Beijing Always Wins

The New York Times
Published: July 7, 2009

THE riots in the Xinjiang region, the home of China’s Muslim Uighur minority, will affirm to many analysts outside the country that social unrest is a direct threat to the continued rule of the Communist Party. If officials don’t take a long, hard look at how to avoid such uprisings, this argument will run, the government could eventually fall.

If only Chinese officials saw things that way.

But even after at least 156 people have been reported dead in the city of Urumqi, many officials here see the recent violence — with Uighur rioters torching businesses owned by Han Chinese, China’s ethnic majority — as simple ingratitude.

A front-page editorial in the state-run People’s Daily described the protests as criminal actions by rioters, not as the manifestation of complaints of citizens angered by discriminatory policies. That view is already popular here in the capital. Few are surprised by the violence meted out by the state, and more than a few applaud it. A merchant in east Beijing expressed allegiance with his fellow Han entrepreneurs and, referring to the large outlays of aid to Xinjiang, asked of the Uighurs, “Where is their thanks for all the money we provide them?”

Both nationalistic fervor and the fear that instability might reverse the hard-won individual gains of economic reform combine to create more support for the government’s hard-line approach. Less discussed are the Uighurs’ real grievances: Beijing’s tight control over the practice of Islam; Han Chinese who migrate to Xinjiang and take the better jobs there; and the fact that ethnic minorities lack regular access to the government bureaucracy, where business in China is largely done.

Religious practice, local customs and educational choices in Xinjiang are controlled by the state to a draconian degree. Mosques are being repaired and modernized, but children have not been allowed to attend services. The follow-up demonstrations in Urumqi the day after the riots erupted took place outside mosques, testifying to the rallying cry of religion for a growing number of Chinese Muslims. These protests, too, were quickly broken up by local security forces.

Success breeds repetition, and the state always seems to win every contest with protesters — by cracking down, by persuading people to return to their homes, by imprisoning suspected ringleaders. Last month in Shishou, in Hubei Province, rumors surrounding a young man’s mysterious death drew thousands into the streets, but a display of force cowed demonstrators, who ultimately retreated. Two recent incidents of unrest in Guiyang, in southwestern China — over a land dispute and employment — were quickly brought to a halt when officials, accompanied by police and security forces, dispersed the crowds. Little indicates that dialogue is preferred to repression. Indeed, some reports from Urumqi indicate that the demonstrations began peacefully, and much of the marauding occurred only after security troops appeared in large numbers.

Party cadres know that Beijing’s leadership is largely composed of officials who have not been shy about using force when protests emerged. For example, the crushing of dissent that took place in Beijing and Tibet in 1989 is seen by Chinese decision-makers and the cadres they sponsor as creating the conditions for economic reform. Party members seem to be keenly aware that that those who supported the crackdowns were quickly helicoptered into high-level positions.

Many Chinese officials are quite sophisticated in their responses to threats to their governance, and they are not tone-deaf to technology. Cellphone service and Internet access were both blocked within a few hours of the first demonstrations in Xinjiang. When word of the unrest cascaded out, much of the news was artfully managed by officials. Friends of mine in Beijing received unsolicited messages on their cellphones that provided the government version of the unrest. Government representatives handed out discs with pictures taken by state news organizations.

The state news media talked up the looting and burning of Han businesses but said nothing about attacks on Uighur establishments, and repeated mantras about stability and order. Rumors ran rampant in the run-up to these riots, but at the end of the day, bullets flew faster and struck harder than netizens’ bulletins.

The state apparatus has become dizzy with success in dealing with unrest. This gives little hope that further mass outbreaks will not be violently crushed. It also demonstrates that social upheaval will not pave the way to democracy. The party is too strong and confident to allow change from below.

Russell Leigh Moses is writing a book on the changing nature of power in China.