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The Uighur Crisis: Worse Than Tibet?

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In response to an outbreak of violence, the instigation of which remains unclear, the Chinese government has cracked down, and cracked down hard, on the Uighur minority in China's northwest province, Xinjiang. According to Chinese media reports, always softened, more than 150 people have already been killed, many of them Han Chinese, with at least a thousand Uighurs plucked from the streets, branded agitators (or, worse, "splittists") and thrown into jail. The government has swiftly clamped down on Internet communications and the entire area, one sixth of the nation, is in a state of siege.

In these early days, the government's propaganda machine has been, by historical standards, transparent. Reports of casualties were quickly reported. But openness won't last long. The media is already attempting to demonize "ring leader" Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman and human rights advocate who had been imprisoned in China and now lives in Washington.

The Clampdown: Why it Will be Protracted

For a few reasons, the Communist Party's response is likely to be harsher, and even more sustained, than last year's response to the Tibetan uprising.

First, the degree of Uighur cultural repression has been, over decades, even greater than in Tibet. So anger at officialdom is more pronounced. "Internal immigration," carried out en masse since before the Cultural Revolution, has flooded the region with Han Chinese. They now constitute the majority of every major city and represent over 75% of the Xinjiang population. (The Tibetan ratio is no more than 50/50.) As someone who has travelled a few times to Urumqi, Xinjiang's largest city, and Kashgar, an old Silk Road outpost near the border of Afghanistan, I was struck by the dominance of all things Han. (To boot, a peek into windows makes disparity in disposable income glaringly apparent.) . Unlike Lhasa, where Tibetan and Chinese districts coexist (uncomfortably) side-by-side, the Uighur areas have been "surrounded," almost asphyxiated. True, every town boasts the sights and sounds of Central Asia -- chants at mosques, the jangle of exotic bazaars, naan bread wheels and lamb kabobs -- but they are not omnipresent. Bland Chinese-style avenues bulldoze their way through city centers. In Lhasa, on the other hand, vast urban expanses project a distinctly Tibetan flavor - color explodes everywhere -- despite the conspicuous presence of Chinese police and apparatchik.

Second, the outside world's familiarity with Xinjiang and Uighur plight is low. The region has never been romanticized in film and literature and only a few foreigners have visited. There are no transcendent architectural wonders a la Tibet's Potala Palace that capture Western imagination. There is no roving ambassador, no Dalai Lama, to elicit sympathy for compromised values. Therefore, the global community's response will be muted, led by diplomats and human rights groups, rather than CNN, bloggers and an indignant mass of activists. The issue will, sadly, fade quickly from the world's moral radar screen. The Party will have significant room to maneuver.

Third, the American "war on terrorism" - replete with kangaroo military courts and torture-extracted confessions - will make it more difficult for the West defend the interests of Uighur demonstrators, whom the Party has branded "terrorists." Yes, there are a few separatists amongst the agitators, some of whom advocate violence as a means of advancing independence. The majority, however, want equal opportunity and protection under the law, and nothing more. But American Geneva Convention violations will lead to relatively sotte voce diplomatic condemnation.

Finally, and most critically, Chinese people "fear" Uighurs more than Tibetans. Xinjiang is unfamiliar, an "alien nation." Tibet, on the other hand, is a hot tourist destination. (Tibetans practice Buddhism and their appearance is not starkly different from the Han.) The people expect their government, first and foremost, to protect the country from danger. Most mainlanders view the unknown as a threat to stability and unity, a sacred national imperative. If the Party is seen as "soft" in dealing with the uprising, it will lose credibility -- even legitimacy -- in the eyes of many citizens, including new generation types, perhaps the most nationalist group of all. Despite a universal belief that the "autonomous region" is an inalienable part of China, denizens of Xinjiang are regarded as outsiders. Their religion, Islam, is "foreign," associated with violence. (Only the Hui, an assimilated and geographically scattered Muslim minority, have been accepted as "real" Chinese.) Ethnically, the Uighur do not resemble Han. Their eyes are rounder and lighter. Their skin is olive, not "yellow." In smaller towns, the Uighur, a Turkic people, do not speak fluent Mandarin due to a culturally tone deaf, memorization-driven education system.

What's Next?

So what will happen? The rebellion will be contained and Uighurs will continue to seethe.

To avoid adding fuel to the fire, the government will avoid extremely harsh measures - e.g., open gunfire -- and keep the death count to a minimum. But make no mistake. Any fear of international opprobrium will not dampen the government's determination to smother dissent. Under the guise of safeguarding stability, it will use coercive means to stanch future uprisings - e.g., torture, a continued tightening of digital communication that lasts for months, travel bans for Uighurs and journalists that extend into 2011, continued demolition of traditional neighborhoods and Draconian bans on community/religious congregation. The Communist Party believes "to scare the monkey, you must kill a chicken." So it will hold high-profile show trials, covered only in Chinese publications. Some verdicts will carry the death penalty. Leaders will refuse to "negotiate" with Uighur leaders. Tension with minority populations will increase, reinforced by continued hiring discrimination and old-style, propaganda. (Today's China Daily headline: "Locals hope for normal life after riot.") I wish I could say the government will adopt a conciliatory approach and acknowledge the legitimacy of some grievances but primal dread of "looking weak," exacerbated by a disinterested West, will cause tension to mount.

Uighur resentment will simmer, boiling over only in the distant future, if ever.