Asia-Pacific, Headlines

CHINA: Xinjiang Crisis Creates Ripples Overseas

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Jul 29 2009 (IPS) - In recent days, China’s mainland intellectuals have publicly displayed a wave of patriotic support for the Xinjiang cause. They have expressed anger against "hostile foreign forces", whom they blame for inciting the recent violence in the ethnic Muslim area.

But much of this is suspected of being stage managed by the country’s communist leaders. And behind this fervent display, there is a welling up of anger in a section of the Chinese literati who are critical of Beijing’s policies towards it ethnic minorities.

The Xinjiang crisis, which erupted in early July, claiming 197 lives, has now spilled far beyond the borders of China’s resource-rich western autonomous region.

Last week, this issue created ripples in Melbourne, which is hosting Australia’s largest film festival.

Several Chinese film makers decided to boycott the festival in a gesture of protest against the inclusion of a documentary in the festival about Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uyghur leader accused by Beijing of instigating the unrest from abroad.

Among the directors who withdrew their works from the festival is Jia Zhangke, one of China’s award-winning independent filmmakers.

His refusal to participate in the Melbourne festival spurred Beijing to highlight that artists operating outside of the mainstream film umbrella are "patriots" who are unwilling to compromise on issues of national sovereignty. The Beijing Youth Daily reported that Zhangke felt repulsed by the idea of appearing on the same stage as Rebiya Kadeer.

"We feel that appearing with Rebiya in a thoroughly politicised festival, crosses the line of what our emotions and behavior can accept, and [it] is not appropriate. Therefore, Xstream (Jia’s production company) unanimously decided to withdraw, in order to express our attitude and position," said the press statement released by Zhangke.

The film festival’s organisers said they were unable to verify whether his decision to withdraw was under duress. Zhangke has not been available for any independent comments since then.

But the walkout from the festival has been very publicly supported by a slew of famous film directors and film industry heavyweights. Director Feng Xiaogang, known as the master of sweet-sour modern Chinese dramas, told the state agency Xinhua last week that film festivals should be a platform for cultural and artistic exchanges.

"However, the Melbourne film festival organisers have turned it into a political drama by inviting Rebiya Kadeer, a political liar," he said.

The works that were withdrawn from the festival were not state-endorsed film products by any standards. Zhangke’s "Cry me a river" is an elegy of lost idealism swept by the tides of China’s fast modernisation. "Petition", another withdrawn film, by director Zhao Liang, is a documentary about the evolution of the ancient Chinese tradition of petitioning central authorities over the abuses by local officials.

Beijing’s chances of pushing its version of what happened in Xinjiang as legitimate have got a boost with artistic rebels like Zhangke appearing to be on its side.

Riots were reportedly ignited in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, on July 5, as college students other citizens protested against the death of two Uyghur migrant workers in a factory located in Shaoguan, Guangdong province.

But Beijing claims that the riots were instigated by Uyghur terrorist units from southern and western Xinjiang who had infiltrated Urumqi shortly before July 5.

Chinese leaders have blamed Rebiya Kadeer, a 62-year-old former business tycoon, now exiled in the United States, for inciting the violence. Beijing claims that the "East Turkestan forces" — a Uyghur independence movement accused by China of having terrorist links — have long portrayed Kadeer as an international spokesperson for Uyghur people, similar to the role Dalai Lama plays for Tibetans.

Beijing’s claims have received a mixed response overseas. Japan has irked China by issuing a visa to Kadeer despite Beijing’s repeated concerns that she might engage in "anti-China separatist activities". India, however, showed more consideration for Beijing’s concerns and denied Kadeer a visa even before the July riots.

Domestically, Beijing has attempted to muzzle dissenting voices on the causes of the protests. But Chinese intellectuals have been prodding the roots of ethnic unrest since the Tibetan riots last year which exposed the facade of harmonious society painstakingly maintained by the leadership.

The debate on China’s dealings with its 56 ethnic minorities is gathering pace despite official frowns. Two polarised views have emerged. The first is about defending the right to development of the majority Han Chinese, who make up 91 percent of the country’s population. The other traces the roots of ethnic resentment among Tibetans and Uyghurs. Beijing’s imposed economic modernisation of their homeland, observers say, has led to the social marginalization of these ethnic groups.

Ma Rong, a professor of sociology at Beijing University, represents the former view. He argues that while Beijing did not grant its minorities the right to self-determination, as the former Soviet Union did, it did offer several social privileges that are currently being exploited by hostile elements.

Those rights include exemption from China’s "one-child" policy, educational privileges and a slew of financial and infrastructure programs aimed at boosting their economic development. Ma warns against treading the path of the former Soviet Union. The right of autonomy for its ethnic minorities led to the politicisation of ethnic identities and ultimately to the break up of the Soviet Empire.

"Modern China’s policies on ethnic minorities were hugely influenced by the Soviet Union’s theories on nation-building, and therefore there exists a clear danger of nationalist separation in China too," Ma wrote in a research paper, excerpts of which were published in the Southern Weekend newspaper.

The opposing lobby argues that the lack of adequate rights to development has led to the flaring up of ethnic unrest. Investigating the causes for the wide-spread Tibetan riots in March last year, members of the liberal group Gongmeng, or Open Constitution Initiative, came up with a report detailing a list of grievances among ethnic groups.

Their paper, posted briefly in June on Chinese websites before being censored by the authorities, argues that Beijing has not given ethnic minorities a fair share of the profits from the exploitation of their homeland’s resources. It also states that ethnic Han Chinese migrants enjoy a monopoly on jobs in all service industries promoted by the central government as ways of ending poverty.

When the Urumqi riots broke out in July, investigative reports revealed the same picture. The two migrant workers who died in a toy factory brawl in southern China were part of a government-funded labour export scheme aimed at relieving poverty in a Xinjiang area, where jobs for locals were few and far between.

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