Commentary Magazine


Topic: Uighurs

China’s New Era of Disobedience?

A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

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A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

While those young students in Tiananmen Square were attempting to create new freedoms for themselves, today’s protests in Hong Kong, by equally young students, are aimed at ensuring that the island does not lose any more of its freedoms. In that sense, they may well be more passionate and potentially explosive.

The immediate cause of the demonstrations being called the “umbrella revolution” was Beijing’s decision not to allow free elections in 2017 for Hong Kong’s chief executive, per the 1984 joint declaration agreement with Great Britain that set the guidelines for post-colonial Hong Kong. Instead, Beijing will allow only a handful of pre-approved candidates on the ballots. Hong Kongers rightly assume this is just the beginning of a broader move to restrict their freedoms, including an independent judiciary and press.

Yet Hong Kong should not be seen in isolation from China’s broader crackdown on any potential liberalization or separatism in areas it controls or hopes to control. As I wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, Beijing is comfortable risking greater blowback to try and stamp out even moderate voices, such as Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, who was given a life sentence for criticizing the government. China’s military and police presence has been strengthened in both Xinjiang and Tibet in recent years, and there has been no reduction in the military threat to Taiwan. Even smaller issues, such as occupied Indian territory or territorial disputes in the South China Sea, have seen Beijing’s position harden and its military activities increase.

These are worrisome signs that President Xi Jinping, who is just 18 months into a decade-long rule, is comfortable flexing Chinese muscle, intimidating his neighbors, and cracking down on domestic unrest. Whether out of confidence or fear, Beijing is adopting a far more antagonistic attitude that makes it ever harder for it to back down.

That is why what happens now in Hong Kong is so important. If a tiny island of 7 million people can successfully oppose Beijing’s will, then the gates will be opened to the dissatisfied in Xinjiang and Tibet, on Taiwan, and possibly even on the mainland. This is something that Beijing cannot allow. Yet should the People’s Liberation Army move out of their Hong Kong barracks to support the territory’s police, or other pressure be put on the island’s government to suppress the demonstrators, then the fiction of Hong Kong independence and of China’s essentially benign nature will be exploded.

Sadly, such brutality did not prevent China from scaling even greater heights 25 years ago after Tiananmen, but today such an outcome it will mean either a China of far greater strength and influence, or an Asia of greater instability and possibly conflict, or possibly both.

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Not All Dissidents Are Heroes

Given the proclivity of dictators to label all of their domestic critics, no matter how non-violent, as “terrorists” it is understandable that there is not more outrage in the West over an attack by Uighur separatists in southern China who stabbed to death at least 29 people in a railroad station and wounded perhaps 100 more. That’s understandable, but wrong.

Let us grant that China’s policies in Xinjiang, the western province where the Uighurs live, are oppressive, even more so than in the case of the rest of the country. The Han Chinese who dominate the Chinese government have long discriminated against ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs and Tibetans. As the Washington Post notes:

Just as Chinese leaders try to control other religions, including Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, they have issued strict policies for Muslim Uighurs. They must use a state-approved Koran. The government manages mosques. And Uighur men who want government jobs have been forced to shave their beards; women are forbidden to wear headscarves.

When Uighurs try to protest such restrictions, or even agitate for independence for a new state of East Turkestan, the Chinese authorities react with the savagery typical of a police state, locking up dissidents. Little wonder, then, that some Uighurs are resorting to terrorism to fight back. But however understandable the reaction of the extremists, it is also unforgivable. The poor commuters slain in a railway station in Kunming are not responsible for their government’s polices; they are just innocent victims.

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Given the proclivity of dictators to label all of their domestic critics, no matter how non-violent, as “terrorists” it is understandable that there is not more outrage in the West over an attack by Uighur separatists in southern China who stabbed to death at least 29 people in a railroad station and wounded perhaps 100 more. That’s understandable, but wrong.

Let us grant that China’s policies in Xinjiang, the western province where the Uighurs live, are oppressive, even more so than in the case of the rest of the country. The Han Chinese who dominate the Chinese government have long discriminated against ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs and Tibetans. As the Washington Post notes:

Just as Chinese leaders try to control other religions, including Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, they have issued strict policies for Muslim Uighurs. They must use a state-approved Koran. The government manages mosques. And Uighur men who want government jobs have been forced to shave their beards; women are forbidden to wear headscarves.

When Uighurs try to protest such restrictions, or even agitate for independence for a new state of East Turkestan, the Chinese authorities react with the savagery typical of a police state, locking up dissidents. Little wonder, then, that some Uighurs are resorting to terrorism to fight back. But however understandable the reaction of the extremists, it is also unforgivable. The poor commuters slain in a railway station in Kunming are not responsible for their government’s polices; they are just innocent victims.

There is no cause to kill civilians to make the Uighurs’ case. They would be better off using non-violent protests even if such protests are likely to prove ineffectual against a one-party state. At least such protests will not result in violent retaliation against innocent Uighurs. This is one area where the U.S. can actually sympathize with China and foster better cooperation on what used to be known as the war on terror, while of course being aware of, and resistant to, Beijing’s desire to brand all dissidents with the “terrorist” label.

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