In all my years watching the Chinese Communist Party and its ever-growing list of victims, I don't think I have seen a single incident more telling about the weaknesses of Mainstream Media (and, by reflection, the immense value of the Epoch Times - and I'd say that even if they didn't run my columns) than what happened in Urumqi this week.
To hear MSM discuss it, it was yet another sad case of clashes between Chinese police and restive Uighur Muslims. As Matthew Little noted yesterday (full disclosure, he interviewed yours truly for the piece, as you can see via the link), that was almost exactly how the CCP wanted the incident reported, and at least at first, the cadres got their wish.
Still, I fear that even most anti-Communists have failed (so far) to understand the immense importance of Urumqi 2009 - even I was prepared to largely underemphasize it for quite some time. Upon further review, however, it becomes clear just how dangerous this was to the CCP - and it had nothing to do with the religious faith of the Uighurs.
Roughly two weeks before the people of Urumqi took to the streets, an argument in Shaoguan, Guangdong between Uighurs and ethnic Chinese in a local factory became violent. Two Uighurs died - and the rest were summarily fired. It seems yet another sordid combination of repression and radical ethnic nationalism for which the regime has become infamous, sure to be remembered locally, but not anywhere else.
That the news of this made it to Urumqi at all was something new - and, for the regime, something grave.
The CCP has survived the last twenty years on two things - a radical nationalist agenda (its justification for its continued existence) and a deliberate atomization of any resistance (to prevent a nationwide anti-Communist movement from threatening its continued existence). The latter in particular has made sure outrages like Hanyuan, Taishi, or Shanwei were known only to local victims and their grieving relatives.
Needless to say, things didn't go according to plan in Shaoguan. That an incident in a southeastern province should extend all the way to the formerly independent East Turkestan must have come as quite a shock to the regime. Here, suddenly, was the possible beginning of a continental network of resistance - after all, if a Guangdong incident could get this far, a future clash between cadres and locals reaching the eyes and ears of Beijing appellants, Henan AIDS victims, or Sichuan earthquake survivors was all-but-certain.
How the cadres can prevent those scenarios will keep them up nights for months, but the top priority was making sure no one knew about this. So, the cadres sent in their police to either disperse the protesters or incite them to violence (depending on your source of information, they managed to do at least one), while Beijing told the rest of the world that it was all about Islam.
For the most part, the cadres' desperate gambit worked. The Uighur-Han dimension has dominated everything else. Precious few news outlets are even aware of the Shaoguan incident, let alone the larger significance of it all. Even the death toll (which local sources put well over the ridiculous cadre-endorsed number of 156) has been largely misreported.
Still, the cadres cannot consider this a complete victory. Hardly anyone is willing to defend their brutal occupation of the region - something the Communists have craved ever since the beginning of the War on Terror. Moreover, one of their methods in overhyping the ethnic angle - empowering and arming ethnic Chinese mobs in Urumqi - risks serious public-relations blowback. Many elite Westerners have feared their own native populations going into a rage against the nearest Muslims they can find. To see their nightmare come true not in their homelands, but under the Chinese Communist regime will come as a complete shock - one that could shake more than a few of their "engagement" notions.
However, the real problem for the cadres - the one they can't fix with a heavy police presence or a hail of bullets - is the one still largely unnoticed: the connections among anti-Communists revealed by Shaoguan and Urumqi. Long after the streets of the latter calm down, the CCP will desperately try to figure out how news of the former traveled thousands of miles in less than two weeks. If they can't prevent similar incidents from traveling similar information paths, then every incident of local repression will become nationally known, and help create the nationwide resistance that frightens the CCP more than anything else on earth.