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.
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.
"TIC" (This Is China), as I always remind my friends, so it is theoretically possible that the current government can manage this devolution of power from the center to the regions and still maintain its one-party Communist rule. However, if so this will be the first Communist party with a monopoly on power to maintain that monopoly in the process. The scorecard to date on these kinds of national governing transitions dictates otherwise.
Reuben F. Johnson is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.