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Why the Xinkiang uprising was so serious Hu Jintao had to lose face at the G-8

Friday, July 10, 2009   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

John Metzler

BENNINGTON, Vermont — The ethnic uprising in Mainland China’s far western provinces, has sent seismic political jolts to Beijing. The rioting by Turkic Muslims in the vast Xinkiang region reminded Beijing’s Marxist Mandarins that non-Chinese minorities, be they Muslim or Buddhist as in Tibet, are not exactly on the same page as the rulers of the People’s Republic. Given that in October the People’s Republic will celebrate the 60th anniversary of communist rule on Mainland China, such ethnic rumblings in Central Asia are particularly embarrassing as much as they could be foreboding.

Embarrassing because PRC President Hu Jintao was forced to hurriedly leave the G-8 Economic Summit in Italy to return to China; this humiliating loss of face for the communist leader in the midst of an international gathering was a bitter pill. Foreboding, because the PRC authorities have flooded affected cities with military forces and pledged “severe punishment” to the ringleaders. China’s rulers may handle the disorders the old-fashioned way in this remote but beautiful region, spanning the Old Silk Road.

The communist party’s Politburo convened in Beijing and promised that stability in Xinjiang was the “most important and pressing task.” The civil unrest was likely the largest in China since Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

Inter-ethnic violence in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi saw bloody clashes between Uighur Muslims and the Han Chinese. Hundreds died. Yet while the roots of the unrest are deep, they rest in the fact that the region’s Muslim majority (45 percent) is being diluted by Han Chinese settlers who now comprise 40 percent of the population. As in Tibet, the local populace is being deliberately diluted as a way to change the demographic reality on the ground.

But beyond the political platitudes, the bottom line remains that Xinjiang has long been a restive region which happens to comprise one sixth of the PRC landmass. While Islam has been suppressed under communist rule, the political wild card remains that Xinkiang or East Turkestan as it is also known, just happens to border a number of former Soviet Muslim states who gained their independence when communist rule collapsed in Russia.

When Uighurs who are ethnically Turkic look east, they glare upon the vast sea of China where 92 percent of the population is ethnic Han. When they glance West, they look upon countries like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, former Soviet satraps, now independent.

Interestingly the Turkish government (which has a non-permanent seat on the Security Council) grandstanded and has called for the Xinkiang violence to come before the UN Security Council. While Turkey’s Islamic-lite rulers have long been enchanted with Turkic communities in Central Asia, their sentiments have never forgotten the “brothers in East Turkistan.” Beijing stopped the diplomatic proposal cold.

The PRC rulers blame the violence on what the communist party calls “the three forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism at home and abroad.

China has regularly raised the specter of Al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorist groups as a convenient cat’s paw to slap down any opposition. Since the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks on America, this was an easier task as much as it was for Moscow. While some Uighurs have been linked to Al Qaida (even some in Guantanamo Bay) this is a minority. Separatism is equally a broad-brushed charge aimed at anyone among China’s fifty-five “minority groups” who does not willingly fit into a neat folkloric and ethnic cookie mold of the communist regime.

As to Extremism; look at Beijing’s hysterical condemnations of the World Uighur Congress to see how “extremists” are variously viewed as both ungrateful and vicious.

An official communiqué to all comrades, with characteristic PRC polemic, called for “holding high the banner of ethnic unity” and carrying on the tradition that people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang “breathe together, share the same destiny and have their hearts linked to each other.”

In many ways Xinjiang is more of a dagger to the heart of Beijing than Tibet. It’s bigger, more populous, with Islamic fervor as compared to Buddhist tolerance, and bordering regions which were once bridling under Soviet rule but are now independent.

Geopolitically Xinjiang is nothing short of vital; it holds large oil fields, China’s nuclear testing facilities at Lop Nor, and the space facilities. It borders on seven countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia, Russia and former Soviet Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. .

The rifts between Uighurs and Han Chinese have less to do with political ideology than with cultural and religious issues, recalling Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” As with last year’s disorders in Tibet, Xinjiang’s violence tarnished the polished myth of communist China’s “multi-cultural” harmony. It’s a jolting wake-up call.

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