China’s leaders are not expressive people. The National People’s Congress, last attended in March by 3,000 Party officials, was not so much a celebration of Communist rule as nine dead-pan days of straight faces and slow hand claps.
But two things will guarantee you an animated response from the Party elite: outsiders interfering in their affairs; and separatists threatening to dismember their country. So the idea of Rebiya Kadeer, the leader-in-exile of China’s Uighur minority, paying a visit to Japan – the outsiders the Chinese love to hate – was bound to make Beijing boil.
The “One China Policy” is the Communist Party’s most cherished concept, and Kadeer – much like the Dalai Lama – embodies the challenge to this one-state ideal. As a result, the Chinese government has branded Kadeer a terrorist and accuses her and her World Uighur Congress of masterminding the race riots that rocked Xinjiang in July of this year. Terrorism, though, is not her crime: her sin is to advocate a separate Uighur state.
The very thought of an independent Xinjiang – the Uighurs’ home province in northwest China – cuts the Chinese to the quick, just like the notion of an independent Tibet. And don’t even think about mentioning Taiwan.
Kadeer began her 10-day trip to Japan last week accompanied by predictable howls of Chinese condemnation. Australia received a similar barrage when a film about Kadeer’s life – The 10 Conditions of Love – was shown at the recent Melbourne Film Festival, while New Zealand, which Kadeer visited just before Tokyo, was subjected to its own blast of scorn.
China rarely follows these lectures with concrete action because it knows that its words carry enough weight nowadays to make smaller nations stop and back up. Australia, whose economy is increasingly reliant on mineral exports to China, wrung its hands over Beijing’s displeasure. Taiwan, which also screened Kadeer’s film earlier this year, blinked as well, and fearing a backlash from mainland tourists offered reassurances that the exile would not be allowed to appear in person.
Yet the fury with which Beijing pursues its enemies – however small – has an air of indignity about it that the liberal West finds wholly unbecoming. In China itself, dissenters are squashed like bugs on the windscreen of progress; but even then, the overkill with which the government obliterates them has the effect of amplifying what would otherwise be soundless whispers of opposition.
As for Kadeer, the cause of self-determination for Xinjiang is surely as hopeless and tragic as that of the Dalai Lama for a genuinely autonomous Tibet. She may have a sound moral case: the Central Asian steppe that the Uighurs inhabit feels about as Chinese as the Cotswolds, and until the Communists took power they actually advocated independence for the country’s minorities (something they’ve since conveniently forgotten). Yet mineral-rich Xinjiang is now a much-prized corner of China’s realm, and the world is not about to intervene on the Uighurs’ behalf. What’s more, China has become strong enough not to care even if it did.
The biggest irony from the Uighurs’ point of view is that, in China, nationalism is positively encouraged. But only if it’s the red kind.