An Old Problem on China’s New Frontier

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.

Though China’s policies have brought about Pinochet-style economic growth, if on the scale of a country that is almost a continent unto itself, they have also ensured that there is in no freedom for anyone, including the Han majority. This, in turn, means that, while Kazakhstan and Ukraine are independent, Tibet and Xinjiang alternate between phases of violent agitation and bloody repression.