The Blog

National Brotherhood Week


12:00 PM, Jul 13, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Chinese in all parts of the country generally have little good to say about the Uighurs, looking upon them in a similar way that much of western Europe looks at the Roma minority. "I would not even want one of them to touch me," said one Chinese friend. "I try to stay away from them--not have any contact with them. In Beijing they are the people famous for being lazy, cruel, thieves, robbers, etc." Those who do not dislike the Uighurs for the unsavory character traits they supposedly exhibit instead resent the fact that China's government has expended considerable sums on special minority programs to benefit them.

A Beijing-based western colleague who has lived in China for years explained to me "what we have here is a Chinese version of National Brotherhood Week as parodied in the famous Tom Lehrer song. You know the verse that says: 'Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics, And the Catholics hate the Protestants, And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.' That's pretty much what is happening here right now."

Like many race riots throughout history, this one began with a small insignificant incident--namely the dissatisfaction over the progress of an investigation over the death of two Uighur factory workers. One recrimination led to another, a rumor mill started spinning about Uighurs raping Han Chinese women and the next moment street battles were being fought with household kitchen knives, lead pipes and all other sorts of makeshift weapons.

For years, my Beijing colleagues remind me on a regular basis, there has been a fairly standard and quite successful method for maintaining public order in China. Local authorities are given a standard set of instructions. "If there are people who are restless due to whatever set of circumstances you buy them off somehow--with money, with other giveaways. If they cannot be bought off then you use local law enforcement to intimidate them. And those who will neither be bought off or intimidated--usually a small number--go to jail."

This yearbook answer cannot work now in Xinjiang. The number of people out in the streets in Urumqi who are committed to a full-blown street battle cannot be bought off or intimidated--and there are too many of them to try and put them in jail. For this reason the Chinese military has poured troops into the troubled region, sending as many as another 20,000 on Wednesday alone. Photos taken by the BBC of these troops being massed in Urumqi's public square show a camouflage sea that even dwarfs the number of soldiers required in a pre-parade practice exercise for one of those endless military reviews that the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Il, is so fond of.

But excessive military force will not eradicate the tensions that sparked this rebellion. It can only move it further down the road to some future date where it will more likely than not be more violent and widespread.

At its core, the unrest in Urumqi is only the most extreme manifestation of a growing disenchantment in China. Part of the problem is that worldwide financial meltdown has hit this country's economy much harder than most others because of its almost singular reliance on a robust growth in the export of manufactured goods. Economic downturns only exacerbate ethnic ones as people look for another nationality to blame for their own hardships.

But the deeper complication is the fact that each generation of Chinese leaders in the central government in Beijing is weaker than the one which preceded it.

"When Deng Xiaoping was in charge," my Beijing colleague is fond of telling me, "he knew every single minister in the government, or--even better--he knew the father of those ministers because they had fought in the trenches together in the 1949 communist revolution. One phone call from him had the force of law. There was no debate or wavering and his instructions were always carried out."

President Who and PM When, for all of their good points and despite the fact that they are looked upon as being more clever than those they replaced--President Jiang Zemin and PM Li Peng--have nothing like the absolute power that was wielded by Deng. Even if they did, it would be impossible to maintain ironclad, one-man rule in a modern, growing economy.

Urumqi is not likely to be the nucleus of some national rebellion that spreads throughout China. The combination of overwhelming military force and a round of more government spending in the province to try and--as usual--buy off those that are disaffected will probably have life back to normal before too long. But, it is a reminder that China is going to continue to face growing unrest and desires for more autonomy by the provinces from the central government in Beijing.