Wednesday, July 15, 2009

China is now an empire in denial

Gideon Rachman, Financial Times (UK) (7-13-09)

[Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist.]

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it suddenly became obvious that the USSR had never been a proper country. It was a multinational empire held together by force. Might we one day say the same of China?

Of course, any such suggestion is greeted with rage in Beijing. Chinese politicians are modern-minded pragmatists when it comes to economic management. But they revert to Maoist language when questions of territorial integrity are touched upon. Supporters of Taiwanese independence are “splittists”. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, has been described as a “monster with a human face and an animal’s heart”. The Muslim Uighurs who rioted violently last week were denounced as the tools of sinister foreign forces.

According to David Shambaugh, an academic, the main lesson that the Chinese drew from studying the collapse of the USSR was to avoid “dogmatic ideology, entrenched elites, dormant party organisations, and a stagnant economy”.

It is an impressive list. But it misses out one obvious thing. The Soviet Union ultimately fell apart because of pressure from its different nationalities. In 1991, the USSR split up into its constituent republics.

Of course, the parallels are not exact. Ethnic Russians made up just over half the population of the USSR. The Han Chinese are over 92 per cent of the population of China. Yet Tibet and Xinjiang are exceptions. Some 90 per cent of the population of Tibet are still ethnic Tibetans. The Uighurs make up just under half the population of Xinjiang. Neither area is comfortably integrated into the rest of the country – to put it mildly. Last week’s riots in Xinjiang led to the deaths of more than 180 people, the bloodiest known civil disturbance in China since Tiananmen Square in 1989. There were also serious disturbances in Tibet just before last year’s Olympics.

In a country of more than 1.3bn people, the 2.6m in Tibet and the 20m in Xinjiang sound insignificant. But together they account for about a third of China’s land mass – and for a large proportion of its inadequate reserves of oil and gas. Just as the Russians fear Chinese influence over Siberia, so the Chinese fear that Muslim Xinjiang could drift off into Central Asia...

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