Details of recent unrest in Xinjiang will never fully come to light. Like the Tibetan riots last year, the Gulja massacre 12 years earlier or the violence at Tiananmen two decades ago, there will be no public probe to establish the truth of events, and wounds festering in private will not heal.
But long after this summer’s riots, the lingering impression will be that Beijing’s talk of ethnic harmony and national unity is hollow, while discontent with its authoritarian rule is strong.
For this, Beijing has itself to blame. It remains unwilling — in public at least — to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Uighurs’ complaints. Rather than recognizing systematic economic discrimination and repealing government policies that are crushing the language, religion and other aspects of Uighur culture, Beijing has stepped up its “war on terror” rhetoric.
Having learned nothing from its failed campaign to label the Dalai Lama a “terrorist,” China has intensified its invective against exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer.
The strategy has been another public-relations disaster for China, underscoring its thuggishness and alienating it further from the human rights agendas of Western countries. Judging from statements about Kadeer made by senior Chinese officials to foreign media, Beijing has yet to understand that rhetoric that works well at home to whip up nationalist anger is counterproductive in democratic countries.
Beijing is, if anything, fueling Kadeer’s fame and expanding her audience. By dogging her wherever she goes, Beijing ensures there is plenty of media interest before Kadeer even steps off the plane.
Kadeer’s arrival in Japan yesterday received more attention from the media as a result of Beijing’s protest to Tokyo over the visit.
Likewise, a documentary about Kadeer that might otherwise have attracted little attention has become the focus of an international discussion on Beijing’s campaign against Kadeer and its treatment of Uighurs. A screening of the documentary sold out at a Melbourne film festival that, thanks to Beijing’s pressure to pull the film, had to schedule an extra screening to accommodate public interest.
Today, very few people have heard of Gulja or the events that took place in Xinjiang in February 1997, when China sent in troops to silence street protests for economic equality, religious freedom and other fundamental rights. The blood that was shed launched Kadeer on a quest to determine who was responsible. Her questions quickly undermined her status as a darling of Beijing and eventually her efforts to highlight injustices in Xinjiang landed her in prison. The violence in Gulja remains a subject as forbidden as the events of June 4, 1989.
But Kadeer understood something that Beijing didn’t: Probing the Gulja crackdown was in its interest. Only by recognizing wrongs and addressing the causes of Uighur resentment can stability be realized.
Today, she is only one of many well-educated and articulate Uighurs leading a campaign for human rights in exile, many of whom were once loyal members of the Chinese Communist Party.
With these voices scattered in Europe and North America, the complaints of Uighurs are gaining sympathy and prominence. Beijing’s campaign to label the peaceful activities of Uighurs abroad as “terrorism” will only lend credence to their cries of oppression.
The events of Gulja may never be addressed, but the reaction to recent unrest in Xinjiang shows Beijing’s propaganda efforts have failed. Gone are the days when China could send in the military to bludgeon opposition and count on little attention from abroad.
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