Since the Arab Spring began and put into international focus the despotic rulers of the Arab world, there’s been much talk of whether a similar revolution would reach China. There are, after all, many similarities between despotic ruled nations in the Middle East and Communist ruled China: few civil liberties, zero tolerance for dissent and a growing frustration amongst the populace at large against decades-old governance by one party.
It is the crackdown on Muslim Uighurs, long demanding self-rule in Xinjiang province, and the presence of what China calls Islamic extremists that gets international analysts to weigh in on whether an Arab Spring could find its way here.
The eve of Ramadan this year will be remembered most for the bloody violence in Syria but 11 people were also killed in Kasghar in Xinjiang province in an attack Chinese authorities blame on Islamic extremists. This follows two attacks over the weekend that authorities also blame on terrorists but says they are men who received training in Pakistan.
(Keep in mind that Ramadan is banned in Communist China but Muslim Uighurs still observe it, ostensibly earning the irk of a government that doesn’t take kindly to dissent.)
The weekend violence that killed a total of 18 people occurred nearly two weeks after a brutal attack on protestors in Khotan in Xinjiang by security protestors that left 14 dead.
The last serious outbreak of violence in the restive region was in 2009 which saw 200 people die in July. It prompted the authorities to begin pouring in more aid in the hope that this would quell some of the socio-economic grievances.
This has worked to some extent.
Herein lays the major difference between despotic dictators and smarter Communists. Michael Schuman writing for Time magazine in May this year points out the differences in social indicators: “China’s GDP per capita, in real terms, has surged two-and-a-half times in the past decade; Egypt’s has increased about 30 percent, Syria’s a bit over 22 percent, Yemen’s only 12 percent. More telling, China’s unemployment rate, at about 4 percent in 2010, was way way below the level found in ‘Arab spring’ countries. Egypt’s unemployment rate was more than 9 percent, Jordan’s stood at 12.5 percent and Tunisia at 13 percent.”
Mr. Schuman also reminded readers that the Middle East has the highest unemployment rate amongst the youth in the world, “at 25 percent.” China’s was 4.1 percent, albeit an urban unemployment rate.
Things in China may not be picture perfect as poverty is rampant but the government is trying to redress this issue by devising schemes that would improve the incomes of working families, writes Mr. Schulman.
It’s understood that economic indicators were the driving force behind popular revolts against despotic rulers in the Arab world but in China, despite the genuine grievances that exist, the improvement in living standards means there’s little drive to push the regime out.
However, the revolt that is brewing in Xinjiang is one that can pose challenges to China’s policy toward the province – namely quell dissent, move a large number of Hans Chinese into the province to alter the ethnic landscape and hype the Islamic militant threat to an extent that allows them to employ tactics in the name of the war on terror. The crackdown on Muslim Uighurs, thus, is done on the pretext that they are terrorists.
This was the excuse used against peaceful demonstrators protesting police brutality against Muslim Uighurs in Khotan in July. This is far more likely to increase anger and resentment against Beijing which, for all its failings, has made some attempt to develop the region. Xinjiang is the country’s largest natural gas producing region and
If there’s anything Beijing should learn from the Arab Spring, it’s that beating up on peaceful protestors doesn’t scare them away. They come back, with friends and family, and don’t leave.
(Muna Khan, Senior Correspondent and Columnist for Al Arabiya English, can be reached at email@example.com)