Why China's ethnic riots help the Communist Party

Official media depicted the country's dominant Han as victims, a useful unifier in a down economy.

Just as the new mantra in Washington is "Never let a crisis go to waste," so too did Beijing's leaders find an opportunity this week to take advantage of the ethnic riots between the country's dominant Han and the Muslim minority Uighurs.

Amid disturbing images of protesters killing each other – with more than 150 killed – China Central Television made sure to highlight those scenes in which the Han were victims of attacks by Uighurs. Official images also showed crowds of local Han welcoming truckloads of security forces and denouncing "foreign" influence.

And to make sure millions of overseas Han hear of such attacks, the government allowed foreign media into Urumqi, the capital of China's far western Xinjiang region and the traditional homeland of the Uighurs. Messages of outrage from the overseas groups were then reported in the heavily controlled press.

This is a notable shift from ethnic riots in Tibet last year, when the foreign press was barred from the Himalayan region and China's media played down attacks on local Han by Tibetans.

Perhaps one reason for this difference is that the Han are becoming more restless as the economy worsens. Protests are rising as jobs disappear. China's ruling Communist Party may have decided to try to unify them with scenes of Han as victims.

Keeping the Han majority unified is critical to the party staying in power. Even though they make up 90 percent of China's 1.3 billion population, the Han have stark linguistic and cultural differences among themselves. And China has a long history of rebellions between the various Han groups, such as the Cantonese and Fujianese.

After 1949, when Mao Tse-tung ruled China, the Han were united under communism, or "socialist labor." In fact, Mao tried to curb Han chauvinism against ethnic minorities. But after his death in 1975 and as communism was no longer a social glue, the party began to turn to Han nationalism for its legitimacy – while also remaining wary of historic differences between Han groups.

As the party knows well, any sort of nationalism in China, whether Han, Tibetan, or Uighur, can easily get out of hand. The government recently had to put an end to anti-Japanese protests – which it encouraged – when the protests quickly escalated. It has since tried to define a vague sort of "rational" nationalism.

Yet the party is willing to play with this fire when public outrage against "the other" helps its political survival.

Stoking Han nationalism, for example, helps the party win support and investments from the wealthy Han in other parts of Asia and in North America.

After this week's riots, a prominent and exiled Uighur leader, Rebiya Kadeer, told Radio Free Asia: "Through political brainwashing, the Chinese government purposely induces the Han Chinese to hate the Uighur, painting Uighurs as the enemy of China."

Unifying a China with so many cultural differences wouldn't be easy for any government. But for a party whose ideology is now discredited and instead plays a dangerous game of nationalism, the task will only become more difficult.

Until China is ruled under the universal principles of equal rights and an elected, pluralistic government, no manner of manipulative identity politics is going to work.

Especially for the 10 percent of people in China who are Uighurs, Tibetans, and some 53 other ethnic minorities.

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