Xi Faces 'Ethnic Crisis'

Failed policies in China’s minority regions may represent the biggest challenge facing the incoming administration.

ethnic-crisis-seytoff-305.jpg Alim Seytoff speaks in Washington about China's ethnic policies, Jan. 31, 2013.

China’s failure to reshape its policies towards ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia has created a major crisis for incoming President Xi Jinping, according to rights groups which called for radical reforms by the new Chinese leadership.

The groups representing the three minorities said current leader Hu Jintao failed to address the variety of problems afflicting the regions during his decade-long leadership.

The use of force to repress and crack down on Uyghurs, Tibetans, and ethnic Mongolians seeking more autonomy in China has backfired and has led to greater unrest, putting immense pressure on Xi to maintain stability, Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association said.

“While China’s rise on the international stage is undeniable today, China’s domestic problems—especially ethnic issues with Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Mongols—have intensified in the past decade under the leadership of Hu Jintao,” he said at a discussion on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday.

Seytoff said the Hu administration not only used “brute force” to suppress unrest and silence critics of Beijing’s hard-line policies in the three regions but also incited the majority Han Chinese against the ethnic minorities, dividing the country further.

“While it seemed the Hu administration’s hard-line policies worked on the surface in the past decade, in fact they backfired powerfully, as in the case of Tibetan unrest in March 2008, Uyghur unrest in July 2009, and Mongolian protests in April 2011,” Seytoff said.

All of them were put down quickly using force by the Chinese security forces, he said.

“I personally believe the past decade is really a missed opportunity for the Chinese government to genuinely resolve conflicts in the three biggest and most important regions of China,” he said.

This has “presented a crisis for Xi Jinping—China’s new leader,” Seytoff said.

Dire situation

Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, said that China’s policies restricting religious and cultural rights of Tibetans have created a dire situation in the region and were responsible for triggering mass demonstrations in 2008 and the wave of 98 self-immolation protests since February 2009.

“China’s attempt to deal with the self-immolations in the way they have so far—by use of force, by trying to threaten people, by trying to clamp down in Tibet, by making life for the people of Tibet more miserable—has not resolved the issue,” he said.

“Today, while in Chinese [populated] areas the Chinese people have comparatively more freedom than in the past, in Tibetan areas we see this increasing clampdown, and the entire Tibetan area is in fact turned into one big prison. There is a heavy security clampdown.”

Tsering charged that racial discrimination by Chinese officials “could lead to a possible deterioration of the situation in Tibet” which the new leadership under Xi Jinping “has to fix.”

He said that he was concerned by reports that officials in Beijing were considering an attempt at resolving the problem of ethnic tension in China by eliminating the constitutional rights of the country’s minorities.

“So far [we have not seen] any policy changes … For the moment it seems to indicate that there is a division in the Chinese leadership about how to deal with the nationality issue,” Tsering said.

“We should continue to observe … the situation so that we can later judge leadership from [any] changing of this policy.”

Repressive policies

Enhebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), said that mass demonstrations in 2011 by ethnic Mongolians in Inner Mongolia were a direct result of repressive Chinese policies in the region.

The policies had led herders to lose their grazing lands, caused students to lose the right to use the Mongolian language in their studies, and forced the minority group to abandon its cultural practices, he said.

The protests followed the mishandling by authorities of the death of a herder who was dragged under a truck while trying to protect his pasture land from the workers of a Chinese mining company.

This, Togochog said, is “typical of the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to Tibetan, Uyghur, and Mongolian issues.”

The situation further deteriorated in July 2011, when nearly 400 ethnic Mongol former students demonstrated after authorities reneged on an agreement to provide them with jobs.

In the wake of protests in Tongliao, Hohhot, and Chifeng, Chinese authorities poured large numbers of troops into the region and enforced a security lock-in at schools, universities, and government institutions.

Official media said the unrest had been prompted by banned groups outside the country, including the SMHRIC.

Togochog said that rather than listen to the concerns of ethnic Mongolians, the Chinese authorities are more concerned with silencing dissent by clamping down on the protests and by arresting activists such as Hada, who is being held under de facto house arrest after 15 years in jail on charges of “separatism” and “espionage.”

Another Inner Mongolia activist and blogger, Huuchinhuu Govruud, has been repeatedly summoned, questioned, and detained for her activism since 1996.

“Troubles are always laid on the doorsteps of foreign hostile forces, and the CCP’s own policies are never questioned,” said Togochog.

Future unrest?

Seytoff pointed to China’s need for Xinjiang’s vast deposits of natural resources to power its economy as the motivating factor for its heavy-handed tactics in the region and tendency to label members of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority seeking greater autonomy as “terrorists.”

He said that Beijing’s propaganda machine had turned Han Chinese against the Uyghurs and led to violent attacks, setting the stage for riots in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi in July 2009 which left some 200 people dead, according to official count.

Subsequent detentions, imprisonment and executions of Uyghurs believed to have participated in the violence, as well as policies fueling Han Chinese immigration while curtailing Uyghur cultural traditions and employment opportunities, have left the minority ethnic group feeling even more isolated, Seytoff said.

“I fear that without a fundamental change of China’s repressive policies in East Turkestan [Xinjiang] under Xi Jinping there would be more Uyghur unrest in the future,” he said.

Reported by Joshua Lipes.

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