Now for the overseas fifth column

By Sushil Seth  / 

Thu, Aug 27, 2009 - Page 8

Isn’t it ironic that the more China becomes a major global player; the more it shows signs of insecurity?

One encounters this all the time, whether the communist leadership is attempting to deal with dissidents, the Dalai Lama or, more recently, Rebiya Kadeer, leader of the World Uyghur Congress.

Rebiya Kadeer, 62, who lives in exile in the US and is the mother of 11 children, stands accused of igniting the recent riots in Xinjiang, triggered by the killing of Uighur workers at a factory in Guangdong.

How she did all this thousands of kilometers away in the US is hard to comprehend, but Beijing is adamant, calling her a criminal and a terrorist.

Previously, she spent five years in a Chinese jail, and before that was said to be China’s richest businesswoman.

When the Chinese leadership decides to go after someone or some group, it does not concern itself with the plausibility of accusations.

Indeed, the ferocity with which China has pursued Kadeer is breathtaking.

Take, for example, this interview with Pan Zhiping (潘志平), a researcher at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences. Talking about Kadeer with the Weekend Australian newspaper, she described her as “rotten meat, the kind that only attracts flies … The human rights she advocates are evil rights, murderers’ rights.”

Whatever Pan’s academic credentials, she is certainly an apt pupil of China’s political establishment.

Ordinary Chinese academics might verbalize the establishment’s anger, but the government always has a ready-made case to condemn victims.

Xinjiang authorities have already procured and flashed letters on TV from her two children and other relatives (including some of her grandchildren) to testify that Kadeer started the riots in Urumqi.

Beijing seems to think that the world is so gullible that it would swallow this stratagem of pitting children against parents. Then again, Chinese leaders have a history of believing their own propaganda when producing coerced confessions.

Kadeer’s children are convenient pawns in this political chess game, and the regime has no moral qualms in these matters.

While visiting Australia, Kadeer said: “It is shameful that the Chinese government has tried to turn the children of a mother against her. … It is immoral violence. It is a forgery, transparent propaganda.”

Five of her 11 children live in China, and two of her sons are in Chinese prisons.

Kadeer’s trip to Australia infuriated the Chinese authorities. They castigated Australia for allowing a “criminal” and a “terrorist” into the country while disregarding Chinese representations.

Kadeer went to Australia to attend the premiere of The 10 Conditions of Love, a documentary on her life, at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

The Chinese diplomatic mission in Australia tried unsuccessfully to stop this documentary from being screened. In a retaliatory measure, Chinese films that were part of the festival were withdrawn.

The Australian ambassador in Beijing was summoned to explain, and Melbourne’s mayor was warned that his city’s sister-city relationship with Tianjin might be annulled.

But the Australian authorities stood their ground, refusing to intervene in the screening of the film or withdraw Kadeer’s visa. But Kadeer met no Australian officials or ministers.

Like the Tibetan people, Uighurs fear ethnic cleansing and cultural decimation. It defies common sense why China, a powerful country of 1.3 billion people, cannot devise a workable policy of accommodating ethnic minorities like the Tibetans and the Uighurs.

Instead, when faced with dissent, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always sought to deal with suspected enemies by demonizing them, and this brings us to the insecurity that is inherent in a system in which the ruling party has a monopoly on power.

The CCP’s insecurity borders on paranoia. Any challenge to it is a challenge to the nation.

Beijing demands utmost loyalty not only from Chinese citizens but also from nationals of other countries of Chinese descent. The party is, therefore, seeking to rally overseas Chinese around the flag.

At a recent congress for overseas Chinese, Wang Zhaoguo (王肇國), a politburo member, reportedly called on the delegates to use the “blood lineage” of their common descent “to achieve outstanding results in uniting the broad masses of overseas Chinese.”

To emphasize the indivisibility of national and party interests, he told delegates to “do a better job of uniting the force of the circle of overseas Chinese around the party and the government.”

This is a dangerous exercise, and Beijing has embarked on it quite openly.

Chinese diplomatic missions are already highly active in organizing and mobilizing overseas Chinese, as evidenced during the anti-Tibet rallies that accompanied the torch relay for the Beijing Olympics.

Beijing may not realize that the attempt to rally overseas Chinese could create a backlash against them if concerns are raised about their loyalty.

If Beijing persists with such politics, it won’t be long before some start accusing overseas Chinese as being part of a vast potential fifth column.

China feels emboldened by its new reach and power, and would argue that the benefits of rallying millions of overseas Chinese around the flag far outweigh any hostile reaction in other countries.

Beijing probably considers that no country in Asia — where most overseas Chinese live — would dare create trouble for its ethnic Chinese population for fear of crossing China.

If this is the line of thinking that is shaping China’s policies, it is not a good omen for the region, or for the world.

Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.