Who is hitting at Hu?

2009-07-24Asia Times

BEIJING - About two weeks after the Urumqi riots, the largest such unrest in China in decades, which killed almost 200 people according to official data, many things remain unclear and many facts appear too coincidental.

The most striking element was that the beginning of the riots coincided with the arrival of President Hu Jintao in Rome, Italy, for a state visit and the Group of Eight summit. Hu took off from Beijing on July 5 at am and reached Rome at 7:10pm (Beijing time, 1:10pm Rome time). At around 6pm, a crowd was assembling in Urumqi's People's Square, and at around 8pm, the violent protests started. The armed police, the wujing, intervened at around 10pm and the riot went on through the night.

Certainly, the fact that China's top leader was in Italy, engrossed in meetings with his hosts, made reactions and decisions in Urumqi more complicated. It was during a balmy Italian afternoon and a tense Xinjiang night that the casualty count and destruction rose.

It might have been just an accident - bad luck for Hu and China. However, accidents are usually not taken into consideration in political analysis, while people all over the world tend to ponder the possibility of plots and conspiracies.

The possibility of a plot surrounding the Urumqi riots does not excuse the mistakes and possible horrors of the Beijing government against the Uyghurs. But if there was indeed a plot in Urumqi, then somebody did not notice it or covered it up until it exploded on July 5.

Before going any further on this path we should take some steps back and look at the beginning of the riots.

On June 16, 23-year-old Huang Jiangyuan, angry at being turned down for a job at the Xuri Toy Factory in Guangdong province, posted an article on the Internet forum, which said: "Six Xinjiang boys raped two innocent girls at the Xuri Toy Factory."

Ten days later, a group of Han people, the ethnic majority in China, attacked the Uyghur workers at the toy factory, killing two Uyghurs and injuring over 100.

On June 28, Huang Zhangsha, 19, wrote on his online chat space, "Eight Xinjiang people were beaten to death in the factory fight."

It took 10 days for Huang Jiangyuan's fake story to be believed, which led to the Han expedition against the Uyghurs. It took also 10 days for the real killing of Uyghurs to start the Urumqi fire.

Why was the reaction so slow in the two cases? Both instances indicate preparation and organization. In fact, in the toy factory, it was not a sudden rush of anger by a few disgruntled people, but some kind of large punitive expedition that left over 100 injured. It took time to convince a large number of people to join in and organize them for the assault.

Most likely, the same thing took place on a much larger scale in Urumqi. A sudden, spontaneous, angry reaction could have taken place on June 27, the day after the attack in the toy factory, when the first families learned of the fate of their loved ones in Guangdong. Or it could have been on June 29 or 30, after the story came out on the Internet - but why did it take a whole week for people to take to the streets? Did the July 3 Friday prayer at the mosques play a role in this? But then, why wait another day, until Sunday?

It is possible that somebody might have considered the trip to Italy. Hu would be away for a few days, and the government would be in disarray until his return. Then, either Hu would have to cut his trip short and lose face abroad, or carry on with the meetings abroad, giving the riot organizers more time because of the Chinese leadership’s slowness to respond.

In fact, in cases of serious incidents, the Communist Party politburo, China's top decision-making body, must find a consensus; that is, it must make unanimous decisions, and nobody has an excuse for going back on their commitment. In April 2001, then-president Jiang Zemin cut short his trip to Latin America because of the EP3 incident (a US surveillance plane landed on Hainan Island after a crash with a Chinese fighter) and claimed he had not been well informed while abroad.

Actually, the necessity for the presence of the party chief goes back to April 1989. Then, while party chief Zhao Ziyang traveled to North Korea, the politburo gathered to agree on a People's Daily editorial speaking out against the students' movement, which was then in full swing. Zhao in absentia agreed to it.

However, after the publication, the editorial failed to intimidate the students into going back to school, and instead further galvanized them and stirred more trouble. When Zhao came back to Beijing, he claimed he had been misinformed. He went back on his previous commitment and said he favored a retraction of the editorial - something that put many politburo members on the spot. This episode broke the party unity and contributed to the crackdown on the Tiananmen movement on June 4 1989.

To avoid allegations of misinformation and retractions that could lead to divisions and power struggles in the top leadership, important decisions need to be made with everyone present. Therefore, Hu had to fly back to Beijing when the severity of the riot became clear and tough decisions had to be made about how to handle the situation.

It is a very cumbersome, murky decision-making process. Although it avoids the concentration of power in the hands of one man (as was the case with Mao Zedong), it still is less efficient than an open, democratic decision-making process in which no consensus is necessary. With a democratic system, the government, acting based on the popular mandate of an open election, can, when facing an open opposition, promptly decide. Actually, the open opposition in return for its legal status in the state renounces violent actions against the government.

Before returning to this subject, it is important to ask several questions: Didn't anybody see the riot coming? Were the preparations undetected? By June 28, when the story of the killing of Uyghurs in Guangdong had spread on the web, it was clear that something serious had happened and that there had been a racially motivated punitive expedition. Didn't anybody think of the consequences in restive and volatile Xinjiang? Most importantly, since the riot was most likely prepared and organized, didn't anybody see its preparations before Hu's trip? Unless we believe the riot and demonstration were fully spontaneous, we have to consider that in Beijing there was some serious misjudgment of the situation or even some grave guilt in covering up the preparations.

The longest-surviving Italian politician, seven-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti, was a main player in over 60 years of political plots and conspiracies, drawing from the long tradition of backstabbing that stretches back to the Roman Empire and moved through all the papal feuds. Now 90, he is still fond of saying that in politics, "Thinking badly is a sin, but one is almost always right."

Italian politics can't have much less mischief than Chinese politics; so therefore, according to Andreotti's ideas, one ought to think badly. In this case, the bad and sinful thought is that somebody saw the riot coming and didn't signal it. Why? Perhaps to undermine Hu. Why? Perhaps simply because there was an opportunity, or the grand maneuvers of the 2012 Party Congress are on their way. The Party Congress will decide the promotion of a whole new group of officials, and party chief Hu will have the largest say in the selection process.

Hu has an astonishing track record. He basically solved the Taiwan issue, something that neither Mao nor Deng did; he braved the nastiest economic crisis in 80 years, which is breaking the backs of all the Western economies; improved ties with the US (of paramount strategic importance); successfully hosted the Chinese Olympics; and improved popular support for the government. China's gross domestic product is about to overtake that of Japan's, signaling some form of crucial vindication for the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. Even constant Western rebukes on human rights issues are losing steam. This record gives him great force.

But dissenting voices in the party could point at what can be construed as the flip side: How is the situation in Tibet? How is it in Xinjiang? Is it worse than before? Did Hu lose or destabilize Tibet and Xinjiang while he was distracted pursuing the dream of gaining Taiwan and America? Is Hu losing what he has and controls - Tibet and Xinjiang - chasing something that he still doesn't have and might never have - Taiwan and America? Of course for those voices, the more flip sides the better. Then for Hu it is crucial to keep a lid on Tibet and Xinjiang, by all means.

Actually, we have no clue what debates are going on in Zhongnanhai in Beijing, the Chinese White House. And of course this is all flimsy and speculative. It seems fiction - and perhaps it is. But perhaps we are right.

Besides the possible plotting and conspiracies, the Urumqi riot and its consequences prove that structural reforms to the cumbersome decision-making process are necessary. The consensus process is necessary now because the decision-making process is secret, and the party has to avoid even more secretive plotting among party officials.

There is "official" secrecy, sanctioned and regulated by the party, and unofficial secrecy, officially forbidden by the party. There are many restrictions imposed on Chinese senior politicians to limit their movements and meetings to avoid possible plotting and make sure that all decisions are only discussed at official meetings. The official secrecy is that the political meetings are kept away from the public eye. A second type of secrecy is the necessary maneuvering of the individual officials to advance their careers and political agendas - dinners with friends, meetings with relatives and secretaries, etcetera.

However, there is a very fine line here. What divides a normal dinner with chat about current events from a political dinner? In countries with freedom of association and an open political life, the lack of official secrecy makes very secretive plotting mostly useless - and when there is a secret plotting, one can assume there are evil intentions. "Political plotting" can be carried out in a normal fashion (secretive, but without being conspiratorial). In a highly regulated and officially secretive political environment, as in China, the "necessary" plotting and maneuvering has to go further underground and be even more conspiratorial than in more open societies.

Of course, unofficial secrecy is somewhat natural and any political system has its fair share of backdoor horse-trading. In part, it is an imperial tradition: plots accompanied every emperor in China. However, the Urumqi riot proves that the issue must be addressed, and the solution can't be greater over-regulation, which would spin into further backdoor trading. Instead, political debate needs to be brought more into the open, and individual top politicians need to be given more freedom, not less freedom. This can lead to a clearer picture of the behavior of the single politician. In other words, larger democratization is necessary to avoid and forestall the danger of new, more dangerous plotting.

Furthermore, urban protests - whether racial or not, and whether organized by pro-independence movements, disgruntled workers, or intellectuals - are bound to increase with urbanization. Local or national downturns leave thousands of angry people in large cities with little to do but rebel. If this occurs in small villages, the social and political impact is minimized, but in large cities, it is maximized by the size of the city.

Downturns, occasions for discontent about any number of issues, are unavoidable and actually increase with the size of the city. Then, we should be amazed that there are so few riots in Chinese cities. Yet, no matter how few, there will be still too many for a country whose political and economic growth is changing the global balance of power, and that is thus bound to attract growing attention, concern and envy from all quarters. In fact, with growing urbanization, democratization is the way for the population to let off steam and keep the overall social fabric stable.

The Chinese leadership already knows that. However, the pace of democratization could be dictated by that of the explosion of urban protests - unless the party can anticipate and preempt those protests. The problem is that the pace of urbanization and social protest is not in line with the party timetable for democratization. The party may wish for a slower pace, but the protests may indicate that there is little time to lull about.

With or without an Urumqi plot from within the party or outside of it, the issue of urbanization and democratization might be the biggest domestic political issue the party will have to discuss at the next congress. (2009-07-24 Asia Times)


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