Beijing is the rare great power capital where visitors can still be on the receiving end of lectures about “splittism” and “foreign meddling.” After exchanging pleasantries, foreigners meeting with Chinese officialdom are treated to stern warnings not to encourage “splittists” in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. The net effect of these exchanges is to remind foreigners that despite the beautiful skyscrapers in China’s main cities and the economic sophistication of many Chinese elites, China is not quite the gentle post-modern power it pretends to be. Indeed, Chinese officials are concerned, to the point of paranoia, that their vast multiethnic empire will not hold. And, following the dictator’s playbook, rather than engage in any introspection as to just why it is that so many “Chinese” do not really want to be part of China, Beijing blames “foreign forces” and meddling from the West for their troubles.
While China should be worried about unrest, Uighur and Tibetan discontent is not manufactured by foreign forces. To the contrary, the West barely bats an eye about China’s repression. As events in Xinjiang, have demonstrated, Uighur Muslims are quite capable of expressing their discontent by themselves.
Thanks to Chinese efforts to block reporting and Internet access to Xinjiang, no one can be clear about exactly what is going on in that province. What is known is that the recent round of protests and counter-protests followed by brutal suppression has its roots in the Uighurs’ profound feeling of ethnic and religious discrimination. Uigurs marched on Uramqi over this past weekend to demonstrate their outrage over the killing of two co-religionists in Guangdong province. Protesters called for a fuller investigation into the killing of Muslim factory workers by Han Chinese laborers. Han Chinese in Xinjiang launched a counter-protest, and things got violent quickly. Chinese police and paramilitaries responded in their usual heavy-handed way (with a force of about 20,000 People’s Armed Police), and more violence ensued. The death count is at 156, while the Chinese security forces have arrested more than a thousand protesters. Beijing’s response has been true to form: block Internet access, keep reporters out, put down the protests by any means, and blame foreign forces such as D.C.-based Uighur human rights activist Rebiya Kabeer. This is about the same game plan that China followed last year when Tibetans protested their maltreatment.
In the short term, China’s approach works. Thanks to China’s propaganda machine, many if not most Chinese people believe that foreign forces are busily at work trying to “split” and humiliate China. China thus maintains the support of its own citizens. Moreover, for now Beijing does not have Washington to worry about. The Obama administration’s China policy seems to be focused on begging China to keep buying our ever expanding debt. And, the Politburo can count on President Obama to downplay human rights concerns, lest they stand in the way of his “can’t we all just get along” foreign policy.
But what about the long term? There are tens of millions of Muslims in China who are fed up with religious persecution and second-class citizenship. If China does have a terror problem, continuing to anger its Muslim population is not the way to confront it. And, with a violent uprising last year in Tibet, scores of weekly protests within China, and now the Uighur demonstrations, can we really call China a stable country?