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18-07-09, 13:35
World Citizen: In Urumqi, Proof of China's Foreign Policy Success
Frida Ghitis | Bio | 16 Jul 2009


When ethnic disturbances broke out in western China last week, bringing the worst violence the country has seen in years, international reaction proved curiously mild. The violence in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, resulted in the deaths of at least 184 people, with some putting the number much higher. The events alarmed China's leadership, prompting President Hu Jintao to suddenly leave the G-8 summit in Italy. As for the rest of the world, the sense of alarm, if there was one, seemed rather muted.

World leaders remained eerily quiet or spoke in tones strikingly deferential to China, despite pleas from Uighur activists and expressions of support from Tibetans, who are intimately familiar with the perils of asserting a minority identity inside the giant Asian nation. The Urumqi events and the international reaction demonstrate how effective China's foreign policy strategy has proven in pursuit of Beijing's two paramount goals in the global arena.

Despite the extent of the unrest and the sheer size of the body count, most of the world didn't have much to say about the incidents. The European Union, which has proven so outspoken regarding events in places such as Iran or the Palestinian Territories, suddenly reverted to the old diplomatic maxim of respect for the domestic affairs of other countries. The EU representative in Beijing, Serge Abou, described the troubles, which had been threatening to boil over for many years, as "a Chinese issue, not a European issue." Abou had little more to say on the matter, since "we would not like other governments to tell us what is to be done" when Europe experiences problems with its minority populations.

Washington spoke with little more enthusiasm in support of an oppressed minority suddenly facing 20,000 not-always-friendly soldiers in the streets of Urumqi. The strongest statement from the Obama administration came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who urged China to exercise restraint in Xinjiang. The governments of most Muslim countries, too, remained strikingly quiet about the killings of fellow Muslims.

Turkey's government initially offered only mild comments, but popular outrage over both China's actions and Turkey's silence became too much to resist. Huge street protests demanded that the government stand up for the Uighurs, a population that is historically linked to Turkey's. After the initial delay, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared that Turkey "cannot remain silent in the face of what is happening." Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted Chinese policy in Xinjiang, saying it was "like a genocide."

China reacted with fury, making sure Ankara understood just how high a price it could face for its words. Above all, China is a major economic power. In today's global economy, countries challenge the Beijing behemoth at their own risk. A state-run Chinese paper, extolling the virtues of China's ethnic policies and castigating Uighur attitudes, chillingly threatened Turkey, suggesting that, "If it does not want to ruin the relationship between two peoples, please stop standing behind those mobs and separatists, stop being an axis of evil!"

Unlike other powerful countries, China appears to have no interest in spreading its ideology or creating strongholds beyond its self-asserted borders. Instead, the Middle Kingdom's major political goal is to ensure the dominance of the central government and the unity of the state within those borders. That means maintaining internal stability, and it gives great importance to places such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.

Beijing's second goal is to continue growing the economy at a breakneck pace by securing access to large quantities of natural resources throughout the globe. Just about every other goal in foreign policy is viewed as a factor of these two.

The riots in Xinjiang dealt with the first one of those concerns, national unity. Unlike China's Han majority, Uighurs are Muslim, and speak a different language and have a completely different ethnic background. Some have called for independence and self-determination, something that China has no intention of ever considering. The government has banned the use of the Uighur's Turkic language in schools, and has prohibited most cultural and religious expressions, including the wearing of beards by men.

Tensions had been building for years before they boiled over last week, pitting Uighurs against Han Chinese. While victims appeared in both groups, the government has clearly placed the blame on the Uighurs. Human rights organizations warned grimly of what was ahead for the Muslim minority. With some 20,000 Chinese soldiers in the streets of Urumqi, the protests died down, but the killings did not stop, with two more Uighurs killed by Chinese soldiers on Tuesday.

Washington and Brussels may wish they could speak out somewhat more forcefully in support of an oppressed minority, but they have larger concerns. The reason for the West's diplomatic tameness is that China holds key cards on three of the most urgent issues on the international agenda: North Korea, Iran, and the global economy.

With uncertainty growing over an unpredictable and threatening North Korea, Beijing today is the only known interlocutor with the hermit kingdom. Nobody else can talk to Kim Jung Il at a time when Pyongyang launches rockets across the ocean and defies the international community. When it comes to Iran, Beijing's help is also indispensable if economic sanctions are ever to become strong enough to produce results. On the global economy, China is among the few major economies still showing significant growth.

Beijing's appetite for natural resources eclipses moral concerns. China carries out enormous amounts of trade with international pariahs such as Sudan, Burma (Myanmar) and Iran. And because China's economic power is so great, and its ability to influence dangerous countries so unique, it forces other nations to look away from their own moral concerns. If Washington and Western Europe want to secure sanctions against Iran, they cannot speak out too loudly about Beijing's support for Sudan or Burma, countries where the government engages in unspeakable acts against their own people. Harsh criticism of what China does within its own borders, whether in Xinjiang, Tibet or elsewhere, must also be kept to just above a whisper.

To Beijing, concerns about developments in places such as North Korea and Iran are a worry only insofar as they threaten overall stability.

China's influence goes beyond its ability to veto Security Council resolutions at the United Nations or break multilateral trade embargoes. China has already replaced the United States as Latin America's largest trading partner, with trade rising at a blinding pace. In 2000, the region's commerce with China totaled $10 billion. By 2008, it had soared to $140 billion. The dramatic increase is emblematic of China's rise in influence throughout the globe. And with that kind of economic power comes political influence. One by one, Latin American countries have closed embassies in Taiwan and thrown their diplomatic loyalties to Beijing.

All over the world, China has become one of the most powerful diplomatic players, with almost all of its influence deriving from its economic power. When countries choose to remain quiet about the fate of Uighurs, they do so to protect their relationship with China. And with Beijing's economic force only growing, its power on the global stage will become one of the major features in international affairs in this century.

Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.

Photo: Rioting in Xinjiang Region, China, July 2009 (photo by flickr user g_yulong1, released into the public domain).

18-07-09, 13:38
The New Rules: Urumqi is not Tiananmen, and Xinjiang is not Tibet
Thomas P.M. Barnett | Bio | 13 Jul 2009
World Politics Review
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For those in the West eager to uncover another Tiananmen-like crackdown by Chinese authorities last week in the Xinjiang provincial capital of Urumqi, the true story disappoints, even as it points to a potentially far-more-destabilizing social phenomenon: the emergence of race riots inside allegedly homogenous China. Note that President Hu Jintao's embarrassingly rushed departure from the G-8 meeting in Italy was not provoked by Sunday's riots by angry Uighurs, but rather by Tuesday's even uglier revenge riots by even angrier -- and better-armed -- Han Chinese.

The makings of this unrest should strike us Americans as painfully familiar. The influx of settlers from the East left the poorer, less-educated indigenous people feeling crowded out and discriminated against in their homeland. The suddenly tougher economic times exacerbated the resulting ethnic tension, despite government efforts to paper over the social anger with enlightened affirmative action-style programs. Finally, the implied sexual threat to the dominant majority served as the match for the outbreak of vigilante "justice."

If the narrative sounds like a mélange of plots from American "old West" and civil rights-era movies, that's because many of the same dynamics are in play -- with Xinjiang substituting for the role of Texas or California: too valuable in natural resources for the central government to give up, but often too hard to control in terms of its frontier tensions and mob violence.

Han Chinese have streamed into China's westernmost province, Xinjiang, since the 1949 communist revolution, with the flow increasing dramatically in recent years. Today, as the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic approaches in October, the Han make up just over 40 percent of the province's 21 million residents. For now, the 10 million native Uighurs, who are predominantly Muslim and Turkic speakers, hold a slim majority at just under 50 percent.

As the demographic correlation of power shifts, the resulting accusations by the Uighurs are unsurprising, and go something like this: The Han get all the best jobs and best opportunities, while suppressing our culture and language. Xinjiang was a better place to live before all the Han started pushing in. If we don't stand up, they will simply swamp us!

The caustic comebacks from the Han sound like they were cribbed from some Chinese version of Archie Bunker: Why should we give preferences to the Uighurs? They don't even bother to learn Chinese -- in China! They're also lazy, and will steal if you don't keep an eye on them. And that, after all the tax money we've wasted trying to give them a better, more modern life! Those people in Urumqi got what they deserved, especially after Uighur migrant workers raped that woman in Shaoguan. Uighurs cause trouble wherever they go in China. We simply shouldn't have to put up with it anymore!

That the Web-distributed story alleging the rape of a factory worker in Guangdong province turned out to be untrue just goes to show you how deep the tension runs in Xinjiang: Despite decades of living together in relative peace, both sides instinctively believe the other side capable of the most egregious crimes.

Naturally, in this interconnected media age, the tension has been elevated to an international scale, with Beijing blaming the initial riots on outside instigators -- namely, the World Uyghur Congress headquartered in Washington and fronted by a 62-year-old grandmother who once served time in a Chinese prison for her political activism. For her part, the alleged "mastermind," Rebiya Kadeer, claimed that China's leaders engineered the resulting revenge riots. Neither accusation strikes me as particularly credible.

Instead of floating conspiracy theories, both sides need to confront the fundamental truth that, as the Han surpass the Uighurs in sheer numbers in Xinjiang, racial tensions will continue to spontaneously boil over with greater regularity. Despite government efforts to promote "social harmony," the Han and Uighurs still live in different worlds, with language representing a huge barrier between them. Moreover, unlike the far-more cosmopolitan and freewheeling East Coast, Xinjiang's economy is dominated by state-run enterprises, whose labor practices tend toward the Dickensian.

I will give the Chinese authorities some credit here, though. Compared to the media crackdown surrounding the Tibetan protests last year, the government is exhibiting a stunning level of transparency this time around. Yes, the Internet was clamped down on, but foreign journalists have been welcomed, and news conferences by officials have been frequent. Frankly, compared to the promises of "severe punishment" from China's top leaders, the behavior of the local officials -- and Chinese military troops and police -- has been appropriately moderating, if sometimes clumsy.

There are no simple answers here, just a lot of new rules for China as it continues to integrate itself with the larger world. But you can forget about "Free Xinjiang!" for all the same reasons why "Free Tibet!" is a chimera. Simply put, there is no historical logic for founding impoverished, interior-landlocked independent nations, because wherever we do find them in this world, they tend to be failed states.

Instead, we can expect Beijing to maintain a strong grip on Xinjiang, and for that strong grip to continue to elicit significant resistance from a soon-to-be-minority local population that feels its unique identity slipping away. All I would tell the Chinese leadership is that they better continue improving their mitigating -- and even accommodating -- responses to such blowback.

Why? Because as China's economic networks continue to expand around the planet, this sort of local friction will become an ubiquitous problem, subjecting Beijing's allegedly sophisticated "soft diplomacy" to far greater tests -- and far more unpalatable political adjustments.

Thomas P.M. Barnett is senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC and a contributing editor/online columnist for Esquire magazine. His latest book is "Great Powers: America and the World After Bush" (2009). His weekly WPR column, The New Rules, appears every Monday. Reach him and his blog at thomaspmbarnett.com.

Photo: Rioting in Xinjiang Region, China, July 2009 (photo by flickr user g_yulong1, released into the public domain).