Politics & Policy

Broken China

President Bush can give voice to the oppressed.

Democratic leaders who recently met the wholly un-democratic Chinese president, Hu Jintao, on his tour of western Europe, have been heavily criticized for not putting the issue of human rights higher on their agendas.

#ad#Initial fears that President Bush would be accused of the same failing prior to his upcoming visit to Beijing were allayed by his speech in Japan calling for democratic reform in China. Bush’s message to Beijing was clear and forthright, and the mere fact he has so publicly prodded China should make leaders in Europe squirm–if not those in Beijing.

The problem is, external calls for political reform in China are always going to fall on ears deafened by the roar of an economic boom. All domestic problems faced by China–from growing rural unrest to catastrophic environmental degradation–are not matters to be solved by democratic reform as far as Beijing in concerned because to do so would muffle the economic boom. China’s domestic problems are evidently regarded as problems to be solved by a tighter political grip.

Beijing is haunted still by the demise of the Soviet Union, pulled apart by the forces unleashed when Moscow loosened the reins on its satellite states. The “color revolutions” in the former Soviet states are yet more reason for Beijing to be flexing its grip. So China is tightening the reins and flogging the horse as hard as it can in the direction of economic and diplomatic might. Beijing is desperate to become a modern and respected society in the international community–at whatever the cost. And anyway, China is convinced that the only game in D.C. is to make China fail and fail badly, and so any call for Beijing to treat its own people with a bit more respect is seen as an attempt to undermine China.

But crucially, Bush’s call for political reform must be seen in Beijing as an exhortation for its leaders to stop burning their bridges, for the sake of China and everyone and everything connected with China.

China’s 900 million farmers are being cut adrift from Beijing’s dreams, and every village attacked by club-wielding thugs in the pay of officials and every community left destitute by corrupt land-grabs is yet another bridge burnt. Unless a solution to the Tibet problem is found which includes the Dalai Lama another crucial bridge will be burnt. It’s already too late with the Falun Gong and swathes of China’s intellectuals. History will not be kind, and nor should it be.

Slowly and inexorably, China’s leaders are becoming ever more stranded and vulnerable, all the while stoking the rage and indignation of the people of China.

Of prime concern must be the Uyghur people in their far northwestern homeland of East Turkistan, referred to by the Chinese authorities as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Beijing is not only lighting fires under the bridge to these people, it is widening the valley.

These ten million or more Uyghurs are in the deeply unfortunate position of sharing a homeland with a quarter of the PRC’s inland oil and gas reserves and 40 percent of its coal reserves. The Chinese government plans to mold East Turkistan into a commercial hub–a bridge–between China and markets in Central Asia, Russia, and even Europe.

But Uyghurs, with their permissive and moderate form of Islam, are regarded as a problem as far as Beijing’s plans go. Post 9/11, long-standing Uyghur opposition to Chinese administration is now described as “terrorist,” and the Chinese authorities deliberately link their crackdown on Uyghurs to the U.S.-led War on Terror.

The “trickle-down” theory of economic development improving civil and political rights has failed catastrophically for the Uyghur people. The more people and money Beijing pours into East Turkistan, the more marginalized and desperate the Uyghur people are becoming.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Uyghurs who protest face personal disaster. Last week an editor of a literary journal was jailed for three years having published a piece of fiction comparing the plight of Uyghurs to a caged dove; the story’s author is already serving ten years in prison for writing it. Detention centers, labor camps, prisons, and execution grounds in East Turkistan are full beyond capacity with Uyghurs who have peacefully expressed opposition to Chinese administration.

China gave up the fight to win the Uyghurs’ hearts and minds long ago. Now it’s just a fight to keep them down and to stop them from interfering with business that doesn’t concern them–China’s business. Bush’s call for China to “get your house in order” is sound and timely advice, and Beijing must wake up to it before it burns a bridge too far.

Nury Turkel is president of the Uyghur American Association.

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