Dru Gladney & Hugo Restall on Online Organizing and Uighur Unrest

From an introduction to an article on Yale Global Online by Dru Gladney, President of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College:

Recent clashes between indigenous Uighurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang province highlight the growing difficulty Beijing faces with regard to minority rights. It also highlights how even a small group with global connections can bring the world spotlight on their cause and embarrass a big power, writes Dru Gladney, an expert on China’s minorities and President of the Pacific Basin Institute. The cause of the violence and the great loss of life that followed might seem improbable: an unintentional scream of a surprised Han woman led to the charge of rape by Uighurs and killings in southern China. News of those deaths ricocheting around the globe then triggered protests and deadly riots in Xinjiang. But Gladney notes that tensions between Uighurs and Hans were already high after a long history of discrimination and that almost anything could have ignited the flash. What is unique about the current situation is that prior altercations received limited to no media attention owing to the inaccessibility of Xinjiang. But today, with media like Twitter and YouTube, and despite Beijing’s control of the internet, news of any incident can be transmitted quickly and bring reactions from a million Uighurs spread all over the world. This means that ethnic tensions, and the awareness of them, have the potential to spread like viruses leading to “ethnic pandemics.” As Gladney argues, instead of trying to shut down communications, Beijing should address its population’s grievances

And on a similar theme, Hugo Restall writes in the Asian Wall Street Journal:

…Seen in the context of the wider Chinese society, the upsurge in unrest raises some worrying questions for Beijing. Despite the strictest possible control, the spread of information and rights consciousness has encouraged Uighurs and Tibetans to take to the streets in spontaneous demonstrations, and violent repression has stoked further unrest. This mirrors events taking place elsewhere in China, where potent fault lines within society are bursting into the open, despite the government’s best efforts to foster a “harmonious society.”

This suggests that China may be entering a period similar to that in the late 1980s, when demonstrations began to break out over a variety of issues. As during that period, the Chinese economy is under stress, with rising expectations running up against the reality of limited opportunities. Add in anger about corruption and abuse of power by local officials and the stage is set for what are euphemistically known as “mass incidents.” While the government may be able to manage localized riots, there is a danger of a repeat of 1989, should an event provide the impetus for the formation of a wider national protest movement.

Widespread use of the Internet and mobile phones accelerates the spread of unrest beyond the capacity of the authorities to respond.