Why is China really crushing the Uyghurs?

Backing instead of defensive reflex

At least the battle of images has definitely lost China. Austrian media speak of the country as a "compulsory association" and paint the image of an authoritarian, above all unreasonable regime, which forcibly Sinicizes its peoples and does not understand when they rebel against political oppression. We hear about how the Chinese media manipulate their population: about the fact that beaten and murdered Han Chinese, but not Uyghurs, are shown on Chinese television, how the Uyghurs living in exile are blamed for the uproar and the violence used to take repressive countermeasures be justified.

All of this is correct. It is just as correct that journalists take sides for the weak. Where the entire state apparatus is in the hands of the majority population, it is clearly the members of the minority, i.e. the Uyghurs, say the western media. Where the innocent are slain by the mob, they, the Han Chinese, are the weak ones who need to be protected, says Chinese television.

"Truth in China is like Schrodinger's (sic) Cat: it is simultaneously alive and dead, fact and fiction," tweeted one of the observers. And although he is referring to the internal Chinese situation, it seems that the situation is no different when it comes to the external perspective on China.

China's minority policy shows serious shortcomings. There is just as little doubt about that as about the fact that the frustration of one of these discriminated minorities exploded in the unrest of the past week.

Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese government has been acting with increasing severity against the Uighur minority in the western province, driven by fear of the separatist movements that were beginning to form there. The strategy for the development of the West, which was also brought into being, includes infrastructure programs to promote economic development as well as "Sinization" through forced immigration. However, the Han Chinese in particular benefit from the region's economic development, and the government's pressure on the Uighur minority is also increasing steadily.

The anger of the minority is justified and understandable - although no form of discrimination can justify venturing out into lynch mobs.

The image conveyed in the media of a Chinese government behaving as a colonial ruler is also not wrong and leaves little hope for the imprisoned Uyghurs.

What was lost in the reporting, however, was the look at those potentials of Chinese minority politics, which a skilful negotiation and mediation strategy could ultimately address.

Since the reform and opening phase of the 1980s, the Chinese government has at least partially understood that more liberal access to minorities is required in order to integrate them sustainably into Chinese territory. It was proponents of political reforms such as Hu Yaobang, on the occasion of whose death in 1989 the Tiananmen movement began, which proposed reforms in autonomous areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang and partially implemented them.

In all of China, minorities are therefore not exclusively discriminated against, they also enjoy privileges vis-à-vis the majority population. They are exempt from the one-child policy and, because of their minority status, receive additional points for university entrance exams.

This policy of positive discrimination is also one of the reasons why, according to official figures, the minority population in China is growing faster than the majority population: according to official statistics from the government, from 6.7 percent in 1982 to 9.44 percent in 2005.

The Chinese government is well aware of the importance of minority rights - at least on paper. So, at least on paper, there might be room for negotiations. It is precisely the question of how this space can be cleverly used or even expanded, which unfortunately gets lost in the reports on minority conflicts in China.

Xinjiang is currently experiencing a conflict typical of colonial scenarios. This stirs up justified anger - and often a spark is enough to turn political protest into ethnic or religious violence.

In order not to get deeper into this vicious circle, intelligent minority politics and a willingness to compromise are required. One could at least expect a certain openness from the Chinese government to cooperation - because a lot depends on the solution of the minority problem in China.

It is particularly important now to support those who could act as a counterbalance to the hardliners. They are the weak ones who need to be supported. They need outside support from a world public that is breaking out of the existing circles of communication and shedding its old reflexes when looking at China. Reporting that overlooks possible room for negotiation runs the risk of backing the very wrong people. (DER STANDARD, print edition, July 16, 2009)

Alexandra Siebenhofer (born 1980) is a sinologist in Vienna and editor of the minority magazine "Radio Voice".