Written by Jackie Sheehan.
In the run-up to this year’s “two meetings” in Beijing, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) said an interesting thing (they warned us the Year of the Horse would be full of surprises): Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the CPPCC’s ethnic and religious affairs committee, stated that China would win over the west to its views on Tibet and Xinjiang, as those regions’ opening to the world creates “an understanding … that better accords with reality.”
This is a claim I would have dismissed out of hand a few years ago, and with regard to Tibet, I still think Mr Zhu is being very optimistic to believe that time is on China’s side. It’s true that China’s soft-power promotion in recent years has succeeded in getting the Beijing editorial line a wider airing, for example through the free provision of content packages and training from CCTV to broadcasters in the developing world with limited resources of their own for foreign news coverage. But it is a big leap from that to persuading the west that Tibet would be a land of happily smiling people united in their admiration for what modern economic development has wrought there were it not for the meddling from abroad of the “Dalai clique”.
Beijing still claims that the Dalai Lama foments separatism, or “splittism”, in Tibet, even though he renounced his advocacy of independence for Tibet in 1988 and since then has only ever called for meaningful autonomy for Tibetans. China claims it can tell he still really wants independence even though he hasn’t said so for more than 25 years, but short of producing a failed polygraph test in which he is asked the question, it does not seem likely that many outside China will be persuaded of this view.
Mr Zhu expects that increased opportunities for westerners to see for themselves conditions in Tibet and Xinjiang will bring them over to Beijing’s view, but I can offer an authentic Tibetan experience to anyone reading this with a smartphone handy. Follow this link to the story about one of the 127 (at the time of writing) self-immolations in Tibet, then save the photo of 17-year-old Rinchen onto your phone. Don’t worry if you’re squeamish; it’s just a normal portrait shot, not a picture of his terrible, fiery death.
Finished? Congratulations, you’ve just earned yourself a two-year prison sentence for subversion. I probably should have mentioned that bit earlier.
Actually, the young Tibetan artist Ngawang Tobden had photos of two self-immolators on his phone, not just one, along with pictures of the Tibetan national flag and some of the Chinese security forces in action in Tibet. So it would take you another five minutes or so online to assemble the full set for which he was sentenced in October 2012 on charges of “subversion, propagating incorrect political messages, and causing disharmony among ethnic minorities”. And the really harsh sentences of ten or fifteen years are for those who visit the families of deceased self-immolators to offer condolences, or send reports or pictures of a self-immolation out of China. Beijing has recast this as encouraging or even organizing self-immolations – if they don’t come out of genuine despair at the terms of China’s rule in Tibet, then someone must be organizing them, mustn’t they?
So there is some way to go before Beijing’s version of events in Tibet gains much traction abroad. But Xinjiang has long been an easier sell as a story of violent Islamic terrorists bent on armed rebellion against Chinese rule, even before Sunday’s shocking events at Kunming station which left 29 passengers and four of the attackers dead and over a hundred injured. Although western media have held off from calling it “China’s 9/11” as the CCP-controlled Global Times did, the US government did term it a terrorist act (eventually – see Michael Cole’s piece on the Sino-foreign “media war” over terminology), and most western reports have opted for a simple narrative of rising levels of violence in Xinjiang last summer, a supposed “terrorist incident” in Tiananmen Square last October (described thus almost universally now, despite the many serious doubts raised about it at the time), leading up to this attack.
It bears repeating that events in Xinjiang and those involving Uyghurs elsewhere in China are often difficult or impossible to interpret; either two completely incompatible accounts are presented, as with last summer’s alleged “hijacking”, or only Beijing’s version is available, but is so sketchy or contradictory that it makes no sense.
Anyone who turned to BBC News 24 for enlightenment on Sunday afternoon will have seen Victor Gao repeating the CCP government line and batting aside perfectly reasonable questions about underlying Uyghur grievances and whether there are any political efforts going on to ease tensions in Xinjiang (short answer: no). Mr Gao has a law doctorate from Yale and appears on a wide range of media, Chinese and international, but he is most often to be seen on CCTV. Neither he nor the BBC thought to mention that he has recently held several senior posts with China’s state-owned oil company, CNOOC, which has very extensive interests in Xinjiang. With that background, it’s not much of a surprise to find him declining to deviate from the party line on Xinjiang affairs, though it is that he was able to do this while appearing to be a disinterested commentator on Chinese affairs for a respected international broadcaster.
As for the Kunming attacks, I don’t know why they did it. Radio Free Asia said they had been trying to leave China for Laos to claim asylum overseas (why that almost never works for Uyghurs is a column for another day), whereas Beijing said they were leaving to wage jihad, somewhere beyond Laos, we presume. A despairing act of suicide-by-cop seems to fit some of the attackers’ own deaths, if you read the account of the Chinese SWAT team member who shot four of them dead at the scene, but cannot explain their indiscriminate killing of civilians going about their business in this softest of soft targets.
I do know that last summer’s death toll in Xinjiang could just as plausibly be interpreted as evidence of a Chinese shoot-to-kill policy there as for rising terrorist violence perpetrated by Islamist radicals. I also know that Ilham Tohti, the respected Uyghur academic and advocate of non-violent efforts to protect Uyghur rights and identity in Xinjiang who was arrested in January and charged last week with “inciting separatism”, saw this crackdown coming. He warned late last year that he had noticed increasing numbers of plainclothes police shadowing him in Beijing, and insisted that whatever might be claimed later, he would never take his own life, a standard activists’ precaution against “being suicided” while in detention.
And everyone should know by now the futility on both sides of trying to solve deep-rooted political conflicts with armed force. If this attack was intended as revenge for the shooting dead of 15 unarmed Uyghur demonstrators protesting against the closure of a mosque and the arrest of a religious leader in Hotan last year, it has played into the hands of the Chinese authorities, with the “9/11” label clearly intended to justify an intensified crackdown. Whether the western media calls this renewed repression what it is will be a key test of the progress of Beijing’s efforts to shift the terms of the debate on China’s ethnic policies in its own favour.
Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork. She is a CPI blog Regular Contributor.