As the Hong Kong demonstrations continue, foreign observers question whether the democracy movement might embolden minority groups seeking greater autonomy in Tibet or Xinjiang, also known as East Turkistan. Like Hong Kong, these regions were once promised greater autonomy, but have yet to see it fully realized.
Before the Chinese Communist Party actually ruled the country, the 1931 Chinese Soviet Republic Constitution recognized “the right of national self-determination of ethnic minorities within the borders of China,” as well as their right to secession. Mao Zedong backtracked on this position by the time the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949. The Chinese annexed ethnic minority regions and said they would grant Tibetans and Uighurs autonomy. However, critics argue that Beijing has failed to adhere to the rule of law by denying ethno-religious minorities the rights and freedoms originally promised.
Beijing has never considered applying the “one country, two systems” framework to Xinjiang or Tibet. Authorities argue that this framework would be “inappropriate,” as the 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, in theory, already guarantees ethnic minorities the right to manage their own internal affairs.
Manifestations of traditional identity that officials once deemed innocuous are increasingly considered subversive. Beijing demands unwavering loyalty to the Party-State, and promotes so-called “ethnic unity” through pervasive ideological, patriotic, and educational campaigns.
However, this policy is proving ineffective and unsustainable. Since Xi Jinping took over the Chinese Communist Party leadership in November 2012, acts of protest and unrest have risen dramatically. At least 127 self-immolations have occurred in ethnically Tibetan regions. Many who set themselves ablaze called for greater freedoms and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.Chinese authorities have responded by criminalizing self-immolations. Some survivors, as well as friends and family members of self-immolators, are politically persecuted or ‘disappeared.’
During this same period, 62 violent incidents have taken place in Xinjiang. The vast majority of these are acts of either inter-ethnic violence or confrontations between individuals or small groups of Uighurs and police. Authorities responded by launching an anti-terror campaign in May 2014.
Critics argue that tensions will continue to rise until China adopts effective mechanisms for minorities to peacefully express their grievances. Yet, Beijing consistently contends that so-called “hostile external forces”—rather than Chinese Communist Party policies—are responsible for demonstrations or unrest in Xinjiang, Tibet, and now Hong Kong.
As counterproductive Chinese policies remain unaddressed, minority regions have become a tinderbox of tension. Observers fear that without dialogue and reforms, a single match could spark an explosion.
So, could the Hong Kong protests be that spark? It’s unlikely.
It is hard for the average Tibetan or Uighur to access news regarding demonstrations, unrest, or even civil-society activism. A savvy netizen in Shanghai is likely to read about recent events in Hong Kong, but it is uncommon for the average Uighur in Urumqi (the region’s capital) to hear about unrest in nearby cities, much less have real-time access to this news.
The palpable political pressure on local residents means that they’re also less likely to discuss such matters, since authorities can arrest Chinese citizens for “spreading rumors.”
Even if groups of Uighurs or Tibetans attempted to occupy major cities in their home regions, authorities would not tolerate ethno-religious minorities engaging in massive acts of civil disobedience. Demonstrators could well suffer a far worse fate than tear gas, and it is doubtful that they would receive any opportunity to negotiate with regional leaders.
But while Hong Kong style protests are unlikely to spread any time soon, Beijing’s counterproductive policies will continue to breed instability that could potentially lead to violence.
Uighur exile leader Rebiya Kadeer says that the community will continue to seek “dialogue with China,” adding that “if we push for independence, it is a given that there will be bloodshed. In that case, both Uighurs and Chinese alike will be the victims.”