The recent race rioting in Xinjiang has once again revealed the consequences of denying civil rights to people throughout China. While it is clear that neither the Beijing government nor the regional authorities in Xinjiang actually sparked the recent round of bloodletting the Communist party-state is certainly responsible for creating circumstances in which such disorders are all but inevitable.
After many struggles and much strife Xinjiang was annexed by China in 1884 and has been under the continuous rule of Beijing since 1949 when the Communist Party came to power. Since then the Han Chinese population of Xinjiang has grown from six per cent to around fifty per cent; a clear majority of the population of Urumqi, the province’s thriving modern capital, are now Han Chinese. The government has also recently announced plans for the demolition and rebuilding of the province’s second city, Kashgar; this will, in the prevailing circumstances, inevitably increase the size of Kashgar’s Han Chinese population. The region’s native population of Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking peoples are now a minority in their own land; Beijing’s policy of promoting Han Chinese immigration is decisively changing the demographic structure of what many Uighurs continue to think of as East Turkistan or Uighurstan.
The party-state’s policy has been accompanied by the introduction of Mandarin as the language of instruction in the schools, the dismissal of Uighur teachers, and their replacement by Han Chinese. Uighur Muslim weddings and pilgrimages have been banned and children are prohibited from entering Mosques or places of religious instruction. The repression of Uighur religious practice and particularly of their language is key to the unrest because getting a good job depends upon speaking Mandarin, and access to public sector jobs and to the party-state’s apparatus depends upon both speaking Mandarin and rejecting any specific Uighur or Islamic identity. Xinjiang’s Party Secretary, Wang Lequan, emphasised the party-state’s position on demographic and cultural domination when he said in 2002 that the Uighur language was “out of step with the 21st century”.
Without linguistic and religious freedom within a territory directly controlled by the party-state the Uighurs have no other channels for the redress of grievances or protest other than rioting or what the Ministry of Public Security calls “mass incidents” or “public order disturbances”. In this they are, ironically, in exactly the same position as the billion or so Han Chinese in Xinjiang and throughout the rest of China.
The absence of the rule of law within the party-state means that the enforcement of contracts, the determination of property rights, the decisions of judges, the investigation of murders and other crimes, compensation for industrial accidents, the arbitration of labour disputes, or access to health services, housing, or education are all in the hands of around sixty million Communist Party members and party-state officials. Chinese people are simply unable to seek redress or to resolve problems except through the good offices of Party members and officials.
This is why there are some 80,000 “mass incidents” or “public order disturbances” every year in China – and this number seems to be on the increase. Without trustworthy courts, enforceable contracts, or free trade unions the Chinese people (including those belonging to the fifty or so national minorities) have no outlet other than rioting and violent outbursts against the decisions and actions of party-state officials. Even when the official trade union congress, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) promotes the unionisation of those working for foreign companies like Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, it is simply to improve the Party’s surveillance and supervision of the company in question, not to protect the wages and conditions of the workers. In fact, every attempt to form genuine free trade unions that put the interests of their members before those of Party officials has been met with repression. Trade union or labour organisations independent of the Communist party-state are routinely denounced as “reactionary” and as enemies of China’s “harmonious society”.
Democracy in the form of elections or of an explicitly consensual form of government is an extremely abstract concept in these circumstances. Slogans like “Free Tibet” or “Democracy Now” are really worthless. What is actually needed is the building up of the elementary or fundamental prerequisite for democracy: the rule of law. Enforceable contracts; the full right of peasants and workers to buy and sell land, houses and flats, courts that make decisions according to law rather than according to political exigency or to the private interests of Communist officials; equal access of health services and to education regardless of residency qualification or ethnicity, and trade unions which are independent of both the employers and the Communist Party. All these must be won before there can be any possibility of freely elected national and local governments in China or genuine autonomy for her national minorities.
If the Communist Party refuses to participate in the development of courts and other institutions which are genuinely independent of the party-state bureaucracy then it will condemn China to an endless cycle of riots and repression which will undermine economic development and growing prosperity, the two things that have legitimated its rule since the death of Mao Zedong. This is the paradox facing the CPC: its future existence depends entirely upon its capacity to promote the development of civil society and the gradual dissolution of the party-state.
- See the China Labour Bulletin for more on the struggle for free trade unions in China.