Why China has clenched its fist in Xinjiang
Beijing's severe treatment of Uighurs – and Tibetans, too – may be an attempt to prevent a breakup similar to that of the Soviet Union.
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But with a rising Han population – and military garrisons – reinforcing frontier security, and security "the absolute guiding principle" of Beijing's policy toward minorities, says Wenran Jiang, who teaches at the University of Alberta in Canada, "there is no doubt ... that any means will be used to crush any aspirations to separatism."Skip to next paragraph
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That is bound to cause friction with "national groups fully conscious of having had states ... within living memory," warns Professor Sperling, a Tibet scholar. China enjoyed no authority before 1951 in areas of Tibet under the rule of the Dalai Lama, he points out, and Xinjiang was briefly the independent republic of East Turkestan between 1945 and 1949, when Mao's troops took over.
Minorities left out of economic development plan
The tensions have been worsened because although breakneck economic development has made Xinjiang richer, most of the benefits have gone to the Han, Uighurs complain. Tibetans harbor similar resentments, says Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York.
"The focus was all on GDP growth, with no capacity building" for less educated and less skilled rural Tibetans and Uighurs, he points out. "It was one-size-fits-all development."
"The undeveloped Xinjiang minority group areas were not included in the development plan" that built oil and gas wells with imported labor and planted cotton farms tended by demobilized Chinese soldiers, wrote Ilihamu Tuheti, a Uighur professor at Beijing's Nationalities University, on his blog.
Unusual crackdown on 'state security' offenses, religion
After Beijing began cracking down in the 1990s, officials began demonizing the Dalai Lama as a "splittist." Uighurs found themselves unable to voice the slightest complaint without being branded traitors. During the first years of this decade, according to Bequelin, nearly 10 percent of prisoners in Xinjiang were serving sentences for state security crimes. The corresponding ratio for the whole of China was 0.005 percent.
In both Tibet and Xinjiang, the authorities have cracked down on religious practice in a manner unheard of elsewhere in China. No government employee in either region is allowed to attend religious services, for example, and no young men under 18 are allowed to attend a mosque in Xinjiang.
"The Uighurs [ethnically related to other peoples of Central Asia] have a Turkic identity that the Chinese are trying to smother because it has transnational elements to it" that could threaten Chinese security, says Sperling.
Debate in Communist party about tactics, policy?
He is pessimistic about the Uighurs' cultural future. The Chinese government, he says, "believes that Sinicization is inevitable in the tide of history. But it is not going to happen without friction because it involves marginalizing people in their own area."
The way in which officials instantly blamed exiles for instigating Sunday's violence, he adds, "does not suggest much soul searching" about government policy toward minorities. Nor, 18 months on, has Mr. Barnett seen any signs of changed policy in Tibet.
"The Chinese have time, power, resources – everything is on their side," agrees Bequelin.
Others see signs of a debate within the ruling Communist party. "The first thing the authorities need to do is to actually acknowledge the problem" says Professor Jiang. He believes that "more thoughtful" leaders will seek a "more sophisticated" response to Sunday's unrest than a further crackdown.
That does not yet seem to be the case. "If the minority groups in Xinjiang are poor and backward, it is difficult to maintain peace and stability there" wrote Professor Tuheti prophetically on his blog last August.
Wednesday, the professor was reported to be under arrest.
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