Hu Gets a Black Eye in Urumqi

Call it asymmetrical warfare with ethnic-Chinese characteristics. Yet for the first time since Chairman Mao Zedong invented guerrilla skirmishes in the 1930s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is in the receiving end of the volleys and bombardments from the Uighurs, a 9 million-strong ethnic grouping which has become a minority in its own territory.

Little wonder then, that President Hu Jintao, who dictates Beijing's policy toward Uighurs and Tibetans, has had to to scurry back to China half way through the G8-plus-5 conclave in Italy. This is the first time in recent memory that a Chinese head of state has had to cut short a foreign trip to attend to a domestic crisis.

The protests and riots that broke out on Sunday in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR) – as well as follow-up mishaps on Tuesday – are remarkable for several reasons. First, Hu, in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission, already moved an estimated 80,000 troops and People's Armed Police (PAP) officers to Tibet and Xinjiang early this year.

This was in anticipation of the disturbances the Tibetans would stage in March to mark the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan Insurrection in 1959. There are obviously chinks in the armor of the CCP's usually highly rated control apparatus.

Secondly, the rioting took place in Urumqi, where Han Chinese outnumber Uighurs by four to one. (Only 9 million of the 21 million residents in the XAR are Uighurs, the rest include the predominant Han Chinese as well as Kazaks and other minorities.) Previous acts of violence – including at least four quasi-terrorist attacks on police and PAP officers in the Olympic month of August last year – by alleged Uighur terrorists -- mostly took place in western and southern Xinjiang, where Uighurs are the majority.

By Tuesday, police and PAP officers in Urumqi had arrested some 1,434 suspects. Yet even if, as is likely, more "anti-Chinese" elements in Xinjiang and Tibet were taken behind bars, this will only stoke the fires of hatred – and could result in more members of ethnic minorities taking part in guerrilla warfare against Han Chinese soldiers and police guarding the two autonomous regions.

Immediately after the Sunday demonstrations, Chinese authorities accused the foreign-based World Uighur Congress of masterminding the riots via messages sent through the Internet and other channels. Beijing has yet to produce conclusive evidence to back up this charge. Yet there is no denying that thanks to developments like the "Twitter Revolution" in Iran, it is a lot easier for Net-empowered Uighurs and Tibetans to organize anti-Bejing protests and other acts of defiance.

The Urumqi riots also show that undercurrents of mistrusts and mutual acrimony between Han Chinese and Uighurs have broken into the open. The Sunday demonstration was organized by Uighurs to show their displeasure over the fact that on June 26, a few dozen Uighur workers were beaten up – and two killed – by their Han Chinese colleagues in a Guangdong toy factory. Yet this protest soon morphed into a free-for-all slugfest between Uighurs and Han Chinese. And on Tuesday, hundreds of Han Chinese with self-made weapons were marching to the Uighur quarter of Urumqi to seek revenge.

Beijing authorities have to bear a lot of responsibility for the precipitous deterioration of ties between Chinese on the one hand, and Uighurs and Tibetans on the other. Since the first wave of protests broke out in March 2008, CCTV and other official media have relentlessly broadcast footage suggesting that Tibetans and Uighurs are accomplices of "anti-foreign forces abroad" and that they are unpatriotic and therefore untrustworthy. To this day, Uighur businessmen, some of them millionaires, working in coastal China are routinely turned away from 5-star hotels.

Given this background, it is doubtful how President Hu, who as Party Secretary of Tibet from 1988 to 1992 is regarded as the CCP's top authority on western China, could turn the tide. After all, Hu himself is the progenitor of the "get tough" policy toward both Tibetans and Uighurs.

After the scores of protests in March and April last year, Hu called off talks with the emissaries of the Dalai Lama. And in an open violation of the Chinese Constitution – which vouchsafes the two regions autonomous powers in areas including religion, language and education – police surveillance in mosques and monasteries has intensified.

Ethnic-minority intellectuals, including college lecturers, have been routinely questioned by the police. Moreover, high schools and universities in Tibet and Xinjiang have been told to boost Chinese-language teaching as well as ideological indoctrination geared toward propagating "patriotic and Party-loving" Uighur and Tibetan youths.

Draconian policies toward ethnic-minority groupings are also difficult to change due to the fact that the bulk of senior party, government and military officers in Western China are Hu protégés in as well as members of the president's Chinese Youth League Faction.

These include the Party Secretaries of Tibet and Xinjiang, respectively Zhang Qingli and Wang Lequn. Wang, who became a XAR vice-governor in 1991, has spent almost two decades in the restive region. He was inducted into the Politburo in 2002 as a reward for his work in taming the Uighurs.

After the large number of anti-Beijing riots in Tibet and Xinjiang last year, however, there are calls within the CCP's higher echelons for Hu to penalize or even sack Zhang and Wang. After all, these two powerful plenipotentiaries failed to contain the disturbances last year despite abundant intelligence that Tibetan and Uighur "troublemakers" would engineer disruptive activities to spoil the Summer Olympics.

The shrill tactics used by Zhang and Wang have also exacerbated tension between ordinary Han Chinese and ethnic groupings. So far, Hu has refused to penalize any senior officials in either Tibet or Xinjiang.

The Hu leadership now also faces more ferocious global criticism of its problematic human rights record. The troubles in Xinjiang have given a pretext to European politicians supportive of the Dalai Lama such as President Nicholas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel to stick to their arguments that China the aspiring "quasi-superpower" has an obligation to meet global norms on its treatment of ethnic minorities.

Yet if, as is likely, President Hu continues to rely on brute force to contain malcontents among Tibetans and Uighurs, the situation could deteriorate – and the eventual blow to Hu's legacy would be devastating.