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World: Analysis From Washington: The Impact Of An Unstable China

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 18 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Beijing has been worried about the possible impact on China of instability in Russia and the newly independent states of Central Asia.

Now, ethnic assertiveness in Xinjiang, protests by Chinese workers displaced as a result of economic reforms, and a series of natural disasters in China have given those states a reason to be concerned about instability in their giant Asian neighbor.

There are good reasons to think that these fears may be overblown. But the eerie parallels between what happened in the USSR a decade ago and what is happening in China today are likely to affect the foreign and domestic policies of these countries.

First of all, like the Soviet authorities, the Chinese government faces a mounting tide of ethnic assertiveness, but in contrast to the USSR, the Chinese authorities have to cope with a situation in which only four percent of their population is non-Han Chinese.

Over the last year, Uighur nationalists in Xinjiang have stepped up their campaign for autonomy and independence. Clashes between the Muslim Uighurs and the Chinese authorities have reportedly resulted in numerous deaths, and Chinese officials have executed several Uighur activists for seeking to split off the region from China.

That conditions in Xinjiang may now be getting worse is suggested by a Chinese newspaper report a week ago that the local Communist Party chief there had called for an expanded campaign against Uighur separatism.

Wang Lequan said that the authorities must step up their propaganda offensive but also not be afraid to use force against the Uighurs. "We must soberly realize that enemy activities are still very serious," Wang said. And consequently, he said, the Chinese must "increase the force of our attacks" against them.

Such a combination of propaganda and force is unlikely to give Beijing a final victory over the independent-minded Uighurs. But it may allow the Chinese government to contain the relatively small Uighur nation in the future in much the same way as such measures have worked in the past.

Second, like the Soviet authorities, Beijing must contend with the working class protests against the displacement of workers as the result of economic reforms. But unlike the USSR, China has maintained tight control of the media thus limiting the impact of any protests and has shown itself far from squeamish about using force against any protesters.

This week, reports reached the West that hundreds if not thousands of workers in China's southwestern province of Sichuan had marched to protest the closing of the silk factory in which they worked. Reports that the demonstration had resulted in violence and that the authorities had ordered local hospitals not to treat the victims could not be independently confirmed and were denied by Beijing.

Despite these denials, there has been an increasing drumbeat of labor unrest in China as the shift toward a market economy in some industries has led to the closing or downsizing of unprofitable plants. And the Beijing government has repeatedly indicated that finding new jobs for those displaced is one of its major goals.

But again, Chinese control of the media and willingness to use force suggests that Beijing may be more effective at least for a time in containing labor discontent than was the Soviet government under Mikhail Gorbachev.

And third, like the Soviet authorities, the Chinese government now faces a series of natural disasters with potential political implications. But unlike the Soviet government, Beijing has not tried to deny the existence of these problems but rather sought to involve the population in overcoming them.

On Thursday, Chinese Vice Premier Jiang Chunyun publicly warned local officials that they must prepare for what he told the Xinhua Daily might be "a year of disasters" because of the droughts and floods that now threaten crops in much of the country.

To the extent that these natural disasters lead to food shortages, they could produce a political crisis in the country. But Beijing's effort to get out in front on such issues, acknowledging the problems in advance, stand in sharp contrast to Gorbachev's pattern of denying or downplaying disasters until others forced him to speak out.

But even if China's problems do not point to the kind of breakdown that overtook the Soviet Union, these indications of instability there will affect the thinking of leaders in the Russian Federation and the countries of Central Asia.

On the one hand, they are likely to be even more cautious in their dealings with China and China's regions lest they be accused of being provocative. Most Central Asian countries, for example, have already indicated that they will not serve as bases for Uighur national movement.

But on the other, these countries are likely to view the Chinese government's use of media control and force against opposition as possibly instructive for themselves. The decision of the relatively open Kyrgyz government to arrest several outspoken journalists is one indication that the successful use of such techniques by the Chinese may encourage others.

The possibility of instability in China will cast a powerful shadow over the region as a whole even if Beijing for the time being is capable of containing it.
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