Saturday, July 17, 2010
Tibet and Xinjiang -A calendar like a minefield
AS IT struggles to strengthen its grip on the restive minority regions at its periphery, China usually feels that time is on its side. In both Buddhist Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang, China hopes that economic development, improved infrastructure and steady demographic shifts will gradually ease the ethnic tensions that periodically erupt into violence.
But in one sense, time works against Beijing. Sensitive dates have often been catalysts for renewed trouble. This week saw both July 5th, the first anniversary of deadly riots that shook Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi, and, the following day, the 75th birthday of Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, reviled by Beijing as a conniving splittist.
Both Xinjiang and Tibet this week remained in the quiet but tense state that has become the norm. The authorities are betting that a heavy police presence and the aggressive prosecution of activists can stave off serious unrest without big concessions to ethnic-minority grievances. These include government interference in religious affairs, discrimination in economic opportunities, and a steady influx of Han Chinese that threatens to erode both regions’ cultural identity.
China seems to calculate that the eventual death of the Dalai Lama, a charismatic and internationally popular figure, will make its job in Tibet easier. Each passing birthday brings that day closer. But it also offers supporters of the Dalai Lama and his cause a chance to sing his praises. This year, a crowd of 5,000 joined him for a birthday celebration at his base in India.
Asked by a reporter about the occasion, a Chinese government spokesman, Qin Gang, said he was thinking instead of two other important dates: May 23rd 1951, the day of Tibet’s “peaceful liberation”, and March 28th 1959, now marked as “Serf Emancipation Day”. Many foreign historians see the earlier event as a one-sided military rout in which 5,000 Tibetans were killed, and the later one as an important date in the brutal suppression of an uprising, which led to the flight of the Dalai Lama and 100,000 of his followers into exile in India. In 2008 demonstrations marking the anniversary of the 1959 uprising led to more violence in Lhasa, resulting in at least 19 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Most victims were Han Chinese attacked by Tibetan rioters.
Last year’s violence in Xinjiang killed nearly 200 people and was followed by a severe crackdown that saw mass arrests of accused rioters and a near-total shutdown of the internet and international telephone service, lifted only two months ago. In a recent report Amnesty International, a human-rights watchdog, accused the Chinese authorities of using excessive force and torturing detainees.
Tibet, too, is still enduring a crackdown. In two recent verdicts, brothers who had once basked in official praise for their environmental work were convicted on charges which, say their families, were contrived. On July 3rd Rinchen Samdrup received a five-year prison sentence for inciting subversion. In late June his younger brother, Karma Samdrup, a wealthy antique collector pictured on the previous page, was sentenced to 15 years on previously dismissed charges of robbing graves.
Activists fear that such cases—against men who had studiously shunned involvement in Tibet’s fraught ethnic politics—mark a widening of the net by China to include any prominent Tibetans. This may indicate Chinese insecurity, but officials insist otherwise. Hao Peng, China’s second-ranking official in Tibet, has told a group of visiting journalists that Beijing has “the ability and confidence to maintain stability in Tibet for ever”. The Economist