Thursday, July 09, 2009

Urumqi Protests- Democracy, Social Justice & Harmony

Photo from TimesOnline

The recent riot happening in Urumqi has provided a great contrast to the peaceful protest march that Hong Kong had on 1st July. Of course, the nature of protests are vastly different. Urumqi protest is basically racial in nature with protesters demanding fair treatment to their own kind in another incident happening in Guangzhou.

There are many inherent reasons behind such perceived racial discrimination. Contrary to popular perception, China is a multi-racial country. The Uyghurs are just one of the many races in China. Historically, Xinjiang has been perceived as a place of a "defiant" province. It has been on and off an independent state in Chinese history and has even threaten the security of the Hans controlled territory. The peak of XinJiang dynasty was Liao Empire during the Song Dynasty. Thereafter, it has been conquered by the Mongolian and subsequently controlled by the Hans again during Ming Dynasty. It was during the Mongolian occupation that Islam became the main religion of that region.

However, Xinjiang has always been a hot spot of rebellion against the rule by the Chinese dynasties, be it Hans as in Ming Dynasty or the Manchurians as in Qing Dynasty. Due to the fact that it is geographically far away from the center of power of the Chinese dynasties in the North, those who are sent to Xinjiang to rule over the people there normally become the "mini-Emperor" there. Sometimes they would even create racial tension or unrest/riots just to get the attention of the Emperor thousands of miles away to send more money and aids to them.

Since the Chinese Communist Party took power in China, Xinjiang has become a province with autonomy powers. The assimilation of the Hans people has altered the demographic structure as well as economic structure. Most Hans people live in the main cities while the rural areas are populated by the minority races, including the Uyghurs. The income disparity between city dwellers and rural farmers is inevitable in the present structure of economic development.

With the basic understanding of the history and background of Xinjiang, we will now look at what is happening in Urumqi. When the riot broke out in 5 July, the Xinjiang authority was quick to point finger at the exiled Uyghurian separatist group, World Uyghur Congress which is led by Rebiya Kadeer of inciting the riot. Rebiya Kadeer has denied the allegation. Up till now, the Xinjiang Autonomy government has not disclosed their so called "concrete evidences" yet.

On the other hand, there were reports and questions asked about how the supposedly peaceful demonstration of the Uyghurs against the perceived unjust treatment of their people in Guangzhou turned into violent riot.

Interesting enough, the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao did not issue any statement at the earliest possible opportunity. Neither did we hear any comments made by Chairman Hu Jingtao. The Xinjiang leaders have claimed that they have concrete evidences that Rebiya Kadeer and her World Uyghur Congress have instigated and planned for this riot but this statement has not been repeated by either the Prime Minister Wen nor Chairman Hu.

The truth is, after Chairman Hu returned to Beijing to conduct an emergency meeting on this riot, the statement issued was about punishing those rioters and maintaining law and order in Xinjiang, particularly Urumqi. There is no mention of the separatist Uyghurian movement nor the World Uyghur Congress. This is intriguing indeed because this contrast greatly to the kind of statement the Chinese government has issued against Dalai Lama during the last year's Tibet riot.

Many news journalists and reporters, particularly those from Hong Kong, would have noticed the change in strategy that the Chinese authorities have adopted this time round with regard to the incident. Unlike the past, they have allowed foreign reporters and correspondents to visit the place of riot. Although internet and phone networks were disrupted in Urumqi, the communication network is made available to the specific hotels that were allocated for the reporters to stay. The Chinese Government has finally learned how to deal with foreign press in order to upgrade its international image.

However in my view, the root of the this riot lies with the Xinjiang's authority. My guess is that the peaceful demonstration has turned into violent riot was basically due to the hardcore crack down of the demonstration. Someone has made the political judgment to crack down on that peaceful demonstration in the hope of quelling it once and for all. But somehow, it just turned ugly with high racial emotions on the raise.

If the authority in Xinjiang took a different approach right from the start, using the police force to "FACILITATE" the demonstration and allowing the high emotional pressure to have an opportunity to be let off, the result may be very different.

The conventional way of dealing with protests should be changed from viewing all demonstration as bad and treating it with a confrontational approach, to a more tolerant stand. A government stepping into the league of World's most influential governments should take freedom of expression with more tolerance.

The key to the change of mindset is democratic means of electing the various leadership on the ground. This is due to the fact that if the leaders are "selected" by the few people on the top, it would be natural for these leaders to take the views of the these top few more seriously than those he is leading on the ground.

In fact, leaders from the ground would want to find all ways to please those from the top instead of taking serious care of those on the ground. Thus when such demonstration happened, these leaders would naturally be afraid to be seen as "ineffective" or even "useless" by those on the top and thus, the tendency to use forceful means to crack down these originally peaceful demonstration would be higher. Such mindset may just backfire and ignited exploding emotions on the ground, turning it into a riot.

If the leaders of Xinjiang and Urumqi are democratically elected by the people there, I believe they might have handled the whole issue very differently right from the start.

Racial riot is one of the most difficult issue to be settled for any government. The key of mending the cracks of racial harmony and healing the damaged emotions is for the Chinese government to exert Social justice to the whole issue. Social Justice must be done and seen to be done.

While it is only right to punish those rioters who have killed, robbed and hurt others, investigation should also be made into the death of those Uyghurs. Did the police force use excessive force to crack down the demonstration causing the death of these Uyghurs as claimed by some? Who gave the order for such crack down?

Trust and harmony could only be reinstated if and only if just actions are taken against those who have created trouble are being punished accordingly. This must include those who bear political responsibility.

The Chinese government may not want to punish those officials who have made the wrong political judgment for fear of undermining its own authority. But the truth is, if it refused to do so, the Uyghurs would feel even more discriminated, alienated and angry. This will not heal the emotional wounds but may worsen it in contrary.

Again, for a non-democratically elected government, it may not see the need to smoothen out the racial emotional upheaval in the expense of "eroding its authority". Few dictators or Emperors in the past history could bridge the racial gap between different races well. Most of the time they look upon such racial frictions as rebellion against their authority.

But I still hope the Chinese Government would make the "unconventional decision" in making things right in this instance. This would help it to prove to China's many other races of its ability to maintain social justice for each and everyone, every race in China. This would be the basis of long term racial harmony in China.

Goh Meng Seng

After Note 14 July 2009:

Interesting enough, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee has announced on 13th July 2009 a series of directive on disciplinary actions against Party Cadres and leaders.

For the very first time, the issue of protests has been listed one of the item in this directive. Those party leaders (mid-level leaders) that made wrong political judgment or decisions that result in massive protests will be censured and stripped of their official duties. Those who mismanaged or mishandled protests by the people will face the same disciplinary actions.

This directive sets the rules to make local officials and leaders to be accountable for their misdeeds or wrong political judgment and decisions. It would be interesting to see whether the Chinese Communist Party could exercise such disciplinary actions on those errant party cadres, starting from the incident in Urumqi riot on 5 July.











1 comment:

Jesse Dorland said...

The biggest problem in China is quite simple. It's not just Han Supremacy, but also inner class struggle. I seriously doubt that democracy can solve these problem.

Tiananmen Square massacre of 1984, and many other along the way are good example.