The line on the Xinjiang disturbances from the Chinese government, whilst initially dabbling with a condemnation of terrorism, has coalesced around the narrative of ‘foreign forces’ interfering with China and the ‘three evils’ of ‘separatism’, ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’, just as it did after last year’s riots in Tibet. Just as with last year’s events ‘evidence’ has been produced showing how the entire thing was organised by the World Uyghur Congress, of which Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uyghur businesswoman, is the head. The evidence produced so far would seem to point to the WUC having communicated with people in Xinjiang before the initial demonstrations and encouraged them. Whilst I’m sure this will convince a lot of people in China, at least to the extent that the government can convince people of anything, there is an obvious difference between ‘demonstrations’ and ‘violent riots leading to the deaths of innocent people’ , more to the point, large scale demonstrations (such as in 1997) have taken place without any foreign involvement whatsoever.
In fact, there’s good reason to doubt that exiled movements can have that much of an impact on circumstances within a dictatorship. Whilst the Tibetan devotees of lamaist Buddhism continue to follow and obey the current Dalai Lama, he owes much of his influence (as did Khomeini pre-1979) on his position as a religious leader. In contrast, the student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen protests are nowadays either unknown or largely reviled within China. When ethnic-Uyghur 1989 student leader and “China’s second most wanted” Wu’er Kaixi (for some reason he prefers to use his Uighur name as transcribed in Chinese characters) attempted to return to the mainland last year he was refused entry. Some might ascribe this to the desire to avoid giving him a public platform or to avoid an open breach with Taiwan where he has now taken up citizenship, but given the way such trials take place in secret another explanation presents itself – that he is more useful to the Chinese authorities where he is.
It is exceedingly easy for a dictatorial government to smear a person as being a foreign puppet when their first move on being pushed into exile is to go directly to a country which is a hated enemy and rely on funding from either the government of that country or from an NGO (such as the NED) which may or may not receive government funding, and provides grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists. The fact that these people did not choose to go into exile, that few countries would allow them entry, and that they had no resources to rely on in that country, are not communicated to public. Even those exiles who decide to avoid politics may still be useful in government propaganda. 1989 student leader Chai Ling now runs a software firm in the US with her husband, and has enjoyed a level of success not unexpected for someone who got into one of China’s top universities. Pro-government commenters nowadays emphasise her enrichment in the US and abandonment of the democracy movement.
Even where an anti-government movement gains traction inside a dictatorship, this is often little to do with the efforts of exiles. As Chinese exile Wan Runnan wrote about a visit to Poland after the fall of communism there:
“we asked Solidarity Union friends a stupid question: When the Polish military government began suppression, a number of dissidents went into exile overseas. What did these people do in the latter changes inside Poland? They replied without any pause: Nothing whatsoever. Then they sensed our embarrassment and consoled us: “Those exiles served some purpose because they gave us some fax machines and stuff.” . . . . I was aware of the effect of overseas democratic movement very early on. I met Dai Qing (戴晴) overseas and she said: “You do not have a place in the future change in China.” I replied: Yes. The change in China is like a chemical reaction with reagents and products. We are just the temperature, pressure and catalyst that bring about this chemical reaction and we do not have a position in the final product.”
Recent events in Xinjiang show the truth of this, whilst it is possible that the Rebiya Kadeer and the WUC were the driving force behind the demonstrations, all the evidence that we have shows that the initial demonstrations were carried out by university students organised by their lecturers. Whilst it is impossible for me to confirm this, a long-time Xinjiang resident friend of mine described the subsequent riots as being the work of “scumbags from outlying areas who move to Urumqi after being slung out of their towns and villages”. The fact that the demonstrations took place in Urumqi only would also point to the WUC not actually being the driving force of these demonstrations, subsequent demonstrations at other towns appear to have been in response to the crackdown, especially the closing of mosques. Should the Iranian government succeed in running Mousavi overseas a similar dynamic is likely to take over.
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