Beijing: The script is jarringly familiar. Bodies lie on riot-scarred streets of an ethnic minority area, troops fan out, unrest rumbles on and Beijing denounces overseas enemies bent on splitting China.
Less than 18 months ago, when the violence was in Tibet, China’s response appeared knee-jerk — a harsh crackdown and tight security ever since.
But as discontent played out in energy-rich Xinjiang this week, analysts say there was almost certainly a parallel round of debate taking place within the secretive Communist Party — about where policy on ethnic minorities went wrong.
Conservatives have been in the ascendant in recent years, presiding over a tightening of controls on religion and language and pushing a harsh response to the Tibetan violence that flared ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But two explosions of deadly rioting barely over a year apart are an embarrassing public challenge to the rule of a government that has brooked little dissent since taking power in 1949.
“Frankly, coming up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, it gives China a bit of a black eye to have these on-going problems,” said Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College in California.
The Communist Party has for decades swung between hardline policies that aim to crush dissent and weaken ethnic identity and softer approaches that attempt to make minorities feel they can have a dual identity, both Chinese and Tibetan or Uighur.
Those who favour a more conciliatory approach will now likely use the explosions of violence as evidence that Beijing cannot rule its vast hinterlands by coercion alone.
But China has poured cash into Xinjiang and Tibet along with its troops and many Han Chinese think that with development subsidies, the construction of schools and clinics and some affirmative action, the government has already done enough.
“In the past, there have been policies in favour of minorities, but many minorities have not been able to take advantage of these policies,” said Bo Zhiyue, a China politics expert at Singapore’s East Asian Institute.
“I don’t think there’s a fundamental policy problem, but it’s a fundamental governance issue,” he added, expressing a view shared by much of China’s elite.
Uighurs, however, say they have been left behind economically as Han Chinese dominate development opportunities, are unhappy that they cannot practise their religion as they wish and resent an inflow of migrants from the rest of China.
“One would hope this would make many Chinese policy-makers realise how deep the problems are in the region and how dissatisfied the Uighurs are,” said Gladney.
China has deflected debate about domestic policy by blaming the riots on exiled separatists, but experts say China’s growing political and economic might has in fact helped stem a tide of support for independence.
Many Uighur intellectuals are now convinced that a future as a genuinely autonomous part of China could be better than independence.
“If Beijing gave them proper autonomy, stopped Han migration, and gave the people the language and religious rights that are guaranteed anyway in the Chinese constitution, they might well find that Uighurs would quite happily remain part of China,” said Joanne Smith Finley at Britain’s Newcastle University.
But for Beijing, genuine autonomy is not really an option because of the precedent it could set for other parts of the country to break away from central control.
Foreign Policy Risk
Besides stirring up questions about domestic management of minority areas, the riots have put Xinjiang on the world stage, but it is unlikely to turn into another foreign policy headache.
Until now, the oil-rich region has been less of a worry for China’s diplomats than Tibet, because the Uighurs and their plight have a low profile both in the West and Muslim nations.
“The Uighurs are far away and they’re cut off from the rest of the Muslims — for instance their sheikhs do not visit other countries, unlike Indonesian ones,” said Jihad al-Khazen, a columnist at the pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper.
Their overseas advocates are also mostly exiled Uighurs, while the Tibetan exile community by contrast has spent years building up powerful popular support for their cause in Europe and the United States, including among celebrities.
Apparent gaffes by exiled Uighur leaders by claiming images of protests in other parts of China were actually from Xinjiang have not helped and have been gleefully seized on by the government as further evidence of their “lies”.
Chinese nationalist sentiment about the Tibetan riots last year was inflamed by the perception that foreigners were trying to meddle in the country’s affairs.
But Uighur efforts to drum up foreign support have been complicated by the fact that after the 11 Sept attacks in the United States, China successfully campaigned to have some Uighur separatist groups added to the US list of terrorist groups.
“They have been suspected or accused of harbouring terrorism since 9-11. Prior to 9-11 there was a lot of support for Uighurs in the West and in Europe, but since that time there seems to be less,” said Pomona College’s Gladney.
China’s global clout, and its general refusal to comment strongly on internal affairs of other countries, may also mute leaders of Muslim majority nations who want Chinese investment.
But though individual nations have remained largely silent, or echoed China’s position of “non-interference”, the Saudi-based Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a league of 57 Muslim nations, condemned excessive use of force against Uighur civilians and urged China to investigate.