China Riots Signal Democratic Deficit

July 8, 2009

REMEMBER THE GUYS OBAMA SENT TO BERMUDA? They were UIGHUR (terrorists?) who want to open a restaurant!

China Riots Signal Democratic Deficit


Democracy: Riots exploded in China’s western Xinjiang province this week, in what authorities alternatively call criminal acts or global terrorism. In reality, it’s neither: it’s the pent-up fury of people who live without freedom.

Related Topics: East Asia & Pacific

Sunday’s riot in Urumqi, where ethnic Uighurs battled Chinese police, ended with 159 dead, 1,000 injured and 1,400 arrested, according to official sources. Unofficially, the death toll has been estimated as high as 400.

International response has been muted, but shouldn’t be. The scale of deaths and the increasing frequency of such upheavals across the country raises red flags about China’s prized “stability.”

It’s curious, but places that justify repression in the name of stability always seem to end in turmoil. Official Chinese sources offer two explanations, each containing a bit of truth, but all skirting the real issue, which is China’s growing need for democratic accountability.

Uighur women protest China’s detention of 1,400 men in Urumqi on Tuesday after Sunday’s riot. Uighurs also held sympathy protests globally.Uighur women protest China’s detention of 1,400 men in Urumqi on Tuesday after Sunday’s riot. Uighurs also held sympathy protests globally.

State media claimed the riots were a law-enforcement matter, describing Uighur ruffians coming armed and ready to rumble at last weekend’s demonstration in Urumqi. But that doesn’t quite work.

China’s other version of events contradicts the law-enforcement thesis and called it essentially the work of outside agitators.

The riots were also said to be an orchestrated effort from abroad to break up the country with terrorism. One official version holds that Uighur rioters are al-Qaida-inspired troublemakers.

There’s some truth to this, given rising Islamic fundamentalism in Xinjiang. Other versions insist the unrest was masterminded from America by exile leader Rebiya Khadeer, a 62-year-old businesswoman who leads the Uighur National Congress. Khadeer denies this, and it’s impossible to see how much influence she has, anyway.

All these explanations ignore that these riots and demonstrations are getting bigger, more frequent, and more lethal.

They’re not just in Urumqi, but in Lhasa, Tibet, and in China’s central industrial cities, with some sources estimating them at 80,000 per year now.

That signals this isn’t about the extremes of crime or terrorism, but rather the absence of democracy and accountability.

China remains a communist country, with most freedoms absent. Citizens cannot express themselves to government, or even get their attention through civil means. Writing a letter to a congressman and getting a result is out of the question in China.

Redress for grievances doesn’t happen, and booting corrupt officials is out of the question. For minorities, it’s especially tough: “Uighurs get two choices: They are terrorists if they voice concerns or else good Uighurs if they assimilate,” said Alim Seytoff, spokesman for the World Uighur Congress in Washington.

That leaves the only outlet for pent-up anger in demonstrations and riots. It’s human nature, and likely to grow unless Beijing gets serious about giving citizens a voice.

The democratic deficit is growing increasingly obvious as China’s cities — even remote Urumqi — grow more prosperous and Internet communication, including Facebook and Twitter, expand.

Xinjiang is remote, but it’s no backwater. It’s part of China’s economic success story, with its vast oil and mineral resources.

All that economic prosperity logically leads to one place: Democracy. Right now, what’s happening in Urumqi is a hunger for freedom.

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