The monolith of China is showing its splinters. What is probably the worst ethnic violence in the Muslim-populated province of Xinjiang in decades comes only a year after Tibet was wracked by similar riots. What probably worries Beijing even more is that much of this is being aggravated by a steep rise in unemployment as the Chinese export machine stutters from lack of demand. And the latter is a problem that will, eventually, translate into the sort of industrial unrest that beset the country in the early 1990s.
The Chinese state is hardly in danger of collapse. The Muslim Uighur population is a minority of less than 10 million and China has maintained an overwhelming military presence in its northwest for decades. Despite the Chinese government’s claims, there is no evidence that the Uighur attacks on members of the Han Chinese majority were motivated by militant Islam or a terrorist group. It is noticeable the authorities have been quick to arrest a Chinese worker and charge him with spreading false internet rumours of Uighur attacks on Han women, rumours that are believed to have sparked the recent conflagration.
China’s ruling party might consider this latest outburst of ethnic violence to introspect about the future of its ruling model. Beijing has been outwardly successful in developing a polity whereby citizens are compensated for a loss of political rights with economic prosperity. But this comes under stress when the economy is doing poorly and the regime’s legitimacy itself comes under question. This lack of political space is doubly suffocating for the country’s minority members. Beijing’s leadership has publicly debated the idea of opening a window to let in some democratic air — giving media and civil society a freer hand — but loses its nerve when a crisis breaks out. Though there are limits to how applicable it may be in a one-party system, China may want to consider the lessons India has drawn from decades of handling its many social fissures and cracks. Namely, that the best way to keep a nation stable is to loosen the straitjacket of the State. Unfortunately, the instinct of Beijing has been to do exactly the opposite. China will now wield a mailed glove against the Uighurs, produce an artificial quiet and move on — but this will never address the core reasons underlying this and other unrest in the country.