Posted by: Dexter Roberts on March 14, 2008
Despite Beijing’s efforts to tighten control over dissent in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, ethnic tensions involving independence-minded Tibetans and also Muslim Uighurs are flaring up dramatically.
Over the past days hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist monks have protested in Lhasa against Chinese rule, the biggest unrest in the remote capital in twenty years. And Beijing has announced that it quashed a plot by Muslim Uighurs from the far western region of Xinjiang, to disrupt the upcoming Olympics Games as well as an attempted terrorist act by a 19-year-old Uighur woman on a domestic Chinese airline. Xinjiang of course, like Tibet, has a long history of resisting Chinese control.
Beijing’s response has been rapid and typically heavy-handed. Chinese security forces reportedly have surrounded three key monasteries in Lhasa (where many of protesting monks come from), after firing teargas on the protesters earlier. And Beijing authorities announced that during a January raid in Urumqi, Xinjiang security forces killed two and arrested fifteen suspected Muslim terrorists. Authorities claim that the Uighurs were linked with a Xinjiang independence group and intended to disrupt the Olympics with bomb attacks.
“In the past couple of days, a few monks in Lhasa have made some disturbances in an effort to cause unrest,” a foreign ministry spokesperson acknowledged Thursday albeit in an understatement. “Those terrorists, saboteurs and secessionists are to be battered resolutely, no matter what ethnic group they are from,” said the Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan a few days earlier.
For both the Tibetan and Uighur unrest, two things of particular note: first Beijing’s policy of rapid economic development aimed at tamping down the ethnic resentment is now appearing ineffective (well-off minorities are less likely to press for independence goes the theory, and longer term, a flood of Chinese migrants drawn to the west could make Tibetans and Uighurs such minorities that their resentment would become irrelevant too). That’s despite huge transfers of money from Beijing to both Tibet and Xinjiang which has spurred levels of GDP growth even faster than China’s overall economy and has funded major infrastructure projects like the Qinghai-Tibet railway—the world’s highest track—and a 4,000 kilometer-long gas pipeline from the desert in Xinjiang all the way to Shanghai.
Second, Beijing’s intimidating security apparatus (which can effectively monitor dissent and quickly squash it) doesn’t seem to be working as well in tamping down ethnic unrest (on the other hand, the crackdown on political dissent has proven more effective.) So for now at least it looks like neither economic blandishments (which tend to favor the Han Chinese residents of these regions anyway), nor the threat of heavy reprisals seems to be working. That suggests Beijing will be struggling with how to deal with the still deeply unhappy Tibetan and Uighur populations it controls for a long time to come.