China’s police-state

John Chan |

The Chinese regime’s ongoing police-military suppression of unrest in the north-western province of Xinjiang has created international tensions. While the US and other Western powers have largely remained silent, concerned that social and political instability in China could endanger the global economy, Turkey has stepped up its condemnations of China while Islamic extremists have threatened to attack Chinese interests overseas.


Beijing’s deployment of more than 20,000 heavily-armed troops to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, may have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of members of the Uighur minority. So far the official death toll is 192 (mostly Han civilians killed by Uighur rioters), with 1,721 wounded, and 331 shops and 627 vehicles burned. More than 1,400 people have been arrested.


The response of the security forces to any sign of resistance has been ruthless, in order to intimidate any opposition, especially from the working class. On Monday, soldiers shot and killed two Uighurs and wounded a third. While the Chinese authorities claimed that the shooting was necessary to prevent a crime, Zhang Ming, a construction worker at a nearby building site told the Associated Press (AP) that he saw three men with knives and sticks attack a group of paramilitary police officers, who then chased them, beat and shot them.


AP reported: “Photos show one policemen raising his rifle to strike a man. Lying at their feet, the man, who was wearing a blue shirt, had blood on his right leg. Police quickly formed a ring around him and raised their guns skyward towards surrounding buildings as if worried about retaliation. An armoured personnel carrier and paramilitary police arrived, and police waved their guns and shouted for people to get off the streets.”


Yesterday, the local chief prosecutor Hamsi Mamuti declared that new arrest warrants would soon be issued and threatened to “severely punish” the so-called violent elements involved in the protests. This threat of a new wave of arrests, which came after Xinjiang Communist Party secretary Wang Lequan had declared that most suspects had been arrested already, has created a tense atmosphere.


According to the AP report: “The fear of arrest was almost palpable in Uighur neighbourhoods, unlike last week when many agitated residents were eager to talk to foreign journalists… Small groups of paramilitary police gripping assault rifles with bayonets stood on special platforms on busy street corners and sidewalks Thursday in Uighur neighborhoods. They used metal barricades with spikes to block the main road into the biggest Uighur district of Er Dao Qiao.”


Foreign reporters have to wear photo identity cards and are not allowed to photograph the thousands of troops guarding the city. The Internet has not been restored since it was cut during the initial July 5 riots and journalists can still only file reports from the government-run media centre.


Far from resolving the ethnic and social tensions in Xinjiang, Beijing’s heavy-handed methods can only deepen the alienation among the oppressed minorities.


The virtual collective silence of the major Western powers indicates that they approve China’s police-state measures, despite small protests by Uighur groups outside Chinese embassies in Europe, North America and Australia.


Responding to the killing of two Uighurs on Monday, the US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly merely said: “As they [the Chinese authorities] work to restore order, we believe that it’s important that they respect the legal rights of all Chinese citizens.”


Beijing criticised Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday over his comment last week that the Chinese repression was “like genocide”. He even threatened to take China to the UN Security Council over the issue.


Erdogan’s remarks inflamed a wave of anti-Chinese protests on the basis of pan-Turkic nationalism, which views Xinjiang or East Turkestan as an ancestral homeland for the Turks for over 1,500 years. In Istanbul on July 12, about 5,000 people turned out, holding Turkish flags and the flags of the short-lived East Turkestan republic that broke away from China in the 1930s. They called for a boycott of Chinese-made goods, a proposal made by Turkish industry and trade minister Nihat Ergun last week.


Turkey is an important base for exiled Uighur activists. The ideological components of pan-Turkic nationalism reflect the ambitions of the Turkish bourgeoisie to expand its political and economic influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, especially in the Turkic-speaking states like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan that were established after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991.


While the Chinese government had not formally protested against Turkey, the state-controlled media has invoked Turkey’s own record of ruthlessly suppressing Kurdish separatist movements, including its military incursion into northern Iraq in 2007.


China Daily on Tuesday demanded that Erdogan withdraw his genocide remarks as “irresponsible and groundless”. The People’s Daily on July 14 reported that patriotic Internet users, a layer of middle-class nationalists cultivated by the Chinese regime, “feel insulted by Turkish actions and suggested that China should change its attitude towards the Kurdish Workers Party and support their appeal for independence, so as to make Turkey pay a heavy political price”.


The state media’s accusations of “biased and twisted” reporting by Western journalists has also mobilised Chinese patriotic “angry youth” for xenophobic attacks. The web site of the Turkish embassy in China was hacked earlier this week to post a letter warning Turkey not to interfere with China’s internal affairs.


The Turkish-based English daily, Hurriyet, warned on July 10 that Ankara’s support for Uighur nationalists would offend not only China, but its ally, Russia, which shares Beijing’s interests in suppressing separatist insurgencies in Central Asia. “If Turkey were to go beyond calls to respect human rights in the region, and appear to be supporting Uighur separatism, it is clear that this will rebound with China referring to the Kurdish issue and minority rights in this country,” the Hurriyet noted.


The Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement stressing its respect for China’s territorial integrity and denying any intention of interfering in Beijing’s internal affairs. “We expect China to provide the necessary environment of peace and security for Uighurs who constitute a bridge of friendship between China and Turkey,” it said.


Turkey is not in a position to challenge Russian and Chinese influence in the region. Russia and the four Central Asian member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) have publicly supported China’s actions in Xinjiang. Beijing also secured support from the two largest predominantly Muslim countries in Asia–Pakistan and Indonesia–which described its conduct as an “internal affair”.



The most reactionary response came from Algerian-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which called for attacks on the 50,000 Chinese workers in the country and Chinese personnel across northwest Africa. Three weeks ago, the group ambushed a convoy of Algerian security forces protecting Chinese engineers, killing 24 Algerians.



AQIM’s statement has been exploited by the Chinese regime to justify its claims that the Xinjiang protests were instigated by “three forces”–extremism, terrorism and separatism–from abroad. The state-run media has been saturated with reports linking the term “terror” to exiled leaders like Rebiya Kadeer in order to justify Beijing’s heavy-handed measures.


While groups like the US Congress-financed World Uighur Congress headed by Rebiya could be instigating protests as a means of pressuring Beijing for concessions, the protests are an expression of pent-up anger over ethnic discrimination, and above all, the deepening social inequality created by the intensifying capitalist exploitation in Xinjiang and other parts of China.


According to a Financial Times article on July 10, the income gap between the Uighur rural poor and Han urban residents in Xinjiang widened from 2.1 times in 1980 to 3.24 times in 2007. Southern Xinjiang, where more than 90 percent are Uighurs, is falling even further behind. The average income gap between the richest northern county and the poorest in the south was 6.28 times in 2005. It is obvious that Beijing’s push for oil and gas in Xinjiang and Central Asia has had little benefit for the Uighur masses, only a tiny Uighur elite connected with the Chinese Communist Party regime.


The Financial Times noted: “Xinjiang’s Blue Book, the government document measuring social and economic progress, warns that social problems give rise to a ‘severe threat’ of separatism and religious radicalism. The Communist party’s response is to speed up the attempt to transform Xinjiang into something more like the rest of China”. That means extending the cheap labour supply for employers in the industrially developed provinces.


The Xinhua news agency reported on July 15 that Xinjiang had exported 1.87 million “surplus agricultural labourers” in 2008–many of them poor nomads and farmers-turned workers in the busy assembly lines of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province. A local manager at Huizhou told the agency that compared to other migrants, Xinjiang workers were “more hardworking and durable, with strong working discipline, very responsible and very stable”.


The Chinese authorities are forcing poor minorities to work as cheap labour for ruthless sweatshop owners. According to the New York Times yesterday, Uighur poor in and around the city of Kashgar were told to join the exodus to the east or face a penalty of up to six months’ income. Abdul, whose 18-year-old sister is being recruited for a factory in Guangzhou, explained: “If asked, most people will go, because no one can afford the penalty.”


At the Hong Kong-owned Early Light Toy Factory in Shaoguang, the introduction of 800 Uighur workers, amid rising local unemployment, led to a brawl in which two Uighurs were bashed to death last month. It was this incident that directly ignited the protests in Urumqi, thousands of kilometres away.