The real threat to China’s security is internal

The task of maintaining social stability among diverse ethnic minority provinces is far more daunting than the imagined threats of US containment or Japanese aggression.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping completed his tour of Xinjiang province last week and vowed “resolute measures” against “violent terrorists,” explosions tore through crowds at Urumqi’s largest train station.

The suicide bombing in the provincial capital of China’s far western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region left three dead (including two perpetrators) and 79 injured.

This is just the latest in a string of coordinated attacks and deadly civil disturbances that have killed more than 300 since the outbreak of mass riots in Xinjiang in the northern summer of 2009.

Meanwhile, Tibet and neighbouring provinces have been rocked by a spate of more than 125 self-immolations in the same period.

According to China’s state-controlled press, the most menacing dangers for the Chinese state and society are external: Familiar, if unjustified, fears include Washington’s strategic ‘pivot’ to Asia and Japanese ‘remilitarisation.’

Yet the task of maintaining social stability and internal order among diverse ethnic minority provinces is far more daunting than the imagined threats of US containment or Japanese aggression. And the evidence is mounting that the CCP is failing to rise to the challenge.

The vast territories of China’s west, encompassing the Tibetan Plateau, the Tarim Basin and Dzungaria, have resisted Chinese imperium for millennia.

During the Western Han Dynasty (202BCE - 8CE) the central government claimed nominal authority over Xinjiang through a protectorate, and established partial control over the territory during the Tang Dynasty (618CE - 907CE). But it was not until the mid-18th century that the Qing Dynasty (1644CE - 1911CE) was able to finally reassert Chinese power in Xinjiang.

Tibet fell to the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1206CE – 1368CE), and 300 years later was incorporated into the Qing Dynasty. However, it regained its independence between the fall of the Qing Dynasty and its annexation by the People’s Republic of China in 1951.

Beijing’s intermittent rule over these western territories means that the impact of the attempted sinicisation of the indigenous populations was minimal.

In cities like Kashgar, situated near the Kyrgyz and Tajik borders, the Uyghur-speaking Turkic Muslims are ethnically, linguistically and culturally distinct from the Chinese-speaking Han that make up more than 90% of China’s overall population.

The resulting sense of division from Han China is conveyed in everyday conversation: Uyghurs in Xinjiang will casually refer to the predominately Han eastern parts of China as the “mainland.”

Despite the proven potential for these ethnic, linguistic and cultural cleavages to provoke mutual suspicion and violence, Beijing regularly adopts clumsy and imperious policies that inflame tensions.

There are reports of Muslims in Xinjiang being forced to face the Chinese flag during prayers, while sources in Tibetan-populated provinces say that a photograph of the Dalai Lama can result in incarceration, beatings and even torture.

Authorities in Xinjiang have also launched paternalistic campaigns that encourage Muslim women to abandon headscarves and caution Muslim men against growing beards.

Moreover, there is anecdotal evidence of institutionalised discrimination towards Tibetans and Uyghurs, as well as systemic labour market biases against ethnic minorities.

Notwithstanding affirmative action policies in the state sector, a 2011 study of income inequality in Urumqi found that Uyghur workers in private businesses earn 52 per cent less than their Han counterparts.

Ham-fisted and draconian CCP policies are certainly not cause for apologetics when civilians are murdered, much less what Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei has labelled ‘connivance of terrorists.’

Last week’s attack in Urumqi and similar violent acts should be condemned, and the tragic loss of life that they cause mourned.

Nevertheless, for the sake of China’s social stability, as well as the rights and welfare of Uyghurs, Tibetans and other ethnic minorities, incidents of unrest and violence should prompt deep introspection in Beijing about its attitudes and policies towards the western provinces.

Mencius, the great Confucian scholar, once observed: ‘Practise benevolent government and the people will be sure to love their superiors and die for them.’

Beijing must relearn this old lesson.

Successive Chinese dynasties won the west through conquest and subjugation. But unless Beijing can govern benevolently and truly tolerate China’s diversity, it may lose its western regions to instability and insurrection.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.