Beijing is unwise to play with firehttp://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/394ddf06-6a53-11de-ad04-00144feabdc0.html
Beijing is unwise to play with fire
Published: July 6 2009 18:51 | Last updated: July 6 2009 18:51
China’s bloodiest crackdown on protesters for 20 years reveals a government that is still more comfortable suppressing the symptoms of the country’s ethnic tensions than finding policies to solve the problems they cause.
According to official figures, at least 140 people were killed and almost a thousand wounded in street clashes between Muslim Uighurs and armed police in the city of Urumqi in the remote Xinjiang province. Uighurs, the region’s indigenous ethnic group, had taken to the streets to demand a fair investigation of the deaths of two Uighur workers in a fight against Han Chinese, China’s majority ethnicity.
The government admittedly has grounds for concern: Uighur resentment of Han domination has regularly erupted into violence, such as the 1990 armed insurrection in the town of Baren. Beijing’s hysterical fear of opposition, however, makes it react unwisely.
The government blames expatriate leaders for stirring up violence among Uighurs, in an echo of its stance on Tibet – and indeed of Tehran’s attempt to lay the recent mass election protests at the door of foreign agents. But the Uighur leaders Beijing points fingers at, such as US-based businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, have neither the domestic following nor the spiritual status of a Dalai Lama – who in any case insists on non-violence.
The more relevant comparison with Tibet is that both Uighurs and Tibetans feel they are being marginalised in order to benefit Han Chinese. It is a legitimate grievance. Many Han regard Uighurs as backward; and the materialism of the Chinese state and mainstream society sits uneasily with Uighur religious sensibilities. The government has failed to secure opportunities for ethnic minorities: both in Xinjiang and Tibet most government positions are held by Han Chinese.
No one should therefore be surprised at the simmering resentment that this has caused, even though its escalation into violence is unacceptable. Least of all can the government deny its own role in fuelling the tensions. Its propaganda, which denigrates what the west does while celebrating China’s achievements, fans the flames of a specifically Han Chinese nationalism. Last year’s domestic fury against international protests about Tibet showed how useful such nationalism is to the regime.
But that same policy is bound to intensify ethnic minorities’ grievances. It is high time for China to be a government for all its citizens.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009