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China: Analysis From Washington: Racism, Power, And Human Rights

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Chinese government has launched a drive to expel Muslims from Beijing, a move that has attracted far less notice than other violations of human rights there but one that may trigger more ethnic unrest across China.

On the one hand, as events in Moscow have demonstrated, the international community typically devotes less attention to moves against an entire ethnic or religious group than to government moves against particular individuals -- especially when a large and powerful country is involved.

But on the other, and again as events in the Russian Federation have shown, the expulsion of an ethnic community from a national capital may exacerbate existing ethnic tensions rather than help in resolving them. Earlier this week, Beijing officials took a step they have resisted for some time. They began to destroy a Muslim neighborhood in the Chinese capital. Known popularly as "Xinjiang Village," most of its residents are ethnic Uighurs who have fled their native region of Xinjiang to seek work in central China.

Despite efforts by Chinese officials to portray this move as an exercise in urban renewal in advance of the commemoration of 50 years of communism there, the authorities did what they could to block Western reporters from covering the beginnings of an expulsion that could involve up to one million people over the next several years.

In taking a step which violates numerous human rights conventions, Beijing may be able to count on the support of the majority Han Chinese. Many of them believe the Uighurs are a source of crime and unemployment in their capital and have complained that the Uighurs are overcharging Chinese in public markets.

But the authorities failed to convince the Uighurs that the move was not directed against them as an ethnic and religious community. One of the Uighurs who will be displaced was reported to have said: "The truth is that they just don't want a Xinjiang village in Beijing."

These Uighurs know even if the broader world does not that Beijing has staged a broad and often violent crackdown against Uighur nationalism in Xinjiang. And they also know that if they are forced out of the Chinese capital, they may have nowhere to go but back to that region where their anger may lead to new conflicts.

Paradoxically, even as they have taken these steps, the Beijing authorities now appear very concerned about Western charges that China is violating human rights in other areas. Indeed, China's rounding up of pro-democracy activists has sparked demands in both Europe and the United States for a hard line on China at the United Nations this year.

To head this off, China's Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Yingfan on Tuesday met with a European Union delegation in Beijing to ask them not to back a resolution condemning China at the annual United Nations Human Rights Commission session scheduled to begin next week in Geneva.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said Beijing hoped that "the EU can proceed from the overall situation of the bilateral relations, value the momentum in the field of human rights, continue its independent policy and not revert to the old road of confrontation."

But even as they make these efforts -- and both President Jiang Zemin and Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan are expected to continue them during European visits this week and next -- the Beijing authorities appear confident that they may be able to escape criticism for what they are doing against China's Uighur population. One reason for their confidence on that score may be the general lack of international reaction to a similar effort to expel an ethnic group from the Russian capital in 1993.

Following the clash between President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament in October of that year, Moscows Mayor Yuri Luzhkov issued a decree calling for the expulsion from the Russian capital of "persons of Caucasian nationality."

That decree remains in force and has led to the harassment of all those in the Russian capital who look as if they come from the Caucasus and to the expulsion of those unable to prove that they have a right to be there.

But if the Chinese are in fact looking to the Russian model in terms of international reaction, they appear to be neglecting another and potentially more serious consequence of Luzhkov's decree.

Not only has Luzhkov's decree contributed to a significant deterioration in relations between ethnic Russians and Muslim groups inside the Russian Federation, it also played a major role in intensifying the conflict in Chechnya.