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Troubling Separatism Tremors For China

The Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao’s Work Report to the 4th Plenum of the 17th Central Committee (September 14-18) had an unexpected, emphatic section. The threat of separatism has hardly ever been reflected in a party plenary document with such concern, accompanied by a White Paper on Xinjiang – Uighur Autonomous Region by the office of the State Council.

Generally, the Chinese authorities play down separatism or pro-independence movements if they can be called so, as the handiwork of a few “evil” persons supported by foreign forces. The policy has been to project both inside the country and to the international community that the majority of the minorities, especially the Buddhist Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs are happy and well assimilated with the rest of the country that they are given special privileges, and that human rights violations are a myth. The Chinese propaganda machinery takes over from here spitting venom and pouring vitriol on minority personages like the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer.

Till recent years Beijing concentrated all its efforts in countering the Dalai Lama and his influence both inside Tibet and internationally.

If the March 14, 2008 Tibetan protests are taken into account, the Tibetan resistance against Chinese domination has grown. There were two indicators. One was the spread of the protests to Tibetan areas outside Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the involvement of lay persons, and not only of monks. The other was the sympathetic position taken by some Tibetan officials of the local government including a senior official, who were dismissed from service and have not been heard of since then.

The international support to the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan “genuine autonomy” demand for Tibetans does not appear to have diminished, much to the frustration and chagrin of the Chinese authorities. The practice of trying and breaking up countries has been out for a long time. East Timor case was different. But the modern, globalised world is also highly sensitive to issues like human rights, culture, language and religion. This contradicts Chinese policy on minorities. What the minorities demand militate against Han chauvinism , as the Han Chinese strongly feel that the nation is theirs only. The Communist Party also feels challenged because freedom to practice and propagate religion and tradition goes against the ethos of the party. Religion, especially Buddhism, has been quietly spreading in China, and there is the possibility of an Islamic revivalism in Muslim dominated areas.

The leading democratic governments in the West have a constituency overwhelmingly supportive of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama took a strategic decision to seek genuine autonomy under the Chinese constitution, and no armed struggle, which won him admirers. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace and has become an icon of peace and humanity. But the Chinese still believe that he has a hidden agenda for independence.

China expressed its anger against France, suspending high level contacts earlier this year, when the Mayor of Paris bestowed upon the Dalai Lama honorary citizenship of Paris. US President Barak Obama will not meet the Dalai Lama before his November visit to China, but will do so on his return.

The Dalai Lama also got a rare entry into Taiwan in August to pray for those who had died in the cyclone. Initially, Beijing did not oppose the visit strongly to safeguard its growing relations across the straits with the KMT government in Taiwan. In hind sight, the Chinese authorities realized they had made a mistake and launched a despicable attack on the Dalai Lama, calling him a “joker”.

The Xinjiang or Eastern Turkistan movement of the Uighurs is older than the Tibetan movement. The Chinese authorities claim that Xinjiang was part of China from the first century. Army chieftains and warlords have always conquered and withdrawn. In China’s arguments, it should have been a part of Mongolia or Manchuria. The Greeks could claim territory as far as the Afghan borders. China officially claims that it “liberated” Xinjiang in 1949. It also claims it “Liberated” Tibet. This can be argued till the cows come home.

The White paper on Xinjiang admits the Uighur population in Xinjiang today is 9.651 million and the Hans number 8.239 million. In 1949 the Hans were only 6% of the Xinjiang population. This is a clear case of state engineered population transfer, as is happening in Tibet. The only difference is that the Hans are more willing to move to Xinjiang than to Tibet because of the latter’s harsh climatic conditions.

The White Paper details in statistical terms the development of Xinjiang in the last 60 years. It is pegged on the exploitation of the autonomous region’s oil industry, some infrastructure and communication. A close look will reveal that the development is urban industrialised sector centered. Little is said about rural development.

The White Paper does not indicate the distribution of the migrant Han population between the urban centres and rural areas of Xinjiang. The Hans are hardly seen in the rural areas because, again, the conditions are harsh there and the Hans like to live in clusters of their own. This characteristic would be seen abroad as “China towns” where the community lives by its own rules. A visit to Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, would show the segregation between the two communities in urban centers. The Uighurs are literally ghettoised.

The development actually reflects the improved conditions in urban areas which are being inundated by the Hans while the Uighurs are being pushed out due to several government policies.

The Communist Party plenum document vowed to “resolutely crackdown on ethnicity related separatist activities” and launch a “massive, in depth and persistent educational campaign on ethnic unity”. The crack down campaign has been going on for some years now as the “strike hard” campaign under the unstated premise that all Uighurs are suspect unless proved otherwise. This had encouraged militant campaigns like the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which was banned by the United Nations through a devil’s deal between China and the USA. The Chinese agreed to join the international campaign against terrorism only if the US agreed to support the UN ruling on the ETIM.

The Uighur story and position is partly reflected in the 2009 report of World Uighur Congress (WUC) to the Nations Committee on the elimination of Racial discrimination on violations by the People’s Republic of China against the Uighur People of Xinjiang. The WUC was formed in Washington D.C. in 2004 with support from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US Congressional mandated and funded body. The WUC is now headed by Ms.Rebiya Kadeer, a self-made Uighur businesswoman who was jailed by the Chinese for eight years for allegedly supporting separatism.

Very importantly, the WUC report does not demand independence for Xinjiang or Eastern Turkistan. It only mentions that the Uighurs were a majority in Eastern Turkistan at one time; they have a unique and distinct culture from the Hans, historically, the Uighurs ran their own affairs until the Manchu (Qing) Emperor invaded and seized control in the 18th century and gave the name Xinjiang or “New Dominion”, there was no Chinese domination of Xinjiang after the 1911 democratic revolution when the Qings were overthrown. The report is tempered.

But the WUC report details the exclusion of and discrimination against Uighurs including subtle dispersal of Uighurs through education schemes like the “Xinjiang class” through which young Uighurs are dispersed to Han regions of the country. Another government policy being enforced is “Xinjiang” meaning “emptying the posts” discriminating against Uighur job seekers. Contrary to China’s much publicised policy of absolving minorities from the strict family planning law, forced foeticide is common. The last has helped cap the Uighur population. The Chinese government has yet to contend the WUC paper point by point.

The Uighur issue came to a head when a group of Uighurs in Urumqi went on a protest march on “July 05” 2009 to protest against the killing of the Uighur workers in the distant Guangdong province by Han workers. The whole issue is remains confusing as no report on the incident is without bias. But what is known is there was a clash between Uighurs and Hans that evening and in the next two days the Hans retaliated with police support. More than 180 people died. It is to be noted precisely that Uighur rioters have been taken into custody and some are facing death sentences, not a single Han has been taken into custody as per Chinese official media reports. Only the Uighurs take the blame in a riot in Urumqi where the Hans outnumber them significantly.

The Chinese hold Rebiya Kadeer responsible for instigating the Urumqi riots. They took extended members of her family in Xinjiang and forced them to issue statements condemning her. The Chinese authorities are aware that no one in the world believes them except the paid foreigners or those who expect to receive business benefits. But inside the country the authorities are treading on increasingly dangerous ground not only from the minorities but discerning Chinese including some former leaders.

The Chinese authorities have tried different propaganda warfare to cow down Rebiya Kadeer and demonise her within and outside China. They tried one smear campaign to project that Rebiya Kadeer and the Dalai Lama had got together to break up China. This did not work as no one inside China or outside believes that the Dalai Lama supports insurgency. To coerce Kadeer’s relatives to condemn her fell flat.

On the other hand, the propaganda against Kadeer has given her a new international image and support to her is building up. The opposition Japanese party, the DPJ, now in power, invited Kadeer to Japan when she spoke on the plight of the Uighurs. She was invited to an Australian film festival when a documentary on her life was shown and she was invited to speak. She was to visit Taiwan on a non-governmental invitation, but China has forced the Taiwan government to refuse her visa.

The Uighurs have a following in the West, howsoever, it might be at the moment. But this is bound to grow as Kadeer adopts a Dalai Lama line.

Rebiya Kadeer has openly stated that she disavows violence. She desires whatever has been laid down in the WUC report. She also has not supported the ETIM militants.

China has two choices on the minority question. One, that is being practiced currently, is hard and coercive action to break down any normal aspiration of a community. The second is to reconsider its minority policy both towards the Uighurs and the Tibetans, bring them to the table, allay their suspicions, and make them equal partners in China’s development. This would be a real win-win policy with all as equal stakeholders in the country’s prosperity. To do that the authorities will have move away from promoting Han chauvinism.

The hard core ETIM separatists would like coercive action by the Chinese against the normal Uighurs. This helps them in recruiting more young fighters, and sympathisers among the people. The Chinese authorities may think that a mere 10 million Uighurs are a drop in the ocean of 1.2 billion Hans. But situation of that kind does not work in simple numbers.

The Uighurs are of Turkic origin and according to Turkish law all peoples of Turkic origin are part of the nation including citizenry. Following the “July 05” Urumqi riots followed by Chinese police action, the Turkish President was the first to opine against the Chinese actions. The Chinese government tried to placate the Turkish government, saying that the action was against some separatists only and there was total solidarity with the Uighurs.

The concern and umbrage from the Islamic community was much more than seen in generally read Western media. China had to take Pakistan’s assistance to calm down the anguish of the Islamic countries. This, the Chinese acknowledged publicly through their emissary to Islamabad last month (September 09). This has revealed a Chinese weakness.

According to Pakistani media reports there are around 10,000 Uighurs in Pakistan, spread in the tribal areas, who support anti-China insurgency in Xinjiang. Some ETIM leaders in Pakistan have been killed by the Pakistani forces or apprehended and deported to China under Beijing’s pressure. This, however, is not the end of Uighur insurgent sanctuary in Pakistan. It is well known that Uighur militants have been trained in Pakistani militant training camps from at least two decades earlier, they have fought with the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, the ISI or sections of it, have been involved in this exercise. This is known to both the Pakistani and the Chinese governments. In fact, former Chinese Premier Li Peng took this up with visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1992 in Beijing. Li Peng also told Benazir that they knew she could not do anything about it as the ISI was too powerful.

It appears that the Chinese authorities are unwilling to join the international efforts to counter religious terrorism. On the one hand, Beijing has labelled the “Three Evils”-“religious extremism” as one of them, to counter the ETIM. On the other hand, it vetos the terrorism label on Jaish-e-Mohamad Chief Masood Azhar and Laskar-e-Toiba (LeT) founder Hafez Saeed as terrorists in the UN Security Council to appease Pakistani organizations and influence them against supporting the ETIM and its associated organizations.

The Chinese authorities appear to be treading a path fraught with a lot potential dangers not only for them but also for the region. The international Islamic jehad led by the Al Qaeda and the Al Qaeda and Allied Movements (AQAM) do not play the type of politics the Chinese play. The AQAM group in North Africa has warned the Chinese following the crackdown on Uighurs. It will be a real challenge to China if their diplomats, citizens and interests abroad face the kind of threat the USA is up against.

The Chinese authorities would do well to study the WUC report thoroughly. The report does not seek independence. It only demands that their grievances be addressed, as the Dalai Lama does for the Tibetans.

China’s laws on religion, autonomous regions, and minorities are out of tune with the modern, globalized world. They have to reassess these laws and policies as they have done with the 100 Flowers Movement, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Socialism with Chinese characteristics have hardly touched the minority issues. Otherwise, not only China but its neighbours as well could be seriously destabilized.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst of Chinese affairs, based in New Delhi.).

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