The rioting in Xinjiang last week echoed violence in Tibet last year but, interestingly, the international reaction has been very different.
Last year, Western countries put pressure on Beijing to hold a dialogue with representatives of the Dalai Lama, with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France even threatening to boycott the Beijing Olympics if China refused. Beijing’s protestations that Tibet was an internal Chinese affair were disregarded.
This time, however, the Western response is muted. The United States has adopted a mild tone with President Barack Obama merely calling on all parties “in Xinjiang to exercise restraint.”
The European Union has gone even further, taking the position that violence in Xinjiang “is a Chinese issue, not a European issue.” Ambassador Serge Abou, head of the European Commission Delegation to China, said Europe also had its problems with minorities and “we would not like other governments to tell us what is to be done.”
While there are similarities between events last year in Tibet and in Xinjiang this month, the world has changed: China is now seen as an indispensable partner of the U.S. and Europe, which are facing a financial crisis. Beijing’s diplomatic assistance in resolving the Iran and North Korean nuclear issues is also seen as too important to put in jeopardy.
What reaction there has been came mainly from Muslim countries. The Saudi-based Organization of the Islamic Conference, which represents 57 Muslim countries, condemned what it called the excessive use of force against Uighur civilians. At least 184 people died in the violence, both Uighurs and Han Chinese.
The statement declared: “The Islamic world is expecting from China, a major and responsible power in the world arena with historical friendly relations with the Muslim world, to deal with the problem of Muslim minority in China in broader perspective that tackles the root-causes of the problem.”
The country that has taken the strongest position is Turkey, whose people share linguistic, religious and cultural links with the Uighurs. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan actually went so far as to characterize what has happened as “a kind of genocide” and said his country would bring the matter up in the U.N. Security Council.
Since then, Chin’s foreign minister has spoken on the telephone with his Turkish counterpart and apparently invited Turkey to send journalists to Xinjiang. This would be good if the journalists were allowed not only into Urumqi but to other areas as well, such as Kashgar, where foreign journalists are barred.
While Indonesian Muslims have voiced support for the Uighurs, with about 100 attending a mass prayer session in Jakarta on Sunday, the government itself has not taken a position, even though Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country.
One problem for the Uighurs is that the world at large knows little about them. Events of the last week have served to publicize their cause. Hitherto, publicity on Uighurs has focused on the 22 who were held by the U.S. in Guantanamo, but a link to terrorist suspects is not likely to gain them public support.
Rebiya Kadeer, the U.S.-based Uighur activist accused by Chinese officials of instigating the violence, is seeking American support for her cause and has urged the U.S. to open a consulate in Urumqi. This, she said, “would be a clear signal that the U.S. is not indifferent to the oppression of my people.” China has denied a request for an American consulate in Tibet and is unlikely to allow one in Xinjiang.
The Urumqi events were followed by demonstrations, mostly by ethnic Uighurs around the world. Eggs were hurled at the Chinese consulate general in Los Angeles, while the one in Munich, headquarters of the World Uighurs Congress, was attacked by homemade gasoline bombs. Kadeer is president of the WUC.
Demonstrations were also held in Turkey, the Netherlands, Norway, Australia, Japan and Sweden. Kadeer herself led a protest march in Washington to the Chinese embassy.
Currently the Uighurs lack a charismatic figure like the Dalai Lama to lead them. But China, perhaps unwittingly, may provide the solution. It is likening her to the Dalai Lama, saying they are both “separatists.” The People’s Daily has actually called her the “Uighur Dalai Lama” and warned the Nobel Committee not to award her the Peace Prize.
Beijing may not realize it, but likening her to the Dalai Lama may actually win her supporters in the West.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.