After scolding the West for interfering in the internal affairs of Iran, Beijing's public relations department will now be on the defensive following riots in Urumqi, the capital of the westernmost region of Xinjiang. Chinese state media has admitted that 140 people have been killed and almost 1,000 arrested. Hundreds had taken to the streets to protest the local government's handling of a clash between Han Chinese and Uighur factory workers in far southern China in late June, in which two Uighurs died. The police responded to the rallies with force, claiming that the unrest was the work of extremist forces abroad and that a heavy reaction was necessary to bring the situation under control.
Given the region's population of 20 million — barely 1.5 percent of the country's people — many are wondering: Why has Beijing taken such a hard line in Xinjiang? The reason is summed up in one of the ruling party's favorite mantras: "stability of state." Unrest of even a small magnitude, the Chinese authorities believe, can spell big consequences if it spirals out of control.
Instability of the sort in Xinjiang today is hardly new for China. Behind Shanghai's glamour and the magnificence of Beijing, there are large swaths of disunity and disorder. Taiwan, which mainland China still claims as its own, remains recalcitrant and effectively autonomous. Residents of Hong Kong want guarantees that Beijing will not dismantle the rights they enjoyed under British colonial rule. And traditional Tibetans, who fear a complete political and religious takeover by the ethnically Han majority, want cultural and administrative autonomy — even if most have abandoned hopes of achieving outright secession. Many of the 10 million Uighurs in Xinjiang want the same. The current violence is just the latest manifestation of their simmering anger.
There is widespread disorder even in provinces that pose no challenge to Beijing's right to rule. In 2005, for example, there were 87,000 officially recorded instances of unrest (defined as those involving 15 or more people) — up from just a few thousand incidents a decade ago. Most protests are overwhelmingly spontaneous rather than political; they arise out of frustration among the 1 billion or so "have-nots" who deal with illegal taxes, land grabs, corrupt officials, and so on. To deal with the strife, Beijing has built up a People's Armed Police of some 800,000 and written several Ph.D.-length manuals to counsel officials on how to manage protests. Those documents detail options to deal with protest leaders: namely the tactical use of permissiveness and repression, and compromise and coercion, on a case-by-case basis. The tactics are designed to take the fuel out of the fire. Sometimes leaders of protests are taken away; other times they are paid off; still other times they are given what they want.
Much of this is done quietly, which is perhaps why the current riots stand out. When it comes to what Beijing sees as separatist behavior, subtlety is no longer an option. Although their populations are relatively small, Xinjiang and Tibet together constitute one third of the Chinese land mass, and Beijing will not tolerate losing control over these territories. To be sure, the protesters in Urumqi and their supporters cannot spark an uprising throughout China. The protests will eventually be quelled, and their leaders will no doubt be dealt with brutally. But as the history of the Chinese Communist Party tells us, when the regime's moral and political legitimacy is threatened, the leadership almost always chooses to take a hard, uncompromising line.
President Hu Jintao, who incidentally earned early brownie points within the party by leading a crackdown of political dissidents in Tibet in 1989, understands better than anyone that authoritarian regimes appear weak at their own peril. Losing face, he believes, will only embolden the "enemies of the state." The Communist Party's Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which is chaired by Hu, has often spoken warily about the democratic "viruses" behind the "color revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia, and perhaps eventually Iran — the same kind that could conceivably take root in places such as Xinjiang and Tibet. This is why Chinese authorities are deeply suspicious of any group with loyalties that might transcend the state and regime or at least cannot be easily controlled by the state, such as the Falun Gong, Catholics, or independent trade unions.
It's important to remember that, at home, the government's hard line is not wholly unpopular. Most Chinese do not support the separatist agendas of Tibet, Xinjiang, or Taiwan. They would rather see a strong and unified China restored to historic glory. No wonder then that the Chinese state media has been quite upfront about reporting on the current unrest in Urumqi.
Chinese leaders learned much about control in their extensive studies of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their conclusion is clear: It was Mikhail Gorbachev's ill-fated attempts to be reasonable that brought down that empire. The current generation of Chinese leaders is determined not to make the same mistake. And that means no compromise in Xianjiang.