While those in charge of propaganda work to intoxicate the country with the image of a “harmonious society” at the behest of party leader Hu Jintao, frequent uprisings in China’s western ethnic provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang have, to the embarrassment of officials, laid bare the lie.
In fact, the intensifying social conflicts in the west have pushed China’s teetering stability to the limit.
Official Chinese media reported that a Tibetan protest on March 14, 2008 resulted in 13 deaths and an economic loss of 200 million yuan (US$29 million). Over the following nine months, numerous other protests broke out in Tibet and surrounding areas.
Neighboring Xinjiang Province experienced street protests on an even larger scale in the capital city of Urumqi on July 5, 2009. Beijing reported a death toll of 175, but overseas Uyghur groups claimed at least 1,500 people died in the clash. At the time, Chinese authorities cut phone and Internet services to the province and tried to keep it isolated from public scrutiny.
No doubt, Beijing is quite concerned over the situations in the two provinces which together cover about one-third of China’s total territory.
The Jan. 18 Fifth Tibetan Work Conference in Beijing, held by the central government, was the largest in history. At the same time, Beijing announced plans to hold the First Central Conference on Xinjiang.
Beijing: increased investment will resolve the crisis
While Tibetan and Uyghur people protest against ethnic discrimination and injustice, Beijing interprets their protests as symptoms of an economic problem and stresses that the solution lies in economic development.
Regime leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao reiterated that the future emphasis in the two provinces will be economy and education. According to Beijing, increasing investment is the way out of its crisis in the west.
Beijing calls its Tibetan strategy “leapfrog development.” Its goal is to push Tibet to leapfrog from a “slave society” to a socialist society. Ye Xiaowen, the former head of China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs is very familiar with the policy.
In one of his articles about Tibetan issues, Ye said the new strategy for ruling Tibet is to “inhibit the growth of the monasteries.” He also wrote that the Tibetan people are still very “primitive,” and that the monasteries have too strong an influence over people in terms of social, political, and cultural issues. By suppressing the monasteries, Ye said, the authorities plan to diminish the Dalai Lama’s influence.
A Tibetan official, who requested anonymity, told the New Epoch Weekly, “This has been Beijing’s strategy for the past two decades. Nothing has changed.”
But many analysts do not believe economic development can solve the problem. Dilshat Reshit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, said that the Uyghur people have not benefited much from Xinjiang’s economic growth over the past two decades, and have been deprived of control over their own local economy.
He said the economic efforts would not help because the roots of the problems in Xinjiang are ethnic, religious, cultural, and political suppression.
“Chinese authorities have been trying to mislead the outside world with its economic focus in order to cover up issues in political and religious areas,” Reshit said. He also pointed out that the economic growth which has taken place has been accompanied with ever-tightening political control.
Data appears to support Reshit’s argument. By 2008 Xinjiang had maintained around 10 percent annual growth for over 10 years. But the economy is dominated by two organizations: the oil industry and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. They accounted for almost 70 percent of Xinjiang’s GDP in 2008 (420 billion yuan or US$61.5 billion). Both are dominated by Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China. Less than one percent of the 40,000 employees of the Xinjiang Petroleum Administration are Uyghurs.
The petroleum industry contributes to over 60 percent of Xinjiang’s economy. Though Xinjiang is one of China’s largest oil-producing provinces, the gas price here is higher than in Shanghai. A Urumqi resident complained that Beijing sacrifices Xinjiang to benefit the much-richer Shanghai.
The Production and Construction Corps is a semi-military governmental organization consisting of 2.5 million people. It occupies about 40 percent of Xinjiang’s farmland, and enjoys monopolies in both cotton and textile production.
“The economic issue in Xinjiang is an immigration issue. Encouraging economic growth means to encourage more Han Chinese to move to Xinjiang,” Reshit said. “It is the outsiders who will eventually benefit from the increased economic investment.”
In Tibet, Beijing invested 90 billion yuan (US$13 billion) between 2001 and 2005, 6.5 times as high as Tibet’s 2001 GDP, and 32,000 yuan (US$4,683) per capita. But the colossal investment did not stop the large-scale protest of 2008.