Why the riots should worry China

Last Updated: Tue, Jul 28, 2009 12:54 hrs

Bhaskar Roy, who retired recently as a senior government official with decades of national and international experience, is an expert on international relations and Indian strategic interests.

The July 5-6 riots between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese settlers in Urumqi, capital of China`s western Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has raised new questions and opened new wounds on China`s minority policies. Can Beijing`s Mandarins take a risk and bring about a change in their hard line policy?

The Urumqi riots supposedly were a reaction to two Uighur workers killed in the South Eastern province of Guangdong. There is no clear information on how a peaceful demonstration which started on July 5 afternoon turned into a violent attack by late evening. Uighurs allege that the police fired on the procession, which led to violence. The Chinese authorities have not really clarified this charge. The Han migrants retaliated the next day with vengeance, some say under the benign eyes of the police. Then the authorities brought in the People`s Armed Police (PAP) and the army.

 The Uighurs disagree with the official death toll of the two communities, claiming that more Uighurs died than the numbers given out, and many of them were killed in the police firing on July 5. In trying to understand the death toll of the two communities, the demographic map of Urumqi may have a clue. Today the Han Chinese population of the city is 70 percent, and Uighurs less than 30 per cent. The police and security forces are overwhelmingly Han.

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The Chinese blame Rebiya Kadeer, head of the Washington based World Uighur Congress (WUC), for inciting the Urumqi violence. An Uighur businesswoman from Urumqi, Ms. Kadeer was imprisoned for seven years by the Chinese authorities for supporting the Uighur separatist group, the banned East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). She was allowed to leave China due to external pressure and now heads WUC, which is supported by the US congress-mandated organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).  Ms. Kadeer, of course, denied the charge.

The fact, however, remains that 197 people died in the riots, perhaps the highest figure since the 1950s. Old Chinese figures are notoriously unreliable. This is not going away soon, and repercussions may spread beyond China`s borders.

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In another attempt to besmirch the character of Rebiya Kadeer, a small Chinese language Hong Kong newspaper, the Apple Daily, recently reported that  Ms. Kadeer had written to the Dalai Lama, offering to forge a partnership with Tibetan separatists to fight for independence. This was a poor attempt at spreading disinformation. The Dalai Lama`s office in Dharamshala flatly denied the report.  

Following the quelling of the riots, the authorities in Urumqi banned prayer gatherings in mosques in the interest of security. Mosque gatherings can be potential points for raising anger, but almost all clerics in China are vetted and appointed by the state. Notwithstanding the reason behind the decision, the action did not go down well with Muslims inside China and abroad. This ban was lifted late last week.

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The decision by the Chinese central and regional authorities to crackdown hard on the Uighur culprits, including the decision to execute the ring leader is another jarring decision. The Chinese authorities have been quite free in  executing minority trouble makers, especially the Uighur Muslim separatists. This has not gone unnoticed in the Muslim world.

Although most Muslim governments and regimes across the world reacted to the quelling of the riots with certain restraint, Turkish President Tayyib Erdogan described the incident as genocide of the Uighurs. The Uighurs are of Turkish origin, speak the Turkish language and are treated as Turkish citizens as per Turkish law. Some Iranian clerics also criticised the Chinese actions.

The Pakistan government said this will not affect bilateral relations with China and endorsed the Chinese action. Most Muslim governments and regimes like Saudi Arabia have their own Islamic terrorism problems, and feel any loud protests would only encourage their own terrorists. It is not yet known if the bombing of the hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia on July 17 by Islamic terrorists has any connection with the Uighur issue, but the Indonesian government was not critical of the Chinese actions.

The threat by the Algeria-based arm of the Al Qaeda, the Al Qaeda of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to target Chinese citizens and assets in Africa has perturbed the Chinese. It is the first time that Osama bin-Laden's Al Qaeda collegiate has set sights on China. Al Qaeda`s policy had been hands off China till now despite intermittent Chinese crackdown on Uighur Muslims. The reasons may be that China kept away assiduously from Al Qaeda's fight with the west, and Beijing had warm relations with the erstwhile Afghan Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The recent Chinese charge that the Uighur separatists, particularly the ETIM, was aligned with the Taliban may also have irked the Al Qaeda.

Which is why, perhaps for the first time,  China, through it`s Foreign Ministry spokesman, pleaded (July 14) with the Muslim world to understand the Urumqi incident, and stressed that there was no ethnic divide or religion involved in it. It was the handiwork of terrorists, extremists and separatists, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

China has been playing a complex game with Islamic extremists and obscurantists. It had trained and despatched thousands of Uighur Muslims to fight along with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet forces. Although it did not officially recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, it did good business with them. Initially, after the US bombing of Afghanistan following `9/11`, Beijing questioned the veracity of the US dubbing the Taliban and Al Qaeda as extremists. It has also been dealing with the Pakistani rightwing Islamic organization/parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami.

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Although forced to be a part of the US-led war on terror, China has shown little or no co-operation with most countries including India on the issue, which has become the greatest threat to international security. China`s plan is to do business with them to the extent it is free from Islamic problems; the US, the west and India would bleed from this scourge. This uneducated and ill advised policy of China is beginning to come apart now.

Rebiya Kadeer has rejected overtures from the AQIM to join forces. She made it clear the Uighur movement was peaceful and aimed at achieving self-determination. They are gaining empathy and support from Germany and other countries in Europe who greatly embrace human rights.

The Urumqi incident will also have its influence on the Tibetan movement for genuine autonomy within the greater Chinese constitution. The Chinese suspect that the peaceful path of the Dalai Lama has a hidden agenda of separation. Therefore, there has been no forward movement on the Dalai Lama setup  -  Chinese dialogue.

US President Barack Obama is very likely to meet the Dalai Lama at the White House this October. If he does, what can China do except protest?

The Chinese authorities have been threatening most countries with trade and business sanctions if they allow the Dalai Lama political interface. The most recent to bear the brunt was France, but the French got their way around with the Paris Mayor conferring honorary citizenship of the city of Paris on the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama is highly respected in the West, as also in the East. His Buddhism is a panacea for the material world. Most importantly, he is trying to save a vibrant culture and a deeply mystic and peaceful religion from extinction. Can China afford to downgrade its trade, technological and political interactions with all countries who welcome the Dalai Lama? It would be disastrous for China.

While the Dalai Lama has gained international support for his peaceful and genuine cause for a people who are threatened by gradual extinction, the Uighurs have a huge Muslim world to empathise with them. The Chinese may be beginning to understand that there is a difference between Muslim governments and Muslim people. The Muslim people of the world look at  Muslims of China differently from their governments. The recent Chinese propaganda showing Muslims and Hans revelling with each other does not fool any one.

China`s laws on minorities, religion and autonomous regions contradict the new unwritten laws of a globalised world, and Chinese people are beginning to understand this. Letting lose China`s internet army to attack the Turkish President will not harm Turkey, but can hurt China. The Beijing Mandarins have to wake up and work with the times. The influential Chinese official weekly, the Liaowang (Outlook) said exactly this in a recent report in a general context.

The views expressed in the column are the author's and not of Sify.com

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