Trouble in Xinjiang isn’t going away
By Eurasia Group analyst Damien Ma As Beijing maintains security troops in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi, the rioting has subsided. But the violence has already killed at least 184 people and injured nearly 1,700 others — and the longer-term problem is not going away. President Hu Jintao, who left the G-8 summit early last ...
By Eurasia Group analyst Damien Ma
As Beijing maintains security troops in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi, the rioting has subsided. But the violence has already killed at least 184 people and injured nearly 1,700 others — and the longer-term problem is not going away. President Hu Jintao, who left the G-8 summit early last week to address the situation, convened a late-night meeting of top Chinese officials to call for punishment for those believed responsible for the violence. The rioting poses no serious near-term threat to China’s government, but it has revealed plenty about a few of the political and social problems that China’s leaders will be wrestling with for years to come.
First, it underscores the fact that Chinese officials are scrambling to keep up with the quickening pace of technological changes in communications. Xinjiang’s burst of violence, dubbed the “July 5 incident” by the Chinese government, is less an anti-government protest than a large, chaotic race riot pitting Han Chinese against Muslim Uighurs. The immediate trouble began a few weeks ago in the southern province of Guangdong, where another massive brawl between the two groups killed several Uighurs. Within days, news of the clash made its way thousands of miles across the country and into Xinjiang.
When the Tiananmen Square protests reached a climax in 1989, there was no Internet access and no text messaging among the demonstrators. More than half of China’s people knew nothing about it. Many others outside Beijing weren’t interested. Two decades later, there are 300 million Chinese citizens on the Internet, a number expected to double over the next three years. The explosion of communications technology and social media has made it much more difficult for state officials to control the flow of information across the country, forcing the Communist Party to search for innovative new ways to filter and block Internet communications. After the fighting began in Xinjiang, local officials quickly shut down access to new media to isolate the problem. But the damage had already been done, and the scale of the state’s challenge in controlling information will grow enormously over the next several years.
In addition, Uighurs, who often appear as mysterious, unsavory characters in the popular Han Chinese imagination, have no public media platform with which to air their grievances. On the international front, Uighurs lack the advantages enjoyed by Tibet’s Buddhists. Tibet’s protesters last year were widely perceived in the West as leaders of an independence movement. They had a charismatic, media savvy leader in the exiled Dalai Lama. The Uighurs have no popularly recognized leader or cohesive independence movement. As a result, the riots in Xinjiang have not invited the wave of condemnation that followed the Tibet crackdown last year.
Inside China, the party leadership and much of the public believe that efforts to develop western China economically and to assimilate minorities into Han culture are intended to stabilize the region. Uighurs, deprived of any opportunity to publicly vent their frustrations and with attitudes toward them hardening across the country, have few options. And Han Chinese vastly outnumber Uighurs in the capital, where the riots began. The risk of more ethnic clashes remains and could escalate in the future.
The heavy crackdown in Xinjiang also underscores Beijing’s growing fear of domestic terrorism. In 1989, Tibet’s Communist Party Secretary Hu Jintao quelled a bloody insurrection, boosting his political profile within the leadership. When he became president in 2002, he moved additional troops into Tibet and Xinjiang to underscore publicly Beijing’s determination to maintain order within ethnically diverse parts of China’s territory. But in Xinjiang, several bombings over the years blamed on Uighur separatists have raised the stakes there to new levels. Evidence of state efforts to prevent terrorist attacks has become more obvious in recent months. Since the Olympics, bomb containers and bag X-ray machines have been installed in Beijing’s subway stations.
After 9/11, Beijing quickly aligned with Washington in the War on Terror, helping Chinese officials persuade the United States to designate the East Turkestan Liberation Organization as a domestic terrorism threat. There’s little information on the elusive group. Its structure and capabilities remain unclear. But the specter of domestic terrorism helps explain why Chinese authorities worked to crackdown on rioting in Xinjiang harder and faster even than in Tibet last year.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the intensity of the rioting in Xinjiang, Beijing won’t be making many concessions toward Uighurs. Beijing has portrayed them as violent criminals and would-be terrorists this week. It won’t be easy to climb down from that kind of rhetoric and for President Hu to maintain credibility with the Han Chinese majority and the party elite if his resolve is seen to be less than firm.
We shouldn’t underestimate Beijing’s ability to restore public order in most of China. Facing down tens of thousands of protests each year provides police and security troops with lots of experience in crowd control, and the party leadership has demonstrated again and again that social stability is the top priority, even at the risk of damaging the country’s international reputation. Moreover, proper handling of large-scale social unrest can often lead to political promotions.
And given Xinjiang’s rich reserves of oil and natural gas, the region’s political stability will remain a paramount concern. China’s oil firms have reported no immediate threat to their assets, but anxiety over the potential impact of domestic attacks on energy infrastructure will grow. Within two years, significant quantities of natural gas will move via pipeline from Central Asia through Xinjiang to China’s east coast.
For the moment, Chinese authorities have reestablished control on the streets of Urumqi. But Beijing knows it faces a long-term problem with no easy answers in sight.
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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