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The lion is trembling

Publication Date : 08-05-2014


While he was a prisoner of the British on the tiny island of St Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Emperor, would have said Quand la chine s’ eveillera, le monde tremblera (when China will wake up, the world will tremble).

Recently, on arriving in Paris to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with France, President Xi Jinping quoted Bonaparte. But, in the presence of President Francois Hollande, he slightly modified Bonaparte’s words: “Today, the Lion has woken up. But it is a peaceful, pleasant and civilised lion.”

China may be a sweet lion, but these days, it appears to be a trembling big cat too. Xinhua reported that Xi Jinping mentioned the word ‘anti-terrorism’ in no less than six speeches within the last two months. On 25 April, during a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, Xi spoke of the importance of safeguarding national security and social stability “in the face of the new situation and new challenges.” The party’s General Secretary had earlier mentioned several times the ‘T’ word. Xi told his 24 Politburo colleagues: “We must soberly pay attention to the increasing threats and challenges to national security and social stability under the new situation.”

He then added: “The fight against terrorism matters for national security, for the vital interests of the masses, and for the overall situation of reform, development and stability. It is a battle to defend our national unity, social stability, and people’s happiness. We must take decisive measures.” Xi also asserted that China should “resolutely crack down on terrorism and secessionism.”

Already on 2 March, soon after the stabbing incident at Kunming’s railway station in which 30 innocent passengers were killed, presumably by Uyghur separatists, Xi Jinping asked the party “to understand deeply the seriousness and complexity of the anti-terrorism situation and take effective measures to crack down resolutely on violent and terrorist criminal activities.” Two days later, as President Xi Jinping met some ‘minority ethnic groups’, he told them: “We must resolutely punish and battle violent terrorist activities according to the law, and we must build an impregnable fortress of ethnic solidarity, social stability, and national unity.”

The same day, Xi had a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to whom he reiterated China’s willingness to maintain and strengthen anti-terrorist cooperation with Russia.

A website affiliated to the Wall Street Journal, Chinarealtime quotes the official People’s Daily as saying it is not six but 15 times that Xi has stressed China’s anti-terrorism efforts. Whether it is six or 15 times is secondary, but there is no doubt that Beijing is nervous, very nervous at the internal situation in China, particularly in Muslim-populated Xinjiang.

Chinarealtime commented: “Xi Jinping is taking a page out of George W. Bush’s playbook. China’s President has signaled aggressively in recent weeks that a central element of his leadership will be fighting those the government views as terrorists.”

On 9 April, Xi Jinping visited a Police Academy near Beijing that specialises in anti-terrorism and attended a drill by top anti-terrorist commandos. Later, he commended the exercise and presented a flag to the ‘Falcon Commando’ special forces of the People’s Armed Police (PAP). He reminded the commandos that the PAP was an important national counter-terrorism force. He asked the force to be conscientious in implementing the decisions and following the orders of the party’s Central Committee. He urged the troops to be resolute in cracking down on violent terrorist crimes. Their job was to safeguard national security and social stability, he said.
Xi also asked the public to build a ‘wall of bronze and iron’ to fight terrorism, adding “China must make terrorists become like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting ‘beat them!”

The function got very wide coverage in official Chinese media. A day later, on 10 March, during a phone communication with Barack Obama, Xi Jinping assured the US President of his willingness to strengthen cooperation with the international community, including the USA, in fighting terrorism. Two days after the 25th April Politburo meeting, Xi flew to the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

In his surprise visit, the President was accompanied by a very high-level delegation; four other members of the Politburo were on the flight: Yu Zhengsheng, member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and Chairman of the Central Working Coordination Small Group on Xinjiang; General Fan Changlong, senior vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission; Zhang Chunxian, Party Secretary in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Wang Huning, Xi’s confidant who had already accompanied him to the Police Academy on 9 April.

Xi headed to Kashgar, not far from the Indian border in Ladakh. When he met the troops of the Xinjiang Military Region facing India in Ladakh, he told them: “I hope that you care about each other, help each other, learn from each other, safeguard national unity and defend the motherland frontier.”

But perhaps more importantly he lectured the PAP’s SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics): “The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in wartime.”
In other words, practise and be ready to deal with ‘terrorists’.

On 28 April, Xi Jinping visited the Kashi [Kashgar] City’s Public Security Bureau (police station). He inspected video surveillance cameras and other equipment to be used against ‘terrorists’. According to Xinhua, the party General Secretary also said: “I am very concerned about your equipment and training to deal with violent terrorist criminals. You must have the effective means. You must train in real combat environment.”

Why so much emphasis on ‘terror’? Is it such a vital issue for China?

Probably, the leadership in Beijing does not want to see a repeat of the Tiananmen events of 1989; the party is aware that unrest could be the trigger for such ‘chaos’.

The South China Morning Post believes that the high-level Xinjiang trip is proof that Beijing may soon bring new legislation aimed at improving responses to security threats: “It will likely pave the way for the government to introduce new anti-terrorism laws”. In Kashgar, Xi repeatedly told the security forces that they were on the front line of combating terrorism and needed the tools and the support to do the job. At the same time, Uyghur exile groups and human rights organisations regularly blame Beijing’s policies “for stoking tensions in the region by showing a lack of respect towards the ethnic group’s culture and religion.”

Probably sensing that tougher policies and more repression could only reinforce the vicious circle, Xi met with some of the Han teachers and urged them to learn the Uyghur language and to teach the Uyghur students Putonghua (Mandarin).

According to Xinhua, Xi explained that it is important to have bilingual education for ‘minority children’. Speaking Chinese is a way to find jobs more easily, “…and more importantly, they will contribute more to national unity”, added Xi. His colleague in the Standing Committee, Yu Zhengsheng, has probably other ideas to break the vicious circle. Promoting economic growth in Xinjiang and Tibet has been his main objective as Chairman of the Small Groups on Tibet and Xinjiang.

Xi did lecture local officials about the importance of developing new industries and launching projects which can create jobs. Undoubtedly, the lion is trembling. If the resentment of the ‘minorities’ is not dealt with on a war footing, and in a humane manner, during the coming months, it will probably be too late for the Middle Kingdom which risks implosion.

Xi seems to be aware of the imminent danger.

(As I had just finished writing this article, a bomb exploded in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital).

(The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of Fate of Tibet)


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