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China misfires with divisive 'people's war'

August 27, 2008

By Wu Zhong, China Editor
Asia Time (Hong Kong)
August 27, 2008

HONG KONG - Chinese leaders can now let out a long and satisfied sigh
of relief: the Beijing Summer Olympic Games have ended safely and
without the interruption of any unsightly incident.

But the security of the Games was not achieved without cost. Certain
heavy-handed tactics served to polarize China's ethnic groups and the
government must now devote greater efforts to establishing solidarity
between them. This is particularly important considering the growing
distrust of the majority Han ethnic bloc towards the minority Tibetan
and the Uyghur people.

China's Han majority accounts for over 90% of the country's 1.3
billion population. Many Han believe the successful Olympics came at
a great national price. They were humiliated and angry when the
Olympic flame was dogged by Tibetan independence activists in
overseas torch relays. They were shocked and outraged on hearing that
the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an exiled group seeking
independence for Xinjiang, had threatened to launch terror attacks
against Olympic venues.

A series of terrorist attacks did rock Kashi and Kuqa in Xinjiang
before and after the opening of the Games, leaving dozens dead,
including policemen. According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin
Gang, the ETIM is suspected in the attacks.

Still, subsequent terror strikes in Xinjiang were successfully
contained and Beijing and China's other venue cities were not
attacked. This was due in part to tightened security in Xinjiang, but
also to the so-called "people's war" launched by authorities against
attempted sabotage of the Olympics.

In the long term, however, the "people's war" may have increased the
Han majority's suspicion of Tibetan and Uyghur minorities.

Following the first terror attack on armed police in Kashi on August
4, the Beijing Municipal State Security Bureau, the city's secret
police, posted public notices asking citizens to alert them to
suspicious persons or anything that "attempts to create ethnic
conflicts, instigate national secession and threaten national
security", media in Beijing reported. It was unusual for the State
Security Bureau to make such a high-profile move. Reading the Chinese
text, it was easily understood that Uyghur and Tibetan "separatists"
were targeted.

Society in Beijing is well organized. In collaboration with a local
police, several community committees (jumin weiyuanhui) are set up to
help maintain social order. Members of such committees are normally
housewives, retired cadre or workers familiar with the community.
They keep an eye on strangers and inform the police of any abnormal
happenings. Despite the rapid expansion of the city and increased
social mobility, the system remains intact.

And with the recent surge of nationalist and patriotic sentiment,
Beijing residents - who are mostly Han - were more than enthusiastic
to help contain any attempt to sabotage the Olympics. Tibetans and
Uyghurs generally have different physical characteristics from Hans
and could be easily identified when arriving in a typical Beijing
neighborhood. For ambitious Tibetan and Uyghur activists, the secret
police notice must have been, at the very least, a deterrent.

Given Beijingers' overzealous enthusiasm for a successful Olympics,
the public memo put locals on high alert against any Tibetan and
Uyghur strangers. As such, it was hardly a positive sign for the
implementation of Beijing's pledge of "solidarity between [various]
ethnic nationalities" in the country.

With the Tibetan protests and terror attacks in Xinjiang, the Beijing
Olympics have helped to bring the respective ethnic problems to the
world's attention. This provides Beijing with an opportunity to
review its ethnic policies. One positive step has emerged already:
Beijing has conceded to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the
exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

But there are potentially dangerous tends as well. Specifically that
the Han majority's poor opinion of "trouble-making" Tibetans and
Uyghurs may develop into a newfound Han chauvinism which could
prevent Beijing from formulating more pragmatic and flexible policies
toward ethnic minorities.

"What more do they [Tibetans and Uyghurs] want? The central
government treats them better than us. They can give birth to more
than one child, and their children could be admitted into
universities with lower scores in the entrance exam. They enjoy tax
incentives and even receive subsidies from the central government.
What more do they want? Independence? Ask all the Chinese people
first," said Xiao Ma, a minor civil servant in Beijing.

Xiao's opinion is by no means unique among Han people in Beijing or
across the country, said a sociology researcher with the Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

With the successful conclusion of the Games, the government must make
efforts to calm nationalistic sentiments among Han citizens and
prevent the majority group from descending into narrow-mindedness.
Such a trend "can only be an obstacle to any government effort to
stabilize the situation in Tibet or Xinjiang", said the CASS researcher.

The launch of the so-called "people's war" against ethnic separatism
was the wrong tactic. And although it may have been effective in
ensuring a safe Olympics, it must not be repeated again.

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