Observers aren’t getting China at all on its policies and implementation system. Not that one has to but the point is, China is more single minded than one can think of its own perception of national interest. It’s impacting on others both close to and distant neighbours who see it on the basis of past US century politics. “Old fashioned” Western arguments about Human Rights violation and democracy will not deter it anyway. It doesn’t matter to China if it’s popular in the Western world or the UN because it plays by its own rules and can. In fact it did so even when it wasn’t this strong.
The West didn’t know it before, expecting China to play ball with generally held global order to get market access but global markets need China more as globalization shows. All decisions are basically economic in nature and the West is on the declining curve of global capitalism, ironically losing the grounds to a so-called socialist power.
The Tibet project
China has played the same game when it comes to managing threat perceptions. The earlier one was Tibet where the Dalai Lama was considered not friendly enough and pushed out. Although China faced global criticism and the US funded counter–China militancy, the project is completed and nobody except the religious faithful think a reversal may happen there. The Dalai Lama himself ensconced in India is more of an enfeebled man of piety, a man with a political past. Tibet is over.
Apart from the many arguments which China gives, including that Tibet is part of its past really doesn’t matter because to the Chinese, an area adjacent to its territory which could possibly be used to cause headache inside China will not be tolerated. So first came the takeover and then came the arguments.
The reason why China could manage to hold on to Tibet is China’s ability to transform the economic spaces upward in the regions it controls. So Tibetan people are much better off and after several generations, historical memory of its conquest is barely remembered and for most people it’s the economics that matter.
And now the Uighurs
The Uighurs has an ancient history and has had inter-actions with ancient Chinese dynasties before. These encounters involved contest and conflicts were common. Although part of China, the Uighurs have a historically antagonistic relationship at best. The Uighurs see themselves as an independent entity deriving from various historical stream while the Chinese see them as one of the 55 minorities it has in various autonomous regions.
Had history been nicer and geography more so, they may well have been able to have a peri-state status but as they have embarked on a sort of conflict driven relationship, the nationalists may well have made any understand or peri-state future uncertain. To this has been added the Muslim question. And with that has arrived the “Islamic terrorism”question.
International analysts are divided over the issue because the West has pinned till date much of their Eastern foreign policy on the Islamic terrorist issue. And suddenly China is using that argument to fight a cause which the West backs. Beginning in 2017, it has a major velocity inside and experts have said it’s not just an excuse issue. China is convinced that the matter can blow up and is acting at least partly to neutralize that “Islamic Extremist” threat.
The nationalist terrorist question
Classically speaking, the Uighurs has the ingredients to become an Islamic threat. All Extremism including Islamic ones rises from external threat perceptions. This applies to the Irish IRA, Tamil LTTE, Afghan Taleban, Iraqi IS or any other. National identity is an indispensable content in Extremism. So the Uighurs seeing the Chinese as an external enemy would be motivated to become such an outfit. Western experts have said that it doesn’t matter if it is so or not but the Chinese probably see it as that so they are acting to deter it.
The groups that are active – almost all exile groups – are small and no threat physically but China probably doesn’t like to take chances. The fact that it’s spending enormous resources to carry out a number of actions including relocation, internment camps and arrests and suppression of Uighur religious practices are all mark of a force who takes the threat seriously.
It’s Central Asia region again with the Islamic belt around Turkey becoming a possible hotspot. If there is extremism, regional countries will not be left alone. If China suppresses, reactions to it may lead to the same result or rise of extremism. And any spread of the reaction will have long term impact on the region’s stability as the potential for violence remains. Pakistan is a good example of how playing host to extremists can backfire too.
It’s not in anyone’s hand but China’s. Western politics in supporting or opposing will bear the same result. Nor will HR shaming have much impact. Increasingly, China holds more cards in its hand than the table allowed it till now.