Thursday, July 9, 2009

Gordon Chang on What the Riots in China Really Mean

Thanks to the wretched Dog for forwarding this to my attention.


What the Riots In China Really Mean

Gordon G. Chang, 07.08.09, 1:45 PM ET

This week, rioting left scores dead in Urumqi, the capital of China's troubled Xinjiang region. The latest official death toll is 156, but that number undoubtedly understates the count of those killed. The disturbances are accurately portrayed as ethnic conflict--Turkic Uighurs against the dominant Hans--but they also say much about the general stability of the modern Chinese state.

That state says the Uighurs are "Chinese," but that's not true in any meaningful sense of the term. The Uighurs are, in fact, from different racial stock than the Han; they speak a different language, and they practice a religion few others in China follow. Of the 55 officially recognized minority groups in China, they stand out the most.

The Uighurs are a conquered people. In the 1940s, they had their own state, the East Turkestan Republic, for about half a decade. Mao Zedong, however, forcibly incorporated the short-lived nation into the People's Republic by sending the People's Liberation Army into Xinjiang.

As much as the Uighurs deserve to govern themselves again--and they most certainly do--almost no one thinks they will be able to resurrect the East Turkestan state. They have even lost their own homeland, as Beijing's policies encouraged the Han to populate Xinjiang. In the 1940s, Hans constituted about 5% of Xinjiang's population. Today, that number has increased to about 40%. In the capital of Urumqi, more than 70% of the residents are Hans. In short, the Uighurs are no match for the seemingly invincible Han-dominated state.

Yet the riots of the last few days show just how vulnerable that Chinese state is, even in the face of apparently weak opponents. For one thing, according to one report, the disturbances came completely out of the blue for many. "There were no warning signs about the riots," said Tang Yan, a 21-year-old drug store employee who fled rampaging Uighurs in Urumqi. "No one expected it." What started as a silent, peaceful demonstration--over the failure of authorities to investigate the murders of Uighur factory workers in faraway Guangdong province--somehow turned into savagery in the streets of Urumqi's capital.

The chronology of events on Sunday is unclear, but it appears the gathering became a riot when police began to beat the protesters, even girls. There are, at this moment, so many grievances against the central government and the Communist Party that almost anything can spark an insurrection. And that's especially true when security forces overreact, as they appeared to do on Sunday.

Moreover, the disturbances, once they started, spread out from the capital city of Urumqi to remote Kashgar and possibly to Yarkand, Aksu, Khotan and Karamay as well. Beijing blocked the Internet and social networking sites after the demonstration turned violent. But in a modern society, even a centralized government cannot control every phone line and Web connection.

More important, the protests spread so fast because Uighurs throughout Xinjiang shared the same feelings about the Han authorities. Therefore, it's not surprising Uighurs reacted the same way when hearing of the events in Urumqi. When people realize that they're not alone, social order can break down. Citizens then feel the safety of numbers and so both lose fear and gain hope, especially if they are as desperate as the Uighurs have been for some time.

Consequently, people in oppressive societies can act in unison because, at some moments, enough of them think the same way. For the Uighurs, brutal oppression is the force binding one to the other. For others in China, the process of coming together is more subtle. "Ideas sometimes seep into people's minds almost imperceptibly and, over time, become embedded in a population's collective psyche," writes Jean Nicol, a psychologist and former South China Morning Post columnist.

As a result, people are more united--and stronger--than they appear. "I recall that my friends and I for decades were asked by people visiting from democratic Western countries, 'How can you, a mere handful of powerless individuals, change the regime, when the regime has at hand all the tools of power: the army, the police and the media, when it can convene gigantic rallies to reflect its people's 'support' to the world, when pictures of the leaders are everywhere and any effort to resist seems hopeless and quixotic?'" wrote Vaclav Havel, who knows something about how people under communist governments think. "My answer was that it was impossible to see the inside clearly, to witness the true spirit of the society and its potential--impossible because everything was forged. In such circumstances, no one can perceive the internal, underground movements and processes that are occurring."

The Chinese regime can fail because, as we are seeing in Xinjiang, the Party is losing hearts and minds, and, as Havel suggests, a ruling organization is vulnerable when that happens. In most other parts of China, ethnic tensions are not a factor, but the Communist Party has other problems. Almost nobody believes in its ideology, and everyone can see its failings as a ruling organization. Outside of minority-inhabited areas, few actively oppose it, but few anywhere enthusiastically support it. The Party stays in place largely due to apathy, fear and a failure to imagine that China can be better.

So this is a dangerous time for the one-party state. For three decades, its primary basis of legitimacy has been the continual delivery of prosperity. In the current economic downturn, however, it has been arguing that it deserves to remain in power for other reasons. As the Party tries to change the basis of its support, it puts its future at risk.

There are tens of thousands of protests in China each year, and most of them have nothing to do with clashes between ethnicities. Mishandled like the one in Urumqi, however, almost any one of them can spread fast, from city to city and across vast regions. That's the most important lesson to be learned from the events in Xinjiang this week.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. He writes a weekly column for Forbes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

See 13th post on this thread (David Codrea had a link to it a few days ago):

Its an article by John Kemp from January concerning high unemployment in the China area.

Shades of upcoming civil unrest in the US?