Friday, June 18, 2010

Can the Kazakhstan-chaired OSCE Step up to the Plate in Southern Kyrgyzstan?

With violence subsiding in southern Kyrgyzstan, the real dangers to regional stability are only starting to come into perspective. Yesterday's announcement by the UN that the refugee problem had ballooned to about 400,000 seems to have awakened the international community, but its response remains unclear. What is clear is that the scope of the problems that could now emerge as a result of population displacement and lingering animosity between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are significant and potentially could spark a much more serious regional conflict. While the international community was unable to adequately respond to the unrest that rocked the region this past week, it is now critical that there is an international response aimed at stabilizing the situation and preventing it from spiraling out of control any further.

Both Russia and the US have avoided responding militarily despite requests from the interim Kyrgyz government for assistance in stabilization. While one would expect more willingness on the part of these larger powers to assist Kyrgyzstan with establishing stability given that both have airbases in the country, it is also understandable that such bilateral action could inflame other geopolitical tensions regionally and even globally. What is needed now in southern Kyrgyzstan is a multilateral commitment to keeping the peace. The question is which multilateral commitment? The United Nations is theoretically the most neutral source of peacekeeping, but the UN bureaucracy can make response slow and poorly coordinated. Furthermore, since the situation has yet to escalate into a full-out war, it is questionable whether the UN would even deploy and, if it did, whether it would be the appropriate response.

On a more regional level, however, there are multiple possibilities. There is the CSTO (The Collective Security Treaty Organization), which is made up of former Soviet states, but it is unclear whether this organization has the capacity to field the type of peacekeepers who are needed. The same can be said of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which brings together a diverse group of regional powers, but has neither experience with peacekeeping nor a clear mandate to form a joint peacekeeping force. That leaves the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), which, despite declining in its influence on the former Soviet Union, has a history of deploying peacekeeping observers in the Caucasus and the Balkans and has long had a substantial office in Osh staffed with regional experts. Furthermore, the OSCE's present chairmanship is held by Kazakhstan, the one power in Central Asia with the capacity and relative neutrality to take on a lead role in mitigating further conflict in the Ferghana Valley.

If the OSCE were to respond quickly now and establish a strong stable of peacekeeping observers for the south of Kyrgyzstan, it could have a substantial impact on the situation. Such an organization could mediate between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, protect the properties of refugees from further looting or usurpation, help reintegrate Uzbeks who have returned to protect their properties, and monitor the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Such quick and decisive action would be the perfect opportunity for Kazakhstan to demonstrate a positive leadership role within the OSCE and for the OSCE to show the former Soviet states that it can deliver support when critically needed.

The question that remains is whether Kazakhstan has the capacity to take on such a leadership role and push through the OSCE bureaucracy in order to field a professional, effective, and knowledgeable OSCE-led peacekeeping group in time to make a difference. If it did so, it would do much to reaffirm international confidence in Kazakhstan, re-establish a prominent role for the OSCE in the former Soviet Union, and potentially ease some of the geopolitical tension in Eurasia that the proponents of the “new great game” theory so enjoy promoting.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why is Ethnic Violence Erupting Between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Southern Kyrgyzstan?

As we watched the horrible news of violent chaos that overtook Southern Kyrgyzstan over the last week, the first question that came to mind was – why? Why would people who have been neighbors for decades be drawn into such senseless violence? Is it related to the overthrow of Bakiyev's government, or are we witnessing something completely unrelated? While information coming out of Osh and Jalalabad remains spotty, there is plenty reason to believe that the triggers of the unrest are related to the political instability in the country.

As the interim government claims, pro-Bakiyev supporters, and especially his infamous brothers, may have incited this violence. Witnesses have reported some evidence of such a provocation, but their claims remain unverifiable. Regardless, the fragile nature of the Kyrgyz state coupled with the frustration of Kyrgyz citizens over their country's continual instability has exacerbated the situation as even the interim government admits it has lost control. It is also likely that criminal elements are somehow involved as regime change in the country once again opens up the criminal underworld to turf battles. But, these various issues do not tell us the whole story. There is still the question of why this violence is taking an ethnic character when Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations are hardly at the center of the present political crisis that may have triggered the unrest.

Most stories in the media have downplayed the ethnic character of this unrest, but those that have attempted to describe the ethnic background have generally gotten things mostly wrong. Such stories tend to focus on a history of Uzbek-Kyrgyz tension that comes from the drawing of borders in the Ferghana Valley in 1924. While the strange borders of the Ferghana Valley certainly help to aggravate ethnic relations in the region, they are not the cause of ethnic animosity. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, the 1924 borders did not “create” the ethnic groups of Central Asia out of thin air in order to divide a united pan-Turkic population. The borders only explain why Osh and Jalalabad are part of Kyrgyzstan when they were traditionally Uzbek cities. Furthermore, it should be noted that, despite the continual political instability in Kyrgyzstan, few Uzbeks in the country would like to see their cities annexed to Uzbekistan where there is extensive political repression and arguably even more economic pressures.

So, what is the cause of ethnic animosity between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks? I would argue that it is not founded on ethnicity, the manipulation of nation-states, or an evil conspiracy masterminded by Stalin. Instead, this tension emerges from a cultural cleavage specific to Central Asia that is not limited to Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, but is founded on the region's history of nomadic-settled interaction. Historically, the lines between nomads and settled people are somewhat blurred in Central Asia, and today there are virtually no real nomadic people left in the region. Nonetheless, the delineation between nomadic and settled people continues to be real in the minds of Central Asians and represents the primary cultural fault-line in the region.

While occasionally Central Asians will evoke this cultural fissure directly when Uzbeks or Uyghurs refer to Kazakhs or Kyrgyz as nomads without culture or when Kyrgyz and Kazakhs call Uyghurs and Uzbeks “Sarts” (a derogatory name for the settled people of the region that has pre-revolutionary origins). Usually, however, this cleavage is expressed through ethnic prejudices. These prejudices can be found throughout Central Asia, even in large cities where the idea of a settled-nomadic divide seems ridiculous, but they are most intense in the locations where the descendents of nomads and agriculturalists live in close proximity to each other. Southern Kyrgyzstan is one such place, but it is not the only one. In fact, if you had similar triggers for conflict in the other Central Asian countries, it would not be that surprising if violence erupted between Uzbeks and Kazakhs in southern Kazakhstan, between Turkmen and Uzbeks in the Dashagouz or Mari regions, between Uyghurs and Kyrgyz in the Chu Valley, or between Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the Ili Valley.

The tension between former nomads and settled people in Central Asia is not like that between ethnic groups in the Balkans or even in the Caucasus. It usually is not expressed outwardly, instead manifesting itself in the prejudices of daily interactions, business transactions, etc. It is only when these interactions are put under intense pressure from other factors does it seem to flare into violent conflict. But, when that happens, history has shown that the violence becomes intense and personal. Prior to this past week, the most recent example of this viciousness was the violence that erupted in the area of Osh in 1990. As Russian ethnographer Valery Tishkov has shown us in his meticulous and often “stomach-churning” descriptions of the violence at that time, the boundaries of civility were thrown to the wind as sexual violence, physical mutilation, and brutal murder using rudimentary farm tools spread throughout the region.

At the heart of this tension between former nomadic and settled peoples in the region is a fundamental distrust that likely harks back to a time when the nomads were cheated by traders at bazaars when they came to settled regions to sell their livestock and when nomads would ambush trading caravans that came through their herding regions. To this day, the stereotypes that each group uses for the other corresponds to such experiences. Former nomads (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen) suggest that the settled peoples are “sneaky,” “cheap,” and not to be trusted. Descendents of the settled peoples of the region (Uzbeks, Uyghurs, and Tajiks to a lesser extent since they have less interaction with former nomads), in turn, claim that the former nomads are “lazy,” “corrupt,” and “uncultured.”

I feel that these prejudices are important to understand because they indeed run deep in Central Asia. That, in of itself, does not suggest that such violence is inevitable. It merely means that there is a deep cultural cleavage that can be exploited by those who wish to foster instability. Obviously, whoever provoked the recent unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan understood this all too well. Unfortunately, the international community seems not to understand it and appears to remain dumbfounded at the violence of the last week.

It is hard to predict the fallout from this violence, but it is likely to have a long legacy. The primary “wildcard” in the foreseeable future remains the response of Uzbekistan, which has reportedly thus far accepted about 100,000 Uzbek refugees from Osh and Jalalabad. Will these people return to their homes? If their property is taken over by Kyrgyz, how will the Uzbek government respond? These are the types of factors that could create a much more deadly long-term conflict in the region. Although Kyrgyzstan's interim government will likely work to prevent such an escalation of conflict, it is unclear if they have the capacity to prevent it. As for Uzbekistan, the intentions of Tashkent remain unclear, but there is a situation open for the Uzbek government to exploit. Let's hope cooler heads prevail.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Déjà vu in Kyrgyzstan 5 Years Later?


About a month ago I was briefing a group preparing to do an assessment of development projects in Kyrgyzstan. When they asked me to describe the biggest threats of conflict in the country, I said corrupt governance and the question of succession. The group looked puzzled and said that they had understood that politics were completely controlled in Kyrgyzstan now that Bakiyev had “eliminated” opposition. I countered by saying that Bakiyev’s government is not like that of Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan; it can never “eliminate” or even completely control opposition. Given the corrupt and weak nature of governance in Kyrgyzstan, Bakiyev may be able to temporarily control opposition to his government by force, but, like spring flowers, opposition will always re-emerge and will require constructive engagement to avoid conflict.

The past couple of days in Kyrgyzstan have suggested that this is indeed the case. The news coming out of the country looks all too similar to that which we saw in Spring of 2005, only more violent. In general, the events of the last several days taken together with those of March 2005 suggest two things about this country in the twenty-first century – 1) that the Kyrgyz people, unlike most former Soviet citizens, are unwilling to allow a corrupt government to stay in power through its control of the political system and are ready to risk personal safety in order to prevent this; and 2) the elite of Kyrgyzstan has yet to demonstrate that it is capable of establishing a viable government that meets people’s demands and moves Kyrgyzstan’s development forward.

These dynamics are obviously not very conducive to stability, but they still have the potential to make Kyrgyzstan a stable and prosperous state in the future, which is more than can be said about some of its neighbors. In my opinion, one of the most critical tasks of whatever state comes to power in the near future is to stop the cycle of “revolutions” in the country by building a system of governance and political processes that mediates political differences and holds government accountable through peaceful and constructive means. This, of course, is much easier said than done. First and foremost, it requires dedicated and creative leadership which can break through the patron-client system of power that has been built up in the country over decades. In other words, it means that while we see familiar scenes in the country now, we should hope that we are not having “déjà vu” in the months ahead with the country repeating the same mistakes of Bakiyev’s administration by merely re-shuffling an inherently corrupt system of power.

In order to facilitate such measures, the international community must also learn from its past mistakes. After the March 2005 events, the international community was slow to help the new government, and when it did, it did not push Bakiyev and his people hard enough to adopt real democratic reforms. This time, it is critical that the international community recognize and offer support to a new government as soon as it is clear that one has emerged. If this is not forthcoming in the next week, there should be international attempts to broker a peace. In supporting a new government, however, the international community cannot only think of its own interests (such as military bases), it must push the new state to adopt changes that will ensure that we will not be witnessing another revolution anytime in the upcoming decade. Furthermore, this does not mean dictating institution building from the outside, but engaging the government seriously on its own plans to avoid future political conflict.

With Presidents Obama and Medvedev meeting in Prague to sign an historic nuclear agreement today, one would hope they will find time to discuss these issues. Afterall, it is not in the interests of either the U.S. or Russia to see an unstable Kyrgyzstan that could spread instability to its neighbors. Furthermore, I think the experience of Kyrgyzstan over the last five years has also shown that a neo-Soviet model (“managed democracy” or “sustainable authoritarianism” – whichever you prefer to call it) does not serve the country well. With Medvedev and Obama meeting in Prague rather than Bush and Putin, it is realistic to expect agreement that a new Kyrgyz government must reform its governance and deserves assistance in doing so.

The other reason to see the glass as “half-full” when looking to the future is that the opposition that will likely take over in Kyrgyzstan now is not like the one that took over in 2005. My discussions with opposition members over the last few days suggest that they have taken stock in the lessons of the past five years. They have discussed radical reform measures that they feel must be undertaken immediately, and many of these measures are aimed at breaking with an authoritarian past. The fact that the opposition has appointed Roza Otunbayeva to lead an interim government already suggests that they want to avoid the dangerous patron-client system that Bakiyev’s rule enhanced. Her international experience and gender already set her a world apart from the patriarchal power structures that run through the country’s fabric.

The optimism I am presently espousing about the future, however, must be tempered with some realism. Even a new state led by people who are serious about reform will have to deal with an inherently corrupt system where patron-client relations trump a commitment to rule of law. There will undoubtedly be power struggles within the elite as has been the case for decades. Corruption will not disappear overnight. The economy will not immediately get better, leading to a lack of enthusiasm for change among the populous. And, the legacy of organized crime in the country will be difficult to reverse. It can only be hoped that the political elite of Kyrgyzstan fully understands that its fate will be similar to that of its predecessors if it does not produce lasting change, stability, and – at least gradually – improved livelihoods.

At present it is probably still too early to talk definitively about the future until the stand-off between Bakiyev and the newly declared people’s government has been resolved. Bakiyev may still be able to foment conflict, particularly along the regional fault-lines between north and south. At this point, such machinations would be self-serving because after Tuesday it is almost impossible to foresee Bakiyev continuing as president. Once he realizes this, let’s hope Kyrgyzstan can move ahead and can begin the hard-work of preventing future “déjà vu” that brings us back to events like those of March 2005 and April 2010. For this to happen, it will require strong, creative, and forward-looking leadership both from a new Kyrgyz government and from the international community. It will also likely depend upon the patience of the Kyrgyz people and their ability to get past the divisive violence of the last few days.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

What is happening in Talas Kyrgyzstan? (A Conversation with Edil Baisalov)

(courtesy of RFE/RL)

Today, news spread that Kyrgyzstan was engulfed in political turmoil once again. Just about five years after the protests of the “Tulip Revolution” forced former President Askar Akayev from office, all too familiar reports are coming from Kyrgyzstan that those in opposition to the present president are clashing with police in regions around the country and attempting to take over regional governmental buildings. Thus far, it appears that most of the activity has taken place in Talas, a regional center to the west near southern Kazakhstan, where crowds have taken over the government building (twice actually). Oppositionists, however, pledge to expand the scope of these protests throughout the country in the upcoming days, and, as the following interview shows, the aim is once again to remove the president from office.

When I heard this, I immediately contacted a friend of mine who has been a prime mover in Kyrgyzstan’s politics over the last decade, Edil Baisalov. The last time I interviewed Edil for this blog was in November of 2007. At that time, he was making the transition from the world of NGO civic advocacy to that of political representation by running for parliament in Kyrgyzstan. Political machinations in the country, however, led to accusations that he had violated the elections law, and the government sought him on criminal charges. As a result, he eventually fled to Sweden where he is presently in exile as a political refugee, but he remains, as always, involved in political events in his homeland. As somebody who had taken part in the March 2005 protests that ousted former President Akayev and as somebody who retains close ties with opposition figures in Kyrgyzstan today, Edil offers an interesting perspective on recent events that, while very obviously partisan, is both passionate and informed by lessons of the past. The transcript of an interview I conducted with Edil today follows.


S.R.: So, can you fill us in on what is actually happening in Kyrgyzstan at the moment?

E.B.: Just a few hours ago, after 9:00 pm Bishkek time, Bakiyev’s special riot police simultaneously stormed the Talas oblast government building and arrested several leading opposition members in Bishkek, including Omurbek Tekebaev and Almaz Atambaev. At this time, the people in Talas have retaken the building and are reportedly preparing en masse for a large show of force against the Bakiyev government tomorrow. Also we expect that tomorrow earlier scheduled rallies will take place in Naryn, Issykkul, Alay, Aksy and a few other places.

In the last six months the Kyrgyz people have seen that the Bakiyev family is not content with only falsifying parliamentary and presidential elections and limiting all democratic freedoms. We have witnessed the Bakiyev family boldly violating the Constitution and usurping all powers by destroying the whole structure of state governance. The regime has created an unconstitutional “Central Agency" headed by the 32 year old son of the president, Maxim, that was given total control of the economy, leaving the prime minister and cabinet with no viable powers. We even saw Maxim Bakiyev chair meetings where he scolded the prime minister publicly on TV. We saw the scandal of Eugene Gourevitch, the hailed “financial genius of all government downsizing,” turn out to be linked to a grandiose multi-billion dollar Mafia ring. We saw Kyrgyzstan’s main national assets, such as Kyrgyztelecom and the electricity grid Severelectro ‘privatized’ for less then a tenth of their real worth. Finally, the 300 million USD credit given by Russia to deal with the financial crisis was being mismanaged. In fact, this money allegedly was being reinvested by a semi-private entity controlled by Maxim Bakiyev into bank deposits instead of being used by government for purposes of ‘economic development’ as prescribed by the inter-governmental agreement.

So the warning signs were all there. The people’s “Kurultay” of March 17th listed all the points of frustration with the Bakiyev regime and demanded action. Instead, the Bakiyevs turned off Radio Liberty, blocked websites and blogs, and shut down the last independent newspapers and TV channels. Clearly, the Bakiyev regime does not want to engage the people of the country at this point. The government has even periodically turned off Internet access and mobile phone networks today.

S.R.: Ok, so people are dissatisfied with Bakiyev, but are there particular factors that have led to these protests taking place now?

E.B.: There are two factors. The first one informed and influenced the political elite. This was Bakiyev’s attempts to undercut important political actors in the country through politically motivated criminal charges. One of these trials involved former Minister of Defence Ismail Isakov, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for supposedly providing his officer son with an apartment. Another involved former Foreign Affairs Minister Alikbek Djekshenkulov, who was accused both of taking part in the murder of a Turkish businessman and of mismanaging a grant from the Chinese. There are several other cases of political persecution still ongoing. Taken together with the overwhelming evidence that the Bakiyev-operated secret service personnel brutally murdered journalist Gennadiy Pavlyuk in December, these cases proved that the Bakiyev family is not going to tolerate any dissent and wants to run the republic as a medieval khanate.

The second factor that finally ignited mass opposition against the Bakiyevs came with the sharp increase in electricity and utility tariffs. There was also an increase in mobile phone charges. Given that the whole population knows that the Bakiyev family owns these industries, what was already very negative public opinion towards them turned aggressive. Even the last remaining skeptics could not anymore deny that Bakiyev’s government is interested only in maximizing the financial profits of the ruling family, not in serving the national interest.

S.R.: Many people believe that most protests in Kyrgyzstan over the last five years have merely attracted “protestors-for-hire” from various regions, thus representing more the political aspirations of a few oppositionists than a grassroots movement. Are the protests taking place presently in the country any different?

E.B.: We will always hear this criticism in a dirt poor country such as Kyrgyzstan. Yes, unemployment is so high that many people have simply nothing to do and would thankfully accept the ride to go to Bishkek or an oblast center to rally. But given the last three years of Bakiyev’s total intolerance of public dissent - during which people in Nookat, Balykchy, Petrovka and elsewhere received harsh jail terms for taking part in rallies – one cannot suggest that the people protesting in Talas are doing it for easy money. The people have had enough. They know that they cannot expect much from government, but at least before there was a system for channeling public frustration with relative freedom of media and political competition. The Kyrgyz people will not accept authoritarian rule. This is a battle for freedoms. All of us understand that if we lose it this time, we will need to submit to decades of dictatorial rule.

S.R.: What do you think will be the result of these protests? Will it lead to real change, and if so, how?

E.B.: There has been a great deal of soul searching inside the opposition in the last few years. We know that we essentially failed in reaching our objectives in March of 2005. We came to accept the fact that we were mistaken in believing that removing an authoritarian regime is a success by itself. Not only did we not pay close attention to the personality of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, but we largely let him run the country as an authoritarian leader with little consequences. This time, the opposition believes in much more deep reforms from the beginning if Bakiyev is ousted. These would include a complete dismissal of the judiciary and secret service as well as bans on public service for people who took part in violating constitutional freedoms and other measures. We have a program of clear actions that should be established in the first few months of a new ‘people’s’ government - irreversible changes that will provide the track for future development.

S.R.: Ok, so the goal is regime change. But didn't the opposition also say there would be wide-sweeping reforms after March 2005? Is it not likely that a new government that replaces Bakiyev will become a kleptocracy just as that which replaced Akayev did?

E.B.: I would be foolish to promise a modern and transparent democracy over night. The only viable hope is for a lesser kleptocracy, a people-fearing regime that is more or less controlled by a strong system of checks and balances and an active civil society. The struggle for a better future should not and will not stop after a simple regime change. It will require hard work.

S.R.: How should the international community respond to these events?

E.B.: We expect world powers, such as Russia and United States, to express in the strongest language possible that the use of force against peaceful protesters is unacceptable. The Bakiyev family lacks the legitimacy to use force against the people. We expect the OSCE troika chaired by Kazakhstan to meet immediately and send a high profile international mediator delegation to Bishkek. There is no solution to the current situation other then early elections. If the Bakiyev family is so sure of themselves, let them stand the test of a ballot in a free and fair environment.

S.R.: Many see the many political protests in Kyrgyzstan as leading to a political system where protests are the only means to be heard. How do you think the country can end that cycle?

E.B.: This is the situation where any political system will end up after being denied access to public airwaves and parliamentary halls. The Bakiyevs are repeating the mistakes of the Akaevs and will now face the consequences. The Kyrgyz people are resilient, but they cannot take abuse forever. We are standing up to a tyrant once again!

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Information War over the Urumqi Riots and the “Netizens” of China: Are we witnessing the dawn of a new era in Han Chinese nationalism?

Chinese vigilante

Anybody who has recently attended an event where the policies of the Chinese government towards minorities are being criticized has encountered the propaganda shock troops of the new China. They protest nearly every public event involving the Dali Lama in the United States, they established counter-protests against Tibet during the Olympic torch relay last summer, and they were at my talk about the post-9/11 plight of the Uyghurs at Georgetown two years ago. At public events, they protest, hand out pro-China information, and defend China’s minority policies, but they have an even larger presence on the web where they more easily push their agenda using the free speech forum of new media. Look at any article about the events in Urumqi from the last week, and you will see scores of comments from them, noting that these events are purely an unprovoked act of violence by savage Uyghurs. They overwhelm the #urumqi and #xinjiang discussions on twitter. And, they have been diligently attacking any youtube videos of Rabiya Kadeer with deriding comments about her for several years now. Their message is that China is doing everything right for its minorities, and anybody saying otherwise is part of an externally masterminded conspiracy to undermine China’s sovereignty and growing prosperity.

These people are not like the shadowy commentators you see placing incendiary comments on Central Asian or Russian sites most likely at the bequest of the successor organs of the KGB. If this phenomenon was just a conspiracy that emanates from the Chinese state, it would not be so disturbing. Rather, the propaganda shock troops about whom I am talking are regular Chinese citizens. They are also not the most reactionary ones. They are often studying abroad in the west and have been exposed to the world. Still, their commentary suggests that they are extremely patriotic about China, feel misunderstood and wronged by the west, and do not harbor any sympathy for the plight of minorities in China. This is particularly disturbing for the many who have hoped that China would embrace democracy as a new generation of Chinese encountered the outside world. These propaganda shock troops appear to be the new generation, and they do not look like the pro-western liberals that western policies of engagement had foreseen. Instead, they are more like a new Red Guard, reminiscent of student groups during the Cultural Revolution, who want to demonstrate their grassroots support of the state through their computer keyboards instead of waving Mao’s little red book in the air.

I am sure many of my China studies colleagues would cringe to hear me writing about this, feeling that it adds to a growing western “China-bashing” phenomenon. But, please do not misunderstand my point. I am not trying to “essentialize” the Chinese people as narrow-minded, aggressive, and dangerously nationalistic. I do think that there are intelligent and progressive young Han Chinese who are struggling with these issues and are questioning the appropriateness of their state’s policies towards minorities, but such people appear to be in the minority at the moment. Furthermore, I do not blame the people of China for this phenomenon. They have been spoon-fed this growing nationalism by the state ever since Tiananmen.

What may be most worrisome about this trend today, however, is that the PRC itself is starting to recognize these grassroots propagandists for their service to the state. In two recent articles, the China Daily applauded Chinese “netizens” for criticizing western media coverage of the Urumqi riots and for calling for the closure of Facebook in China respectively. Such articles certainly encourage this phenomenon and suggest that the Chinese government supports even its most racist manifestations. It also suggests that the Chinese state refuses to recognize that there might be socio-economic and political reasons for the dissatisfaction that most Uyghurs and Tibetans share with regards to their lives in the PRC.

To put things in perspective, I will agree that these radical Han “netizens” are little different from the American isolationists, racists, and anti-immigrant crusaders we know so well in the United States. Take, for example, the following from an email that one of China’s “netizens” sent me after I had participated in a live Q&A chat on

The reason for the riot and deep resentment among Uighurs toward Han
Chinese is _NOT_ oppression by Chinese government, quite on the
contrary, it is the over pampering national policies to make Uighurs
happy. Small crimes made by Uighurs are often overlooked by Chinese
police, Uighurs get ridiculous advantage in college entrance exams.
Maybe it is hard to believe, but when you have state policies that
treat a small minority group so unfairly _well_, it only makes them
weak. They lose the competitive edge in the business world, there is
little incentive for them to get better. Ignoring the small crimes
like thievery is only going to foster the bigger criminals, like
rapists and murderers.

And this is not only my opinion, it is also shared by many "thoughtful
Chinese" who had lived in XinJiang. I don't use "Chinese
intellectuals" because the true intellectuals are often oppressed and
shut off by the government.

Sound familiar? Replace “Uighur” with “black” or “Mexican” and “Han Chinese” with “white American,” and this statement will look almost indistinguishable from the rhetoric of American opponents of immigrants and affirmative action. Fortunately in the United States, our political system has a degree of self-correction. After eight years of conservatism where such rhetoric was gradually becoming acceptable, we now have our first African-American president and the tide is turning the other way. The Chinese political system does not have quite the same ability to correct its radicalization, and it will likely be a long time until we see a Uyghur leader of the PRC running the country from Beijing. What worries me is that instead of correcting itself, this trend is becoming more pronounced in China. This is also apparent in the emerging debate among Chinese intellectuals about the Urumqi riots, which suggests that China has been too soft on minorities and must be more forceful in its control of restless populations such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans. The populist manifestation of these sentiments is even more frightening as we saw in the Han vigilante groups on the streets of Urumqi this last week.

This alarming trend does not bode well for China’s on-going attempt to ingratiate itself to the international community, and it will only likely exacerbate the problems in Xinjiang as Chinese citizens show an unwillingness to re-evaluate why Uyghurs are so dissatisfied with Chinese rule. There are certainly several different lessons China can learn from this week’s violence in Urumqi. It might choose to view the situation as a state of war in the way that the Israelis have done with the Palestinians (at least one Israeli commentator has drawn this parallel in his empathy for the Chinese), and – as with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the tension in Xinjiang will continue to fester and become even more violent with time. Alternatively, it could heed these events as a sign that things must change in terms of minority rights as the U.S. realized after African-American led riots destroyed cities throughout the country in the late 1960s.

The path China chooses will have important ramifications for the country’s future. I do believe that China can change. I believe that China could empower Uyghurs to have a greater voice in how development proceeds in Xinjiang, including the prospect of real ethnic autonomy. But, as I look at the commentary of Han “netizens” that floods the internet these days, I am worried that such changes are not likely in the near future. Instead, the near future will probably only bring deeper ethnic divides, more frustration among minorities, and – most unfortunately – more bloodshed.

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