The Taiwanese government’s decision not to give a visa to exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, while labeling her organization as linked to terrorists, is probably a result of her August visit to Australia. Despite pressure from Beijing, the Australian government granted her a visa, as they have in the past. Canberra investigated and rejected assertions that Kadeer has links to terrorism.
No other democratic country has accepted that Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress are linked to the shadowy East Turkistan Islamic Movement. But Kadeer’s visit to Australia followed already-strained diplomatic relations between Australia and China as a result of the latter’s arrest of leading Australian mining executive Stern Hu (胡士泰) of the Rio Tinto company. The only explanation for the government of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) accepting these slurs on Kadeer (a former Chinese businesswoman of the year) is its focus on building closer economic links with China.
In her final public appearance in Australia, during a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra, Kadeer expressed her “gratitude” to the Chinese government, a sentiment for which she has good reason.
Beijing’s heavy-handed attempt to stop the Australian government from giving her a visa put the previously unknown Kadeer on the front page of local newspapers. The Australian government resisted Beijing’s pressure. China’s equally crude attempt to bully the Melbourne International Film Festival into canceling the screening of a film about Kadeer made her a cause celebre and ensured that her week-long visit to Australia was a triumph for the World Uyghur Congress. Indeed, Chinese government attempts to censor Australian-American filmmaker Jeff Daniels’ film about her life, The 10 Conditions of Love, scored international coverage for the Uighurs, leading the New Yorker film critic Richard Brody to declare his solidarity thus: “We are all Melbournians.”
Australian commentators were puzzled by the behavior of the Chinese government and its diplomats in Australia, questioning their attempts to influence government decisions and to interfere with freedom of speech in a democratic country that has gone out of its way to be China’s friend.
China’s counter-productive antics over Kadeer’s visit to Australia conform to a long-established pattern of behavior. Although China has become a much more prosperous — and in some ways less repressive — place than it was in the days of Chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東), the essentials of power have not changed: China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, which brooks no serious opposition to its rule.
China has been keen to blame Kadeer for inciting the violence in Urumqi in July, a charge she denies. The Dalai Lama was similarly accused of stirring up the rebellion in Tibet last year. It is impossible for an outsider to know the exact truth about these events. But as someone who has met both Kadeer and, on several occasions, the Dalai Lama, I can say I have been impressed by the firm and explicit commitment to non-violence made by both these leaders. It’s far more likely that the troubles in Tibet and Xinjiang are the result of the denial of human rights and cultural and religious freedom to the Tibetan and Uighur peoples over many years.
Influential Sydney Morning Herald foreign editor Peter Hartcher, in an Aug. 19 article perceptively entitled “Dragon is cross, but it’s business as usual,” suggests that China’s attempts to strong-arm Australia were really intended as a warning to the US — and perhaps Taiwan. He quotes the Chinese proverb “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.”
This might explain why China is apparently displeased with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat who has worked hard to develop better relations with China. Rudd’s mistake is that he, like US President Barack Obama, takes human rights seriously and has made frank comments in China about Tibet, the arrest of Chinese dissidents and other touchy subjects.
Rudd has stated that it is important for Australia “to have a calm, measured, proper framework” for handling its relationship with China.
However, the prime minister also said: “There could well be further bumps in the road ahead. Our challenge in managing these relationships is simply to negotiate those bumps in the road as they occur.”
The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party want three things. They want China to become a wealthy and modern state. They want China to be become a great and respected power. And they want to retain complete power for themselves and their successors forever. These things are not ultimately compatible, but the Chinese leaders, blinded by the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy they grew up with and by traditional Chinese nationalism, refuse to face this fact.
China’s rapid population growth and urbanization, its endemic corruption, secrecy and inefficiency, its increasing energy and environmental problems, its underpaid workers and over-taxed farmers, its restive intellectuals and activists and its repressed ethnic minorities all add up to a recipe for trouble — if not now, then sooner or later.
The tighter China tries to screw down the lid on these problems, the bigger the eventual explosion will be. Blaming exiles and foreign governments for China’s troubles only makes the urgent task of reforming China’s system of government more difficult. In this context the release of key Chinese human rights champion Xu Zhiyong (許志永), one of the founders of the non-governmental organization Open Constitution Initiative and an active rights lawyer, is especially propitious.
Since Kadeer’s visit, relations between Australia and China seem to have settled down. Beijing has downgraded Hu’s charges from espionage to the lesser offense of commercial bribery, and several enormous gas trade deals worth tens of billions of dollars have been announced.
China’s economic self-interest in garnering Australian resources underlines the reality that economic facts trump politics in communist China. Although Taiwan’s position is far more complicated than that of Australia, perhaps more heed should be given to this economic reality before Taipei pre-emptively bows to Beijing’s demands in relation to dissidents such as Rebiya Kadeer.
Michael Danby, an Australian Labor Party representative, is the member for the federal electorate of Melbourne Ports and chair of the Australian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee.
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