Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Catching a whiff of jasmine in Kashgar

TWO fire engines stood parked by the road leading past Kashgar's main mosque. They were clearly not deployed to fight any fires. Atop one sat a helmeted officer behind a shield. The nozzle of the vehicle's water hose pointed to the junction where an alley leads into the maze-like old city of this ancient oasis town. An officer in camouflage uniform sat on the other vehicle. In a nearby government compound, several more security personnel could be seen wearing helmets and carrying shields, standing next to a line of armoured vehicles. They had not been there the day before.

Kashgar is no stranger to security measures. It belongs to a part of China's Xinjiang region that is periodically racked by separatist incidents, sometimes violent, involving members of the ethnic Uighur community. It has been particularly edgy in the past two or three years. An outbreak of deadly clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in 2009 in Urumqi, the provincial capital, has left the authorities uneasy.

But today the government perhaps had reason to be a little more jittery than usual. Calls had been circulating on the internet for Chinese to gather in central areas of 13 major cities (none in Xinjiang were named) on February 20th to stage a "jasmine revolution"—in reference to the upheavals that have are convulsing the Arab world. An unsourced posting to an American-based Chinese website, Boxun.com (in Chinese, and currently under a DDOS-style attack) seems to have started the flurry. Chinese authorities quickly moved to suppress it by blocking posts on microblogs that contain the word “jasmine”. They stepped up surveillance of several activists and deployed large numbers of police near central Beijing, apparently to pre-empt any protests.

Banyan’s latest column discusses why China does not, in fact, appear to be on the brink of a pro-democracy upheaval. In Xinjiang however the authorities might worry that Muslim Uighurs can identify more readily with their democracy-seeking co-religionists in the Middle East and Africa. Many of Kashgar's Uighurs do have much to complain about, from discrimination to unemployment to a makeover of their old city which has forced thousands of them from their homes into soulless new apartment buildings. Soon after my arrival on February 18th I noticed I was being followed by a black Volkswagen. It remained on my tail until I left the city 48 hours later. When I proceeded on foot, one of its occupants would get out of his car to lurk behind me. Kashgar's police have a reputation for intimidating foreign correspondents in this way.

They probably have little to fear, however, from any popular uprising in support of democracy. Xinjiang's troubles tend to be related to ethnic tensions rather than democratic yearnings (though some activists might hope that ending rule by the Han-dominated Communist Party might pave the way for democracy). In Urumqi, tensions between the communities have become so ingrained in the aftermath of the rioting in 2009 that it is hard to imagine Hans and Uighurs marching together to call for political reform. Security is far less visible than it was then, but squads of black-clad riot police, some with batons and others with rifles, can still sometimes be seen in the streets.
Xinjiang does have at least one strong connection with recent events in Egypt, however. It was here that Chinese authorities pioneered the technique of shutting off the internet and mobile-phone messaging systems as way of controlling unrest. Five days cut off from the internet was not enough to stymie the masses arrayed against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Xinjiang was subject to similar restrictions for months in the wake of its riots. This created at least some sense of common cause between Uighurs and Hans. Members of both communities complain that business was badly disrupted by the blackout.

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