ON March 11, a rare event took place in Beijing. The seven members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee ~ Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli ~ dined together. According to Xinhua, they attended “a gathering on the sidelines of the annual sessions of the NPC and the CPPCC National Committee at the Great Hall of the People.” The Seven Big Bosses met with the deputies of the ‘ethnic minorities’ elected to the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
Is this an indication that something is boiling in the Tibetan, Uyghur and other areas in China that are dominated by minorities? Xinhua reported that Xi Jinping and his colleagues “arrived at the banquet hall of the Great Hall of the People at 7:45 p.m. to the enthusiastic applause from the lawmakers and political advisors in ethnic costumes.” Kalsang, a Tibetan sitting next to the President, would have said: “Good evening, General Secretary”.
Xi was pleased “to learn about improved life in his village, where big changes in education, medical services, elderly care and housing have taken place,” according to the news agency. He told a deputy from Xinjiang that they need “to make solid efforts for ethnic unity and lead people in pursuing a well-off life.”
It looks as if ‘ethnic unity’ is absent in today’s China. While a Tibetan senior Communist official, Jampa Phuntsok, presided over the dinner, the other leaders had “cordial conversations with the lawmakers and advisors, encouraging them to contribute to the Chinese nation’s rejuvenation,” commented Xinhua.
Sun Chunlan, director of the United Front Work Department and member of the Politburo, stated that the Party “attaches great importance to ethnic work and has made a set of decisions and arrangements to support ethnic regions.” Xinhua noted that everyone was happy: “Attendees of the gathering also enjoyed performances showcasing China’s ethnic arts.”
Tibetans and Uyghurs might be happy, but this unusual gathering raises serious questions. Why should China’s seven supreme leaders need to ‘dine’ together with the representatives of China’s minorities, if there were no disturbing issues to be discussed?
It is a fact that the Middle Kingdom’s periphery is today terribly unstable and Beijing does not know how to handle the situation (except by increasing the repression and offering a few economic carrots). And more repression automatically brings more resentment; a vicious circle!
A day before the dinner, the Chinese media reported that President Xi Jinping had urged the security forces to erect a ‘Great Wall of Steel’ around Xinjiang, after a recent spike of attacks, blamed by the authorities on Islamic extremists. Xi was speaking to PLA’s officers; he requested the Armed Forces to bring ‘lasting peace and stability’ to Xinjiang: “Maintaining stability in Xinjiang is a political responsibility,” Xi said.
During the same NPC meeting, some senior officials from Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region remarked that “the region has maintained a high-pressure crackdown to ensure stability and safety, as destabilizing factors remain.”
Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the regional government, stated that Xinjiang had been “resolutely and forcefully” fighting terrorism to maintain stability in the past year. “People across Xinjiang have recently joined public gatherings to show resolve in fighting terrorism.”
Sharhat Ahan, deputy secretary of the region’s Commission for Political and Legal Affairs, pleaded for a popular mobilization to join ‘the people’s war against terrorism’ and he threatened: “Terrorists should be warned not to ‘hit the rock with eggs’ or they would face serious consequences.”
And this is the country which does not want to list Masood Azhar as a terrorist.
A couple of articles in The South China Morning Post confirm that all is not rosy on China’s Muslim front. In the first piece, the journalist reported about a small ethnic Hui town in the south-western border province of Yunnan ~ “While the Chinese government has cracked down on religious activities among the Muslim Uygur community in Xinjiang, ethnic Hui Muslims more closely integrated with Han Chinese society have been able to enjoy much greater religious freedom. However, growing Islamophobia in China has seen both groups targeted by online attacks at a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric is on the rise across the world.”
The Islamophobia is partly due to the severe repression in Xinjiang and the Party’s constant propaganda about ‘Muslim terrorists’. The traditionally well-integrated Hui community is becoming nervous: “With the country’s top leaders repeatedly warning of the dangers of radical Islam, increasing levels of online hate speech are fuelling concerns that the heavy controls in Xinjiang could be extended to the Hui community in Yunnan,” remarked the article.
Another article in the same Hong Kong newspaper noted: “The growing popularity of anti-Islamic rhetoric, which is seldom challenged by state media or subject to the censorship for which China’s internet is famous, has sparked concerns that, left unaddressed, these tensions will spill over into real world conflict.”
The issue has become so serious that the entire Politburo’s Standing Committee had to invite the deputies of Tibet, Xinjiang or Ningxia to reassure them. Whether this work on the ground is another issue.
In January, the Chinese media reported that eight people were killed in a violent attack in Pishan county of Hotan Prefecture in Southern Xinjiang. According to the local Government, three knife-wielding men attacked and stabbed several people. Subsequently, the police shot dead the three attackers and ten others were injured. The Chinese media asserted: “Order has been restored and an investigation is ongoing. The identity of the attackers was not disclosed,” but they were obviously Uyghurs.
A few days earlier, Radio Free Asia (RFA) had reported that Uyghurs had been called to several meetings to confess their ‘crimes’. According to RFA, this was part of a campaign called ‘Revealing Errors’; the meetings were held in Aksu Prefecture “to uncover behaviour considered politically destabilizing.” The same source added: “Residents are called to a podium one by one to confess these errors after they have listed them on a 39-question form. They are also told they will face legal consequences if they attempt to cover up their own or anyone else’s anti-state activities.”
Does it not sound like the return of the Cultural Revolution?
The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of Fate of Tibet.