Beijing Tightens Its Grip
Beijing slowly and steadily increases its powers of control, both at home abroad.
Sept. 25, 2014 12:45 p.m. ET 0 COMMENTS
If Scotland were part of China, then Alex Salmond and his supporters would have been sent to prison a long time ago. That is the only way to interpret Tuesday’s ruling by a provincial Chinese court sentencing Uighur academic and activist Ilham Tohti to a life sentence for fomenting separatism.
Largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, Beijing is steadily tightening its control over areas it fears could break away from China if given an opportunity. Contrary to Beijing’s hopes, these measures may well result in greater domestic unrest as they restrict residents’ basic freedoms and harm their quality of life.
While the West finds itself consumed with trying to destroy the metastasizing jihadist threat, most recently represented by ISIS, and limiting the extent of Vladimir Putin’s push into Europe, China remains focused on domestic threats to its territorial control. China watchers have focused on President Xi Jinping’s controversial anti-corruption campaign, but that is just one aspect of his approach. The true hallmark of his rule will likely be a China that is more repressive and more centralized, at least in the short run.
The Uighur separatist movement in the far western province of Xinjiang has been one of Beijing’s major concerns for years. Because Uighurs are Muslim, government fear that radical Islamist movements may spread through China has driven a policy of increasing repression.
The trial of Ilham Tohti in Urumqi this week. ENLARGE
The trial of Ilham Tohti in Urumqi this week. reuters tv/Reuters
As a result, domestic terrorists have struck both in the west and closer to China’s heartland. The most dramatic act was a car bombing in January in the heart of Chinese power, near Tiananmen Square. In March, a group armed with knives killed about 30 people at the Kunming train station.
Anyone perceived as a supporter of Uighur independence is considered a major threat. Thus the harsh sentence meted out to Mr. Ilham, all of whose property was also seized after a rushed two-day trial.
Yet as was widely noted both within China and abroad, Mr. Ilham was no radical. He repeatedly called for Xinjiang to remain as part of China. He even was a member of the Communist Party until his arrest in January.
Yet Mr. Ilham’s criticism of the government’s response to the Tiananmen car bombing led to his eventual life sentence. By silencing even a moderate voice, the message from Beijing could not be clearer.
Mr. Ilham’s case should be seen in the context of other government moves to crush any perceived separatist or independence movements. The decision this month to deny Hong Kong voters a free and open election in 2017 for the next chief executive of the territory is just the beginning move in a campaign to reduce the city’s freedom.
Reneging on the landmark 1984 Joint Declaration treaty with the U.K. regarding Hong Kong’s future, Beijing also sent a clear warning to Taiwan. It should not be forgotten that the anti-secession law against Taiwan is still on the books, by which Beijing would consider a referendum on independence an act of war. Given Mr. Xi’s recent actions, Taiwan and its supporters should consider him likely and willing to carry out such threats.
So far, Mr. Xi and his fellow leaders have focused on Chinese territory proper. Yet this policy of trying to solidify China’s territorial control has extended to contested islands with other nations. Far from seeking to ease tensions since Mr. Xi came to power in late 2012, Beijing has pressed its case in both the East and South China Seas.
As China grows increasingly comfortable with using its paramilitary forces, local coast guards and navies from Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia have found themselves forced to confront Chinese naval vessels in the Spratley and Paracel Islands. China also continues to build up structures on some of the small reefs it claims in these waters.
The same goes for Japan, which has seen a near-constant Chinese presence in the waters off the contested Senkaku Islands. By imposing an intrusive air defense identification zone over the islands, Beijing showed it was willing to risk an aerial confrontation not only with the Japanese, but the Americans, as well. The Senkakus may well be the most dangerous hot-spot in East Asia, as a miscalculation or accident could cause a military conflict between Asia’s two strongest powers.
Unlike Vladimir Putin, who revels in dramatic acts that challenge both his domestic and foreign foes, China’s leadership specializes in steady, slow moves. Recent Chinese actions have once again dashed the hopes of those hoping that globalization would have led to a kinder, gentler Chinese regime. Instead, the Asia and the world should accept the fact that China’s game plan will give it greater control over both its territory and contested areas.
The real question is whether all this heavy-handedness results in greater unrest over the long term. Once it becomes clear that liberalization is not in the cards, domestic separatists may be emboldened to strike out more violently. Similarly, China’s neighbors who despair of finding a diplomatic solution to their territorial disputes will continue to increase as much as possible their defense capabilities and ally with others feeling Chinese pressure.
The result in both cases will be an Asia at greater likelihood of instability and upheaval. So far, it appears that Beijing is comfortable risking that outcome.
Mr. Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. and a columnist for wsj.com. He is on Twitter @michaelauslin