Mar 10, 2008 | 01:56 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Beijing Eyes the Periphery

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Chinese media reported on Sunday that air marshals foiled a March 7 attempt to crash a China Southern Airlines plane flying to Beijing from Urumqi in Xinjiang province. The chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, Nur Bekri, said on the sidelines of the ongoing national parliament session in Beijing that some people on the flight had attempted to "create an air disaster." A spokesperson for China Southern Airlines told the official news agency Xinhua that "it's up to the police" to determine whether it was a terrorist attack. Chinese media have hinted that the attempted attack was carried out by ethnic Uighur Muslim separatists from Xinjiang. China has been warning for several years that the biggest threat to the upcoming Olympics — to be held in Beijing later this year — comes from Xinjiang's Uighur militants, especially the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or other East Turkistan militants. On Sunday, Wang Lequan, the Communist Party chief in Xinjiang, emphasized this threat when he said on the sidelines of the parliament session that in January security forces had smashed a Uighur militant cell in Urumqi that was plotting an attack against the Olympics. Wang added that the government would strike first against the "three evil forces": terrorists, saboteurs and secessionists. The coincidental timing of the airline incident and the announcement of the new details from the January raid raises some suspicions. Both come just after Australian tour guides traveling by bus were briefly taken captive by a bomb-wielding local from Xian — an incident that ended when Chinese security forces shot the hijacker. That incident showcased some of the broader security threats present in China — ones Beijing would rather people not focus on ahead of the surge of tourists coming for the Olympics. Rather, Beijing has kept up a steady drumbeat of warnings about militant Islamists from Xinjiang. And China has exploited the Western fear of any Islamist militant threat to avoid criticism for the aggressive security measures being put in place for the Olympics. The frequency with which Beijing has cried "Uighur" in recent months might have more to do with politics than with a genuine security threat, but it emphasizes the central government's long-standing concerns with China's ethnic minorities. China's core — the home of the Han Chinese who currently rule the country — comprises the area around the three major rivers in the East: the Yellow, Yangtze and Pearl. This fertile area has long provided the food and industry for the various Chinese states that have emerged over the centuries. But this same area, which nurtures a sedentary society, has always been vulnerable to invasion by the various nomadic peoples around it. Thus, over time, China has expanded its borders to absorb a de facto buffer zone — including Tibet, Xinjiang, Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. These buffer states provided security for China, but also introduced a new security problem for the country: control of the ethnic minorities. Incorporating the buffer zones into China, the central government found itself constantly struggling to maintain control over minority groups that were the majority in their own lands, distant from the core. The central leadership sent military units made up of different ethnicities out to the buffer territories to provide control and security, or carried out transmigration policies, seeking to thin out the percentages of the minority populations. Despite all of this, the central government never really has integrated the minority populations into the Chinese populace, and lingering prejudices and inequalities have been matched by long-lasting resentments and occasional uprisings. In China, additional ethnicities were added to the country, not primarily by immigration, but rather by conquest of surrounding territories — and these ethnicities were never assimilated into a greater Chinese culture. (This is in stark contrast to the United States, where immigration brought in new minority populations which were steadily blended into an American identity.) This lack of integration has left the core of China with a constant sense of insecurity that continues to be reflected today in its national policies. It also leaves China less concerned overall about security threats from abroad than about domestic ones — whether they are real or imagined.

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