Unrest in China
Turbulence in Inner Mongolia makes managing China no easier
Jun 2nd 2011 | BEIJING | from the print edition
“THIS is a time when social contradictions are becoming conspicuous in our country,” China’s ruling Politburo concluded at a meeting on May 30th. As they were gathering, security forces in Inner Mongolia, north of the capital, were clamping down on the province’s biggest outbreak of ethnic unrest in decades. Elsewhere, messages of sympathy were pouring in from Chinese internet users for a man who had bombed government targets in the south of the country, killing himself and two others. Rightly, the Politburo noted that the task of “social management” in China was getting harder.
Inner Mongolia had long been regarded as among the tamest of China’s ethnic-minority regions. Even after the eruption of widespread protests and riots on the Tibetan plateau in 2008, and bloody inter-ethnic clashes in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, the following year, Inner Mongolia remained calm. More ethnic Mongols live in the Chinese province than over the border in independent Mongolia. Even so they form less than a fifth of Inner Mongolia’s 24m people, outnumbered by Han Chinese. Unlike Tibetans or Uighurs in Xinjiang, many Mongols have little if any mastery of their ancestral language.
Chinese leaders must therefore have been shocked when protests broke out in a handful of Inner Mongolian towns over the course of several days in late May. Not since the Tibetan unrest had ethnic disturbances spread so quickly. They were sparked by the apparent hit-and-run killing on May 10th of a Mongol herder by a Han Chinese lorry driver. The Mongol was among a group of herders who had been trying to stop lorries cutting across their grasslands to reach a coal mine. Four days later another Mongol was killed in a similar confrontation elsewhere.
No doubt to the authorities’ relief, the protests did not involve inter-ethnic violence of the kind that rocked Urumqi, in which nearly 200 people died, or that sent Lhasa up in flames when Tibetans burned or ransacked Han-owned businesses. But the prominent role that students played would have alarmed them (students led the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989). The authorities have this year been fearful that young Chinese helped by the internet might seek inspiration from the Arab world to try fomenting a “jasmine revolution” in China. In a huge security operation encompassing several Inner Mongolian towns and the regional capital, Hohhot, the police have confined students to campuses. In spite of this, about 150 people marched through Hohhot on May 30th, chanting slogans in Mongolian. Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging service in China, has now added “Inner Mongolia” to “jasmine” on its long list of banned search terms.
The name Qian Mingqi is not yet on the blacklist, but may be before long. After Mr Qian detonated three bombs on May 26th in Fuzhou, Jiangxi province, many microbloggers have been remarkably supportive of the killer. Mr Qian (through a Sina Weibo account) had long complained of mistreatment by the authorities when his homes were demolished to make way for road construction. His home-made bombs targeted the prosecutor’s office, the city government headquarters, and the food and drug administration.
The government’s response to unrest is not always hard-knuckle. Though they deployed many police and paramilitary troops in Inner Mongolia (while keeping out journalists and disrupting mobile internet access), the authorities have shown a little more sensitivity to protesters’ concerns than they did in Tibet or Xinjiang. The region’s party chief, Hu Chunhua, met students and teachers in Hohhot, promising justice on behalf of the aggrieved herders. (Though the protest leaders should not expect leniency.) Now the government says it will overhaul the coal industry for locals’ sake.
Although the security forces have stepped up their attacks on government critics this year, arresting many, signs of disagreement are growing within the Communist Party over the best path to long-term stability. A recent series of commentaries in the party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, has struck a surprisingly moderate tone. One, on May 26th, said that the only way to safeguard stability was to “protect rights”. If anyone in the Politburo believes this, however, they are not yet speaking out.
from the print edition | Asia