Remember when China was supposed to be the next up-and-coming superpower?
With a fifth of the world’s population, a totalitarian regime seemingly secure,
and a well-earned reputation as a rising industrial powerhouse, "Red"
China has long been one of the War Party’s favorite bogeymen. When all else
failed, in the post-cold war world, and the supply of potential enemies seemed
exhausted, they just hauled out the Chinese scarecrow to scare the doves away.
There was that incident over Hainan
Island, you’ll recall, a spy scare that turned out to be completely phony,
and the bombing of the Chinese
embassy in Belgrade during Clinton’s war on the former Yugoslavia, which
provoked energetic anti-American demonstrations on the mainland. Both times
we were treated to a full-court press on the alleged mightiness of the Red Chinese,
who were supposedly just waiting for the opportunity to exercise their awesome
power and challenge Uncle Sam in the world hegemony sweepstakes.
It never happened. What happened, instead, was that China moved steadily along
the road of economic development. Meanwhile the US deindustrialized itself and
ran up a record deficit, which the Chinese bought up — and relations
between the two countries rapidly improved. Yet a certain amount of resentment
remained, at least on the American side: after all, if Beijing called in all
that debt, or even a portion of it, the US government would soon be in receivership,
and that’s not a position we’re used to. The American media, in particular,
is Sinophobic to a noticeable degree, and this came to the fore during the Beijing
Olympics, when US journalists were shocked shocked! that
porn sites and Falun Gong propaganda (as well as the BBC and other mainstream
Western media) were
inaccessible. Every time the anniversary of the Tiananmen
Square incident rolls around, the Western media rolls out the outrage machine,
with interviews, photos (the guy standing in front of that tank), and endless
reiterations of the alleged casualty count.
Part of this is fear, with equal parts envy and white-skin privilege thrown
in for good measure: after all, we’re supposed to be the "hyperpower,"
as the French put it, and allegedly above all that. It wasn’t that long ago
when the Western powers, were picking off Chinese port cities and gobbling up
bits of the disintegrating Chinese empire. Today, of course, no one would think
of doing such a thing, because China is a monolithic empire that exercises total
dominion over all 3,696,100
square miles of its territory, and not only that, but maintains absolute control
over its 1,330,044,605-plus
Well, not quite. China is populated by 56 officially recognized
minorities, and no doubt more than a few unrecognized ethnicities, and cultural-religious
sub-groups: contrary to popular mythology, which characterizes China as a nation
of Commie-atheists, where all religion is ruthlessly persecuted, tens of millions
of Chinese practice Islam, as well as various forms of Christianity, and the
government rarely interferes as long as adherents pray in "official"
churches, and religious leaders stay out of politics. Far from being a totalitarian
monolith, where everybody wears a regulation Mao-suit, and the only god is Mao,
China is a wildly diverse society, over which the Communist Party manages to
maintain an increasingly tenuous hold.
The Party’s less-than-firm grip on power was underscored, recently, when the
Wee-gurs), concentrated in the westernmost province of Xingjiang, erupted with
violent fury. The occasion was the alleged
murder of two Uighur workers at a factory, and the apparent indifference of
the authorities. A protest, supposedly peaceful, was called in the capital city
of Urumqi, which soon turned into a melee, pitting Han Chinese (the majority)
against the Uighur underclass.
Uighurs mobs, armed with crowbars, rocks, and anything they could lay their
hands on, attacked
Han Chinese in the streets, beating several to death and sending hundreds to
the hospitals. The Han retaliated,
attacking Uighur restaurants and neighborhoods, while the police stood by
and the Uighur counterattacked.
For Chinese President Hu Jintao to abruptly
depart from the G-8 summit in Italy highlights the CCP’s nervousness: they
know they are sitting atop a volcano that could erupt at any moment, and they
were ready for this one: internet communications, including Twitter and Facebook,
were immediately shut down throughout the troubled province, as thousands of
Chinese troops poured into Urumqi and environs, separating Uighur from Han and
establishing a very
visible presence, complete with checkpoints and daily parades through the
capital city. As rioters retreated they were showered with propaganda
pamphlets released from planes flying overhead, attacking one Rebiya
Kadeer, leader of the World Uighur Congress, an exile group headquartered
in Washington, D.C., as the instigator behind the riots: she quite plausibly
denied it. Whatever influence she and her group have inside China, it no doubt
amounts to very little: surely not enough to provoke an eruption such as we
are witnessing in Xingjiang today.
The Uighurs complain
of discrimination at the hands of Han Chinese business owners, and there is
a strong current of resentment against the entrepreneurial Han, who have come
into China’s western regions in increasing numbers. They are now the majority,
and the Uighurs who have their own religion, their own language (Turkic
in origin), and their own proud history are not at all happy about it.
What broke out in Urumqi, and surrounding villages, wasn’t a rebellion against
the authority of the Communist Party, nor was it a pro-democracy upsurge that
can be valorized by Western media as a heroic-but-doomed effort to emerge from
a living anachronism into modernity: rather, it was an old-fashioned full-fledged
race riot. The Communist system, which was supposed to have abolished racial
divisions, along with economic inequalities, has done neither: indeed, these
divisions seem to have grown into veritable chasms, in recent years, as China
barrels down the "capitalist road" or, as the ChiComs would
put it, the road to "socialism with Chinese characteristics."
China’s split seams are clearly showing, and this instance goes a long way
toward exposing the sheer brittleness of the regime. The claim is being made
that Urumqi is fully pacified, but Western reporters who have not been
barred from the scene, but are being bussed
around under government tutelage say that tensions continue to boil just
beneath the surface, with several fresh incidents occurring daily, albeit quickly
crushed by the authorities.
China presents itself to the world as a unified entity, marching determinedly
along the road to the "Four
Modernizations," and fully prepared to take its place as a world power
alongside the US, the European powers, and its former Russian allies. Yet the
reality is quite different: in fact, the central government in Beijing has a
very difficult time exerting dominance over outlying provinces, and the leadership,
far from being unified, exhibits several competing centers of power.
What’s more, ethnic conflict is nothing new in the recent history of China:
2004, a traffic dispute between two villages in Henan province, one Han
Chinese and the other Hui (Muslim), escalated into a riot that ended only when
10,000 troops were called to the scene. In April of this year, ethno-religious
conflict again exploded into violence, reportedly sparked by a description in
a local newspaper of a Hui leader as "king of the pig-raising." As
one Hui observer wryly remarked, "One
should bear in mind that we Muslims would never raise pigs."
of oil in the region has fueled resentment against the Han, and given the small
but vocal separatist movement visions of an economically viable independent
state. Turkey, whose government is motivated by an extravagantly ambitious pan-Turkic
nationalism, has offered
a visa to Ms. Kadeer, and invited her to come to Turkey: Istanbul somewhat
crazily envisions a Pan-Turkic Union that straddles Central Asia, reaching from
the shores of the Bosporus to Xingjiang’s border with Outer Mongolia.
The Chinese leadership is fully aware of the fragility of their regime, and is determined to hold on to power: this means, above all, maintaining the undisputed power of the central government, and reining in all "splittist" elements as they appear. Yet they are forced to maintain a delicate balancing act, one that also keeps a tight rein on Han ultra-nationalism even as it tries to counteract centrifugal forces racial, religious, and economic divisions that threaten national unity.
It is an act that cannot be successfully pulled off forever, for the simple
reason that China is far too big, and its government woefully top-heavy and
out-of-touch. Communism in China is but a formalistic religion, all ritual and
no real content, and yet that is the only factor embodied by the Communist
Party of China — keeping the country together. Whether this hollow dictatorship
can retain its hold much longer is very much up in the air. Events in Urumqi
augur the break-up of the Communist state, just as the Polish upsurge led by
Solidarity prefigured the implosion of the Soviet empire. China’s empire, thought
to made of steel, may very well turn out to be fragile porcelain.
Whether such a turn of events will redound to our favor is a question that is far too interesting to tack on to the end of a column, and we’ll save it for another day. Suffice to say that, in China, our assumptions and cultural prejudices tell us very little about what is going on, and what the future will bring. Prepare to be surprised.