The clashes between the Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang this month left at least 197 people dead and more than 1,600 wounded. The rioting was Xinjiang’s worst ethnic unrest in decades. It not only shook China, but also brought international attention to the problems faced by China’s ethnic minority groups, including Uighurs and Tibetans.
Chinese officialdom cannot see anything wrong with the government’s minority policies and its treatment of minority groups. The official view is that development among the minorities living in Xinjiang is harmonious and calm, therefore it cannot be the cause of the unrest in the region. Chinese officials blame the unrest on exiled separatists and say that it was well planned and co-ordinated to take place at more than 50 locations across the regional capital, Urumqi. They claim that the problems have been incited by foreign forces, whether last year’s riots in Tibetan areas or this year’s unrest in Xinjiang.
These “forces” have not been identified, but any foreign country, organization, media outlet or individual seen as being prejudiced against China in some way is a possible accomplice. International respect for the Dalai Lama is seen by Beijing as an attempt to strengthen the Tibetan spiritual leader’s prestige and as support for a plot to bring about Tibetan independence. When Forbes magazine listed Rebiya Kadeer, who was Xinjiang’s richest person but was forced into exile in 2005, as one of China’s 10 richest people, Beijing saw this as an attempt to increase her prestige among Uighurs and as a way to oppose Chinese rule and encourage an East Turkestan independence movement.
By externalizing an internal problem, China has not only played down the inappropriate nature of its ethnic minority policies, but has also absolved itself of any responsibility for mishandling the riots by directing the focus of blame away from Beijing. More important, the Chinese authorities have expanded the ethnic minority problem and turned it into an issue of international prejudice. By using nationalism to manipulate the issue and create feelings of insecurity and rising international pressure among the Chinese, the government gains public sympathy and strengthens national unity.
This is China’s standard approach and it usually works. However, redirecting ethnic sentiment also changes the essence of the problem and diminishes domestic criticism of failed policies, political corruption, social injustice and human rights violations. This in turn means that the real, underlying problems are not resolved. This way of handling things will only suppress the current unrest. The result is that the next spark may well set off yet another wave of ethnic unrest.
The unrest in Xinjiang will not be enough to cause China to feel insecure or make the Chinese leadership nervous. Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) once served as Chinese Communist Party secretary in Tibet and thus has firsthand experience in dealing with minority issues. The riots will instead boost the government’s authority as it suppresses unrest.
Another result will be that dissatisfaction with the current economic situation will be redirected toward a new target for nationalist sentiment. Thus the regional problems in Xinjiang will provide an unexpected advantage for the Chinese leadership.