Beware the Tiananmen reflex
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - The deadly July 5 riots in Urumqi, capital of northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, have ignited the old blame-game against Chinese authorities. Across the world, many are now labeling the Beijing government guilty of all death and destruction in the remote city.
It is a Tiananmen reflex: if there are dead people on the streets, it must be Beijing's fault; just like Beijing was guilty of killing students in the crackdown on the Tiananmen movement in 1989. After all, Beijing occupies a land, Xinjiang, that wanted its independence in the 1940s, and many Uyghurs, the local population that is now in a minority because of Han Chinese migration, might want to become independent - if only they could.
It is important to try to see clearly the narrow and broad context behind the Urumqi riot, even forgetting for a moment the obvious points about greater protection of human rights for the Uyghur minority.
There is no evidence of large-scale indiscriminate shooting by the police as accounting for the 156 deaths and over 800 injured. The Chinese police did not try to exterminate the Uyghur rioters because they don't need to. If they wanted to wipe out the protesters, they could have simply arrested and killed them in prison, not in the streets. The crackdown could have been more or less fierce, but they did not massacre people in the street, unlike in 1989.
There is abundant evidence that the protesters set the city on fire, causing the casualties directly (by beating people) or indirectly (because innocents were in the buses on fire). Their actions could have reasonable motives and could be justified, but the killing of scores of innocent people is blood on their hands, and it is not pretty.
A riot of this scale and scope could well have been organized beforehand to make President Hu Jintao - visiting Italy for the Group of Eight (G-8) meeting - lose face. Conspiracies are hard to prove, but because of this, politics tend to rule out pure accidents.
It is most likely that the brewing hatred among ethnic Uyghurs for the Han Chinese (the ethnic group making up about 95% of the Chinese population) was funneled into this demonstration by organizations opposing the Beijing government. This does not rule out the possibility that a brutal, careless intervention by the police might have escalated the situation.
The riot in Urumqi is a quantum leap in the political opposition to Beijing's rule in Xinjiang for several reasons. The protests moved from the traditionally restive Nanjiang (the southern part of Xinjiang, where Uyghurs are still the majority and retain their traditions) to Urumqi (the regional capital, where Uyghurs are the minority, are allegedly integrated, and have been "sedated", largely peaceful for decades).
Most likely, the new restrictions marshaled wholesale onto the Uyghur population - including in once-peaceful Urumqi - after last year's attacks in Kashgar, Khotan and Turfan have backfired. For fear of attacks spreading to cities outside of Xinjiang, as happened in the mid-1990s, Beijing limited the movement of Uyghurs out of the region, and even those traveling out were under stricter control. This reinforced the feeling among Uyghurs that they were second-class citizens.
This decision possibly prevented attacks or bombings against the Han populations in Beijing and Shanghai, but spread dissatisfaction and loathing among common Uyghurs, who might have been more middle-of-the-road about Beijing.
There is an old tension between the Han and Uyghurs, sprouting from the lack of a sense of one Chinese nation, inclusive of all its minority ethnic groups. With the fall of communist ideals, there is no new ideological glue. There is also growing nationalism - but it is ethnic Han nationalism. This Han nationalism widens the divide with other minorities, especially those proud of their origins, like Uyghurs and Tibetans. Furthermore, Han nationalism kindles and feeds other ethnic groups' nationalism and it all becomes a vicious circle.
China wants and needs Han nationalism and pride to win the support of the rich and powerful Chinese diaspora which supported China's growth in the past three decades. But this nationalism leaves the Tibetans and the Uyghurs behind. They are less relevant for Chinese development, but can cause a lot of trouble and embarrassment.
China, now more than any other time, may come to realize that the Islamic problem is not just part of its foreign policy, it seeps into its domestic policy. It is impossible to isolate Islamic Uyghurs from radical Muslims rebelling in Central Asia. Delicate balances in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are bound to have consequences in Xinjiang. The stabilization of Central Asia is crucial for the long-term pacification of Islamic Xinjiang.
China can decide that on balance these are minor costs that it must be willing to pay, and crackdowns in Urumqi or Lhasa don't really matter. However, image-conscious Chinese leaders may want to be spared further embarrassment and might want to consider some proposals already advanced by government think-tanks.
The idea of nationalism came to China around the turn of the 19th century, when Beijing was confronting Western nation-states that, unlike imperial China, had a strong sentiment of state unity.
Scholar Liang Qichao was instrumental in advancing this idea. This came to him possibly because, as the last reforming mandarin of Han origin in the Manchu court, he was the object of diffidence, envy and jealousy on the part of the ethnic Manchu aristocracy.
The great Han nationalism was the stock idea of the Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, and Mao Zedong corrected it by introducing Soviet-style "protections" for other nationalities living in China. But in the former Soviet Union, the issue was that there had been an oppressive Russian nationalism that needed curbing.
In China, there had been no Han nationalism to speak of. Mao's nationalities instituted for the first time minute divisions among the ethnic groups living in China, which de facto promoted national and ethnic sentiments that previously were more blurred.
It is necessary to drop the institution of ethnic nationalities and develop a Chinese dream - inclusive of non-ethnic Han - and to revamp the old imperial idea of huaren, people who belong to the new Chinese culture. This can be inclusive of Tibetans, Uyghurs and foreigners emigrating to China, just like the idea of being an American is based on sharing a culture, not an ethnicity.
This can be achieved also by looking at the example of India, divided by dozens of languages and ethnicities. In school, Indian children have to learn their own language, English and another nationality language. They may not be proficient in the other languages, but the process of learning conveys a deep sentiment of unity.
If Han schoolchildren could choose to learn Uyghur, Mongolian or Tibetan, this would give them and the Uyghurs, Mongolians or Tibetans a stronger sense of being one country and one system.
A crackdown must work with laser-fine precision. Wholesale measures that net together activists, sympathizers and neutral bystanders are bound to spread hatred and dissatisfaction against the Beijing government. It is a well-established principle in penal culture: if you execute the killer, the robber and simple accomplice, you encourage everybody to go to the extreme and become killers.
If, for fear of Uyghur terrorists, you turn a whole people into suspects, you then push them to become terrorists. Then what can you do, wage war on a people? This is actually what terrorists want - an expansion of state repression so that angered people will flock to the terrorists' ranks.
The opposite must occur: safeguard the common Uyghur population from terrorists. In that case, the problem now should be how to scale down the size of the crackdown and increase its accuracy.
These measures will be difficult and time-consuming. But without them, Han nationalism will dominate the national ideology, and this will hinder domestic and international politics as China grows into a global power.
The immediate thought abroad will be: "Will Chinese nationalists, once big and powerful, do to me what they are now doing to the Uyghurs and Tibetans?" Denials will be to no avail. Only facts - and the careful communication of these facts - will prove to the world China's true intentions.
Francesco Sisci, Asia Editor of La Stampa.