It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This year was supposed to be China’s grand coming out party. A par-TEH for The Party. Instead, it’s turning out to be most serious challenge to China’s Communist leadership since the student-led demonstrations since 1989. This doesn’t mean China’s (fortune) cookie is anywhere near crumbling. And it actually could mean that China’s regime will emerge from this stronger than before.
Let’s review the events of the last few months.
Starting in mid-March, Tibetans in five provinces rioted and demonstrated against China’s rule. A whopping 800 people have been arrested in Lhasa alone. That’s the biggest anti-Chinese uprising (and I think we can call it that by now, given the tens of thousands of security personnel dispatched to quell it) since Tibetans rose up against Chinese rule in 1959 during which the Dalai Lama fled China to India.
The Tibetans aren’t alone. Now the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs, a mostly Muslim, ethnically Turkic minority) of Xinjiang province are restless, too. In recent weeks, they’ve demonstrated against Chinese rule in several cities in Xinjiang – most notably Hetian – famed for its carpets and stringy lamb stew.
It’s obvious that people with a bone to pick with China’s leadership think the impending Olympics in Beijing are creating political space to air their demands.
What’s next? Well, we haven’t heard much in recent months from Falun Gong, the Buddhist-inspired spiritual sect and the object of an ongoing brutal campaign of suppression by the Chinese state. No doubt they are going to pile on soon as well. Who knows, maybe smack in the middle of the Olympics opening ceremony.
What about us unruly foreigners? We’re screaming at them about Tibet. We’ve been screaming at them about Darfur – and that’s only going to get noisier. We want them to allow the Yuan to float higher against the dollar. We want them to solve the North Korean nuclear problem; push Burma into the modern world and help convince Iran to shelve its program to build a bomb. The only bright spot in that arena is in Taiwan where, in late March, the Taiwanese elected Ma Ying-jeou as the next president. No doubt he’ll improve relations with China and will do a better job than his ham-handed predecessor Chen Shui-bian.
So is this going to weaken China’s government? On the contrary. The more pressure the Chinese get from foreigners and barbarians – which are actually synonymous in ancient Chinese – the stronger the system becomes. Indeed, China’s system feeds off this kind of adversity. The Communist regime has a peculiar genius for turning these types of threats into opportunities.
There are signs the troubles in Tibet and Xinjiang are already bolstering the regime. The Chinese blogosphere has erupted in a chorus of patriotic cheering as the People’s Armed Police have flooded Tibetan zones. When China calls the Dalai Lama a liar and a “jackal in a Buddhist monk’s clothes,” Americans cringe. To us it sounds like the Cultural Revolution all over again. But it rings true to Chinese ears. In China, most Han rarely if ever think of the guy; they generally view China’s minorities with a mixture of paternalism and despair. They have little patience for Tibetan or Uighur desires for more autonomy, much less independence. Crush them! the blogosphere says.
Same goes for Mia Farrow’s campaign against the “Genocide Olympics.” The Foreign Ministry and China’s other propaganda organs have already framed these calls – for China to stop supporting Sudan, free its dissidents, negotiate with the Dalai Lama – as a foreign plot to weaken China. Again, to Western ears, that sounds goofy. But it resonates with the Chinese. With their mother’s milk, they’re nourished on a diet of resentful nationalism. For 150 years, China has been beaten down and oppressed by foreigners. Once again, the foreigners are at it. And what’s worse, they have picked this moment – China’s moment – to do it. Not only do they want to weaken China, the party’s propaganda organs crow, they want to make it do something even worse. They want to make it lose face. In front of 1.4 billion Chinese.
So, keep this in mind when you see footage of workers providing the final gloss to China’s Olympic locales. China’s big year could be a lot bigger than the Party figured it would. But prepare for unintended consequences.