Why China's iron fist will land on its own face
  • Mon, 08/31/2009 - 12:00

Business Mirror
Written by Ricardo S. Malay / Contributor   
Monday, 31 August 2009 01:08

THE violent unrest by the minority Uighur population in China’s Xinjiang province has dwindled down. Yet it would be erroneous to conclude that the Chinese leadership has effectively doused the fire begun by the most serious challenge ever mounted by its second-largest ethnic group against Han political control. To the contrary, China’s vigorous repression of the resurgent Uigher nationalists—coming after Tibet’s ongoing hand-over-fist defiance of Beijing’s rule—bodes ill for China’s self-vision as a unified and mighty global power with few equals.

If there is a constant in China’s approach to the threats to its sovereignty, it is found in the word “force.” In a modern world where diplomatic options are increasingly the preferred means to resolve conflicts, the Asian Goliath stands out as a conspicuous non-conformist.

Externally, it has served noticed that the use of force will apply to Taiwan should it attempt to break free from the mainland. For its part, the island-nation has wisened to this show of truculence with a positive response. It helped that their sworn enemy eventually dumped its communist identity. And to its credit, Taipei further elected national leaders in the post-Chiang era who proved to be friendly cross- straits partners.

Not even ideological affinities are sacred to the People’s Republic when it comes to dealing body blows to its territorial adversaries. With the end of the Vietnam War, the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping sent his armies into their former ally’s territory to “punish” the Vietnamese for reigniting their age-old border dispute laid dormant by the conflict. Thereafter, the former comrades-in-arms engaged in bloody naval scrapes over who owns the Paracels, a Vietnamese contested group of islands in the South China Sea. It didn’t matter that the battle-tested Vietnamese handed the People’s Liberation Army a resounding defeat in both cases.

More than its extraordinary use of force and violence in Xinjiang, it is Beijing’s rendition of brutally suppressing the Tibetan, secessionist movement that has set the model for Chinese-style solutions to ethnic unrest. The Tibetans, who are neither of the Han family and are devout Buddhists in a country where religion has few adherents, have long earned the right to be called China’s original ethnic rebels..

Why would an emerging global power, theworld’s oldest civilization at that, choose the path of force and suppression at a time when diplomacy and engagement trump non-peaceful options? A state rooted in its anti-fascist struggle that is not above using the methods of its ideological enemy, is this the dreaded contradiction China has come to represent?

The answer lies in China’s deep sense of national pride in its history and aspirations to be a significant stakeholder in global affairs. It asserts that fielding a soft approach to its ethnic dissidences is a misstep that could only lead to its tragic dismemberment on the order of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia—dashing its monumental ambitions for the century. Tibet and Xinjiang combined occupy almost a third of the mainland and their declaration of independence, though far-fetched in the immediate future, would reduce China’s geographic map to a sorry caricature.

For the moment, the lid has been clamped on the Tibetan and Xinjiang cauldrons of discontent, outwardly at least. The world’s outrage at Beijing’s mailed-fist responses to the explosive situation in China’s western flank is the least of its concerns. Remember how the government spitefully ignored the universal shock and disbelief that greeted the Tiananmen massacre in 1989? Just like the columns of tanks that ploughed through the massive ranks of protestors, the central government in China has no problem putting paid to the value of public opinion.

Plus ça change.... The escalating repression of the Tibetan and Uighur minorities, much to Beijing’s consternation, can only stiffen their resolve to banish the tyranny they have long suffered in silence. China’s ruling class, steeped in historical materialism, should heed this lesson before the rock it is lifting drops on its feet.

The author is a longtime journalist who was based in China in the 1970s and became a keen observer of the momentous changes that swept the country.