Margaret Scott

An Old Problem on China’s New Frontier

In the short and medium term, China’s rule in Xinjiang (and Tibet) seems secure: the international community will not challenge a Security Council member state. In the longer term, however, the Chinese authorities have every reason to be worried, because political maps are never carved in stone.

WARSAW – Had the August 1991 putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev not failed, the riots and death recently seen in Xinjiang could have been taking place in Russia. Instead of hearing about a crackdown in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, we might be reading about hundreds killed on the streets of Almaty, and columnists would be making comparisons to the bloody crushing of Ukrainian independence demonstrations in Lvov the previous year.

As with China today, there would have been some feeble international condemnation, and some speculation about possible links between Kazakh militants and exile groups, or Islamic fundamentalists. Experts would remind us that Kazakhstan had never been a country, and that Ukrainian claims to independence are historically dubious. Substitute Xinjiang for Kazakhstan and Tibet for Ukraine and you get the picture.

But that putsch, thankfully, ended as a farce. The decaying Soviet regime was unable to crush Russia’s growing democratic movement – it would take Vladimir Putin to do that a decade later. By opting for the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Chinese Communist leadership set their country on a road starkly different from the one on which Russia subsequently embarked.

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