The Blog

National Brotherhood Week


12:00 PM, Jul 13, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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This week I had been chatting online with a friend of mine in Beijing about the uprising in Urumqi, the capitol of Xinjiang province. Although the "Great Firewall of China" that has been created by the security services does a marvellous job of filtering many websites that the state does not want the population to have access to, some of the well-known instant messaging and Voice Over IP programs are still semi-reliable ways to communicate.

That is, unless you are living in Urumqi, where the authorities have sporadically shut down all Internet services and mobile phone networks. Chinese state-controlled media--as always--have also done a masterful job of spinning the news coming from this far western Chinese province.

Those I speak with in Beijing have been told by the government-owned and operated CCTV network that the situation in Urumqi is under control. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly if you spend enough time in China) many of them at least half believe it, even though they also know that Chinese President Hu Jintao truncated his trip to Europe and flew back from Florence, Italy to take back the helm of state during what was being seen as a national emergency. Hu was in Italy to attend the G8 summit in L'Aquila, which became the G8 minus 1 due to his absence.

Shuttling back and forth between Eastern Europe and China for years now has given me a much greater understanding of this mammoth nation, but it has also left me with at least as many questions as when I started. A Chinese colleague of mine has a joke that is a variation on the old Abbott and Costello "Who's On First." It is usually told in English rather than in Putonghua (the Mandarin dialect spoken as the unifying national language), and shows that even those who were born and have lived there all of their lives can be as perplexed at times as any foreigner.

"China is an impossible to understand country," he tells me. "Our president is 'Hu' (Who) and our Prime Minister is 'Wen' (When)," the surname of PM Wen Jiabao. "How much more incomprehensible of a country could we be."

It is this lack of understanding that has brought the situation to such a violent climax and--aside from the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989--the highest death toll from public unrest in the 60 years since the founding of the PRC. The current unrest in Xinjiang is partially a product of those back in the capitol and other regional authorities trying to brute force a universal model of public order onto a part of the country where it probably has the least chance of working.

To begin with, the western regions of China have always been poorer than the eastern, seaboard part of China. The further one gets from the coastal spheres of prosperity the more difficult life can be. Granted the 500 million who live in China's major cities are far better off--and this includes those in Urumqi--than the 800 million or more poor farmers that populate the countryside, but the growing disparity between China's more prosperous and poorer cities has been the source of growing resentment.

At the same time there is very little love lost between the Uighur minority and their Chinese masters. On the political level, the government remains petrified at the prospect of a domestic disturbance in Xinjiang spinning out of control. The lessons they learned from the fall of communism in places like Romania, East Germany, and--later--the USSR showed those in power in Beijing that a lid must always be kept on even the slightest sign of protest because a small, localized uprising can spin out of control into a full-fledged revolution.

The Uighurs, which are predominantly Muslim, resent this heavy hand and see it as religious persecution as much as they do political authoritarianism. They in turn make the governing authorities generally nervous because of links that have been discovered between Uighur terrorist groups and neighboring Islamic states, and because the Uighurs--being exempt from the one-child only policy enforced in other parts of China--are a faster growing population in Xinjiang province.

But the spark that has ignited this tinderbox in Urumqi has had more to do with ethnic tensions than political conflict.