Revolt and repression as the Games begin

August 8, 2008

David Whitehouse examines the increased crackdown, and protest, in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics and how it reveals signs of China's yawning class divide.

TENSIONS OVER security and state repression in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympic Games have been building for months, but they jumped to a new level on August 4 when two attackers used homemade bombs and knives to kill 16 police in the far western city of Kashgar.

The attackers, a 28-year-old vegetable seller and a 33-year-old taxi driver, are natives of Kashgar, which is located in the heavily Muslim "autonomous region" of Xinjiang. The sparsely populated frontier region is the site of intense development of oil and natural gas, but Han (ethnic) Chinese immigrants from the east monopolize most of the new prosperity, and Muslim religious practice is strictly regulated.

Following the attack, several Japanese newspapers reported that police in Kashgar beat and briefly detained two Japanese journalists who were trying to report the incident.

The attack revealed yet another social fault line in a country that officials have sought to portray as a "harmonious society" as it hosts hundreds of thousands of international visitors during the Olympics. Repression of demonstrations in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in early March provoked a chain of protests that spread to three other provinces.

Chinese police training for security at the Olympics
Chinese police training for security at the Olympics

Enhanced Olympic-year scrutiny has also revealed signs of China's yawning class divide, including raucous protests against police misconduct and official corruption, along with peasant mobilizations against the seizures of land for Olympic and commercial development.

The level of protest was already high--as strikes, demonstrations and riots increased tenfold from 1994 to 2004--but jitters over China's international image during the Olympic year seems to have led the Chinese regime to step up the level of repression.

In a report on the eve of the Olympics, Amnesty International claimed that China still held 116 Tibetans without charge and has arrested dozens of individual activists around the country, including key human rights advocates and lawyers.

The report also confirmed that, for the period of the Olympics, officials throughout the country have been instructed by the central government to prevent petitioners from traveling to Beijing to present grievances--a practice that thousands of Chinese resort to in order to appeal over the heads of abusive local officials.

Several cities are hosting Olympic events, but in Beijing alone, officials have mobilized 110,000 police and soldiers, deployed batteries of surface-to-air missiles at Olympics sites and installed 300,000 surveillance cameras, according to the South China Morning Post. Officials have also enlisted 1.4 million civilians to "assist with security"--in other words, to spy on neighbors and strangers--creating a level of surveillance that the Communist Party has been unable to achieve since the years of Mao Zedong.


IN FACT, with its success in rallying patriotic support for the government, the preparation for the Olympics may be one of the most effective campaigns of "national construction" that the party has carried out since the mass mobilizations of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s.

This nationalism was on display in March following the outbreak of Tibetan protest. When the government portrayed Tibetan demonstrations as anti-Chinese and separatist, Han nationalist activists rallied support for the government--making extensive use of Internet connections that no critics of the government would ever be allowed to do.

When the Olympic torch relay was disrupted overseas, and heads of state such as Nicolas Sarkozy spoke out in favor of Tibetan freedom, the Han nationalist movement mounted anti-French and anti-Western demonstrations that dwarfed the original protests by Tibetans.

Han chauvinism is also directed against Muslims. Before the Xinjiang attack, an economics professor in Beijing discovered that 90 percent of hotels in the city were refusing lodging to anybody who appeared to be Muslim, according to the Morning Post.

Since the spring, foreign leaders who depend on the Chinese as business partners have become wary about offending Chinese nationalism. Sarkozy has toned down his criticism and agreed to attend the opening ceremonies of the Games. In the week before the Games, the Indian government prevented Tibetan exiles from marching from India into Tibet, as it did in March when Tibetans planned the same kind of demonstration.

George W. Bush, whose response to the Tibetan crackdown was muted from the start, chose to deliver a pre-Olympics criticism of China's human rights record--in a speech set in Thailand. He did not mention specifics, such as individual dissidents, as he would have done if he'd been trying to get the Chinese to take some action. His staff also provided reporters with an advance copy of the text, a move that gave the Chinese media time to black out coverage of the speech.

The administration did let CBS News know that it was calling for presidential staff to leave their BlackBerries at home, since Chinese authorities are experts at wireless surveillance. The Singapore-based Straits Times also quoted a software security expert who advised that "People who are going to China should take a clean computer, one with no data at all." Phil Dunkelberger, chief executive of a security software firm, told the Times that business secrets could be stolen, and political contacts could be exposed. "What the Chinese tried to do [after the Tibet protests] was infiltrate [journalists'] security to see who in China the Tibet movement was talking to."

In response to the news like this, more than a little hypocrisy was on display from conservatives such as Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who expressed outrage that Chinese officials would "listen to anybody and everybody and their communications." Just last week, the Department of Homeland Security revealed to the Washington Post that it claims the right to conduct warrantless searches of the contents of laptops carried by citizens and non-citizens when they enter the United States.

Likewise, any complaint against China's policies of detention without charge--or of torture, or of allowing coerced testimony to be used in court--rings particularly hollow when it comes from the mouth of a national security hawk.


IN FACT, the U.S. prosecution of the "war on terror" has played a direct role in licensing Chinese repression of Muslims in Xinjiang.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. agreed to get the UN to list the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization in return for Chinese endorsement of the invasion of Afghanistan. Although the ETIM is a specific organization, Chinese officials often use the term to cover any separatist activity or protest against the repression of religious practice. Although officials initially said that the attackers in Kashgar were affiliated with the ETIM, they have been unable to substantiate a connection.

Until recently, the ethnic majority in Xinjiang has been Uighur, a predominantly Muslim group that speaks a Turkic language that is mutually intelligible with Uzbek. Separatist movements in the 1980s received a boost in the early 1990s when Turkic-speaking Central Asian republics gained independence from the former USSR.

At the same time, Han Chinese immigration accelerated because of the development of gas and oil reserves. According to specialist Jeff Kingston, the Han and the Uighurs, "While living in close proximity...are worlds apart, putting the Uighurs on the wrong side of the tracks in their own home."

Writing in 2006 in the English-language Japan Times, Kingston learned from a Louisiana oilman based in Xinjiang that Uighurs do not share in the prosperity of the oil boom. "Uighurs," he told Kingston, "did not have a good reputation among the Han, who regarded them as lazy, unreliable and more eager for a handout than a day's work. In five years working all over Xinjiang, he said he had only seen a handful of Uighur workers--all capable and hardworking--in skilled positions; mostly they are engaged as manual labor clearing work sites."

"Chinese," Kingston adds, "is the language of upward mobility." Another Japan Times correspondent quoted a Xinjiang businessman about the language prejudice within officialdom: "Here, no Communist would dare speak Uighur at any official function. It's always Chinese."

As elsewhere in China, religious observance is an obstacle to social advancement, since the key institution for politics and business, the Communist Party, does not permit its members to practice religion.

Resistance to Chinese repression in Xinjiang reached its peak in the 1990s, as bombings and guerrilla attacks on security forces and official sites were answered with hundreds of executions and thousands of detentions.

Columnist Gwynne Dyer writes in the Kashmir Times that Uighur nationalism has turned more and more in Islamist since the 1990s. This trend parallels the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamism throughout Central Asia.

The connections of Uighur Islamism have spread internationally, Rohan Gunaratna writes in the Straits Times. The ETIM is affiliated, he says, with the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), which is based in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas--under the protection of al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. The TIP has claimed responsibility for a series of bus bombings inside China in June and July.

Although Xinjiang accounts for one-sixth of China's massive land area, it contains only 20 million of China's 1.3 billion residents. And Uighurs are now less than half of Xinjiang's population--nearly equaled by the rising Han Chinese population. Kingston writes: "The problem for Uighurs may be that, in the ranks of the dispossessed [who are revolting throughout China], they pose less risk to the government and are thus not deemed worth the trouble of co-opting."

In these circumstances, Uighur militants, even though their numbers are small--or because their numbers are small--are likely to keep trying to raise the stakes of their resistance. The attack in Kashgar won't be the last.

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