When History Catches Up With Authoritarianism

The swell of people power across the Middle East and North Africa in recent weeks has laid bare the human yearning for freedom from the injustices of authoritarian dictatorships. Across an entire region the calls for democracy and human rights have shown that oppressed peoples cannot indefinitely tolerate corrupt leaders who shore up power through fear and violence. Consequently, it is no surprise the Chinese government has cast a nervous glance at the outbreak of protests in a region rife with tyrannical rulers.

In his February 22 speech, Muammar Gaddafi invoked the brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators on Tienanmen Square in 1989 by the People's Liberation Army as a warning to his own people that he will not leave quietly. It should alarm the free world that the murderous actions of the Chinese state against its own citizens are now seen as a blueprint for establishing legitimacy of power.

The denouement of Chinese Communist Party rule will not follow the example set by Egypt, which saw a relatively peaceful transition from authoritarian rule. The end of Chinese Communist rule will most likely be violent precisely because the Chinese government does not fear to use the power of the state against the people it claims to protect. Unlike Muammar Gaddafi, the Chinese government does not need to hire mercenaries.

It should be stated clearly that the raison d'être of the Chinese Communist Party is to harness power in the hands of a few. Ideologically, the party has long been bankrupt despite its claim to promote "socialism with Chinese characteristics." The party will not let go of the power and wealth it has amassed in over 60 years of autocratic rule without unleashing the ironically named People's Liberation Army and People's Armed Police against the Chinese populace.

In East Turkestan, the Chinese state has a long history of using the state security apparatus against the Uyghur people. On February 5, 1997, police shot at unarmed Uyghur demonstrators in the city of Ghulja in the northwest part of East Turkestan. Witnesses reported that most of the ten to fifteen thousand demonstrators were young men, but women and children who were present among the crowds were among those injured and killed by fully armed paramilitary police. On July 5, 2009, Uyghurs took to the streets to call for justice following deadly attacks on Uyghur workers in Guangdong Province. Demonstrators in Urumchi who were interviewed by the Uyghur Human Rights Project stated that long-standing concerns over such issues as arbitrary detention, employment discrimination and the elimination of the Uyghur language in education also fueled the protests. Eyewitnesses interviewed by the Uyghur Human Rights Project reported that Chinese police used live deadly fire against protestors, as well as other types of extreme force.

The current unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has provoked the Chinese government to act preemptively in East Turkestan. The timing of the sentencing of four Uyghurs to death last month served as a warning to Uyghurs across the region that any dissent will be dealt with harshly. This message was reinforced with a show of force across the region. Troops and armored vehicles patrol the streets of Kashgar and Urumchi and four young Uyghurs were detained in front of the Rebiya Kadeer department store in Urumchi on charges of "disturbing public order".

The Chinese government regularly conflates Uyghur opposition to its rule with Islamic extremism and terrorism in order to justify its harsh repression. While Uyghurs in East Turkestan chafe under this authoritarianism, much like the protestors across the Middle East and North Africa, Uyghurs articulate their opposition not in religious symbols, but in the language of the human longing for justice and equality. The fact that Muslims are expressing their political aspirations in a secular fashion for the entire world to see must have China's power elite wondering how to frame the suppression of Uyghur demands for freedom.

The calls across China for "Jasmine revolution" demonstrations illustrate the depth of the problem faced by the Chinese government. Discontent with a non-accountable and non-participatory political system seethes below the social fabric of the Chinese nation. Just as in 1989 when the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe crumbled with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the wave of democratic reform in the Middle East and North Africa illustrates that authoritarian systems are on the wrong side of history. Despite its increasingly desperate attempts to censor references to democratic reform in China, the Chinese government will never be able to overcome the innate need of people to live in free, just and accountable societies.