay a price for this suppression. In both Tibet and Xinjiang, a separate religious and cultural identity provides a natural and powerful rallying point for separatist movements. It is safe to predict that there will be more uprisings in both provinces, probably along with terrorist attacks in the main Chinese cities, during the coming decades. Such violence might be reduced if China were to change its policies and allow more freedom for the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and of Islam and thus a greater sense of true autonomy and respect. There is currently little prospect of such a change, but even if it were to occur it would be no guarantee of peace. A separatist desire, once it has been kindled, does not go away easily, as the British learned in Ireland and the Spanish are still learning in the Basque region.

            Nevertheless, let us be clear. China will suffer from terrorist violence in the future. But such violence is not a direct threat to Communist Party rule. The colony will not overthrow the coloniser. Only Chinese opposition to the Party would be capable of doing that.


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