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An unending tale of repression

An unending tale of repression

Author: Claude Arpi
Publication: The New Indian Express
Date: July 12, 2009
URL: http://www.expressbuzz.com/edition/story.aspx?Title=An+unending+tale+of+repression&artid=a2mrNody0Vk=

On the Dalai Lama's birthday on July 6, the news flash said 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 1,000 wounded. The background to the bloodiest-ever riot in this restive region is still not clear. Apparently, it started with a peaceful protest which later turned violent. Uighur students were protesting against the killings of two Uighurs by Han Chinese workers in a factory in south China.

At one point the crowd (between 1,000 and 3,000 people, according to agency 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, Chinese TV began showing images of the riots. 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 seem quite astonishing. The number of dead or wounded and the material damage appears to be extraordinarily high compared to the number of participants.

Tensions are not new to the province that has been flooded by millions of Han settlers over the past decades. Part of the Republic of East Turkistan till 1949, the Uighur, Muslims of Turkish origin have demonstrated their resentment against the Han colonisation. Today, the majority of Urumqi's 2.3 million inhabitants are Han Chinese.

The Communist Party's local satraps were quick to blame the deadly riots on a 'foreign' hand. Xinjiang CCP boss and Politburo member Wang Lequan said the incidents in Urumqi showed the violent and terrorist nature of the separatist World Uyghur Congress leader Rebiya Kadeer. When unrest erupted in Tibet in March 2008, the Dalai Lama was similarly called a 'wolf in monk's dress' by Zang Qingli, the Tibet party chief.

In an interview with Xinjiang TV, Wang said that "the terrorist, separatist and extremist forces cheated the people to participate in the so-called Jihad." Though the CCTV footage showed more ordinary citizens than hardcore jihadis, Wang's conclusion was: "All party members should take the strongest measures to deal with the enemies' attempt at sabotage and maintain regional stability."

With tens of thousands of the PAP called in as reinforcements in the New Dominion (and President Hu Jintao rushed back from Italy without attending the G8 Summit), there is no doubt that 'extreme measures' will be taken. Two days after the incidents, Beijing endorsed Wang's position. The People's Daily commented: "The 63-year-old Kadeer is likened to the Dalai Lama… the so-called 'peaceful demonstration' was staged on the Urumqi streets in the form of the most inhumane atrocities too horrible to look at. Perhaps, it is none other than Rebiya Kadeer herself who knows fully well why it is so - simply because she did as much, or more than, as the Dalai Lama and his clique to sow resentment among the ethnic Uighur people."

It was categorically denied by Kadeer who in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal said: "I unequivocally condemn the use of violence by Uighurs during the demonstration as much as I do China's use of excessive force against protestors." However, for The People's Daily, China's official mouthpiece, the Xinjiang Autonomous Region "enjoys a time-honoured history as a civilised settlement with different ethnic groups living in a compact community and harmony." This is the crux of the matter. The fact is that for decades there is more hatred and distrust than 'compact harmony' between the Uighur and Han populations. One can easily understand why.

Their country has been invaded by waves of migrants and the Uighurs have become second class citizens in their homeland. Both in Tibet in 2008 and Urumqi in 2009, the unrest was fuelled by a deep resentment against the millions of Han settlers. When ordinary people risk demonstrating against a repressive totalitarian state like China, it means that they are desperate. For the past 60 years, Tibetans and Uighurs have undergone a similar fate: they have had no say in the affairs of their respective provinces. In both cases, Beijing has reacted similarly: put the blame on 'foreign hands' for the unrest and used force to counter 'splittist' elements.

In Xinjiang, however, there is a difference: the swiftness of the repression. The PAP did not wait a couple of days to react in Urumqi; the repression was fast and ferocious, perhaps even more brutal than on the Roof of the World. Interestingly, this comes at a time when China has started to hurl insults at India. On June 11, the Global Times wrote: "India is frustrated that China's rise has captured much of the world's attention."

A week later, in an editorial The People's Daily, Li Hongmei affirmed that India was "proud of its 'advanced political system', India feels superior to China. However, it faces a disappointing domestic situation which is unstable compared with China's." Well, it does not seem so. During the same period, a speech purportedly by General Chi Haotian, former minister of defence and vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission circulated on the Internet. He would have declared in 2005: "Hitler's Germany once bragged that the German race was the most superior race on Earth, but the fact is, our nation is far superior to the Germans."

It is not India alone, but China's own 'nationalities' are also objects of Beijing's aggression and condescending attitude. Since the time of the Nationalist Revolution, this has been known by non-Han in China as the Great Han Chauvinism. Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal, the first Tibetan Communist who was instrumental in bringing the PLA into Tibet in 1950, realised that Han chauvinism "is one of the most serious hindrances to our nation's current work on nationality relations." He warned several generations of Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Zyiang and Hu Jintao.

After the Urumqi incidents, the Western powers have remained cautious. While they are vociferous against the Burmese junta, in the present case, they are more than subdued. To quote the spokesman of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "We are worried about the situation. Obviously, we are calling for the end of the violence. We are having consultations with our European partners on the events (in Xinjiang). We regret the number of victims and we wish a return to peace as soon as possible."

President Hu's quick return to China demonstrates great nervousness; this coupled with the age-old Chinese complex of superiority renders the situation in China extremely unstable, not to say explosive. For the last few years, Hu has been obsessed with 'stability'. The leadership, particularly Hu, often speaks of a 'harmonious' society, probably in contrast with the 'chaos' so greatly feared by the ancient emperors. The Chinese word for 'chaos', luan meant society's condition when it fell into an uncontrolled state. The emperors used to lose Heaven's Mandate to rule when 'chaos' prevailed.

The problem is that the present emperors do not know any method other than force to solve internal issues, and force has never worked in the long run.

- Claude is a French-born author and journalist who lives in Puducherry.

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