Behind the high death toll and continued swapping of blame, the crisis confronting the Chinese leadership in the far western Xinjiang region says much about the way China is run. For all the record of economic growth, the shiny cities and the speculation about Beijing and Washington forming their own “G2”, it is, in many ways, still an old-fashioned state. Habits stretching back to imperial times influence the behaviour of the nine men in dark suits with uniformly full heads of black hair who make up the ruling standing committee of the politburo.
Central control by the anointed leadership – be it in the form of the empire’s Mandate of Heaven or the tenets of Marxism, Maoism and the market espoused by today’s Communist party – is paramount. Dissent equals treason. No thought can be given to loosening Beijing’s hold on far-away territories such as Xinjiang and Tibet despite their ethnic, cultural and historical divergences from the Han mainstream.
The precipitate return to Beijing from the Group of Eight summit of Hu Jintao, Communist party leader and state president, underlines the gravity of the crisis that took more than 180 lives (mostly Han Chinese, according to official figures) in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. The violence, the worst since the Cultural Revolution, was all the more serious as it followed riots 15 months ago in Tibet. Both events caught the leadership on the hop. In Urumqi, the potential for disorder is all the greater because of the strong reaction of Chinese internal migrants seeking revenge for deaths inflicted on Han residents by local Uighurs.
Like Tibet, Xinjiang is being blanketed by a security crackdown. Mr Hu is striking the pose of the national leader who will ensure unity and enable Han Chinese to sleep safely; the Communist party claims to be the bedrock for national unity and stability. Party and state media stress the economic advances Xinjiang has enjoyed, mainly in the development of its energy and mineral reserves, and wonder why the local Muslim population is not grateful. Exiles are blamed for fomenting trouble. Links will probably be drawn with fundamentalist extremists. No meaningful dialogue will be entertained.
Yet, despite the mass migration of Han into the far western territories, China will find the management of its huge land empire increasingly difficult as native populations grow more resentful of income disparities, the favoured treatment accorded to immigrants and the steady destruction of local culture – not to mention the religious factors in both areas. While Mr Hu’s position is secure – his term as party leader runs to 2012 – the fact that both this year and last have seen serious unrest in the two territories must raise questions about Beijing’s surveillance machine.
Mr Hu is very much at the centre of this storm. He had to fly home from Italy because, as chair of the standing committee of the politburo, he has to be present when major decisions are taken. As soon as he reached Beijing, the committee met – the official account of the session characterised the riots as “a serious incident of violent crime painstakingly orchestrated and organised” by hostile forces at home and abroad, and proclaimed the need for a crackdown. Also, as chair of the central military committee, Mr Hu is the only civilian able to give orders to the armed forces.
Even if he wished, he cannot delegate this. Like an emperor of old, the party leader needs to be seen at the helm. This is not a leadership ready to put its trust in conference calls or long-range electronic communications. The suspicion and paranoia bred in the long years fighting for power and sustained by Mao Zedong’s autocratic, erratic management style remain in force. Under Mr Hu, who has led the party since 2002, the politburo has become more consensual – a good thing, as it diminishes the chances of a new Mao appearing. But the crisis underlines the subordinate position of the government as against the party. Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, and the state council he heads have no role. The politburo and the party will step forward as saviours of the nation while Mr Wen and his ministers busy themselves granting value added tax rebates to exporters.
Thus any relaxation of policy on either Xinjiang or Tibet can be ruled out. Mr Hu was in charge of Tibet when an uprising occurred there, and he was photographed in uniform carrying a submachine-gun (though his altitude sickness meant he spent as much time as possible in Beijing). This time, he will strike a more dignified pose. But, as Britain found, running an empire is a tricky job when the natives rebel. Beijing’s reluctance to recognise that Tibet and Xinjiang are, to all intents and purposes, occupied territories complicates its task in ruling them, and China’s institutional framework will act, once again, as a political straitjacket.
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