Beijing Intensifies “People’s War” Against “Splittism” as Nationalism Rears its Head

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 9

While Beijing started last weekend to rein in nationalistic outbursts against Western media and governments, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has upped the ante in its “people’s war” against separatists who are allegedly in cahoots with “anti-China elements overseas” to undermine Chinese rule and disrupt the Beijing Olympics. As police in various cities were issuing warnings to protestors outside Carrefour supermarkets last Saturday and Sunday, the Hu Jintao administration has intensified efforts to suppress and contain the “splittists” in Tibet and Xinjiang—and using nationalistic sentiments to help achieve its goal. As the nation is being swept by a tidal wave of “patriotism” if not xenophobia, liberal intellectuals who had earlier implored Beijing to consider conciliatory policies toward the two autonomous regions no longer dare raise their voice for fear of being labeled traitors. The CCP leadership is also hopeful that CNN, BBC and other Western media—having been put on the defensive by tens of thousands of angry Chinese Netizens and demonstrators in the United States and Europe—might think twice when reporting on the CCP’s iron fisted tactics in China’s far west regions (People’s Daily Online, April 21).

With foreign media barred from Tibet and also swathes of neighboring provinces with large Tibetan communities, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers and the People’s Armed Police (PAP) have stepped up arrests of monks, radical intellectuals and other “instigators” of unrest that mainstream Western media have picked up in Lhasa since March 10. Only recently did authorities acknowledge that more than 4,000 detentions of Tibetan “troublemakers” had been made (Xinhua News Agency, April 9). The exiled Tibetan movement has claimed that at least several hundreds of other Tibetans had simply disappeared or were unaccounted for (International Campaign for Tibet, April 17). The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Deputy Lhasa Police Chief Jiang Zaiping as saying that while 365 Tibetans who had taken part in the March 14 “beating, smashing, looting and burning” incident in Lhasa had surrendered themselves to authorities, the latter were still hunting for about 90 suspects—and on April 18, 40 truckloads of PAP reportedly went into Sara Temple and hauled off more than 400 monks.

Given that the local prison was already full, these monks were locked up in a brick kiln (Ming Pao, April 19, 22; Radio Free Asia, April 21). Sorties by PAP and police into monasteries in Tibet, as well as Tibetan counties in Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces have reportedly uncovered large caches of firearms, ammunition and other weapons. That the crackdown could last much longer than expected was clear from signs that Beijing was unlikely to honor its pledge to re-open the Tibetan capital to tourists, diplomats and correspondents on May 1. PLA and PAP officers recently closed off the highway crossing at the Nepal-Tibet border, through which some 1,500 tourists and other travelers had passed into the TAR everyday (Xinhua News Agency, April 20; The Associated Press, April 17).

Equally, significant party and state authorities have called for a people’s war-style crusade against “quasi-terrorist organizations” in Tibet and Xinjiang. Official media including Xinhua, People’s Daily and the International Herald Leader have labeled the Dalai Lama a “terrorist.” These party mouthpieces claim that the more radical wing of the exiled Tibetan movement, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), has links to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups (Xinhua News Agency, April 19, 20). The propaganda machinery has also insinuated that the Dalai Lama and the TYC have received support from U.S. government departments and NGOs ranging from the CIA to the National Endowment for Democracy (Xinhua, World Times, April 20; People’s Daily, April 18; International Herald Leader, April 18). Beijing’s rhetorical volleys against Uyghur “splittists” in Xinjiang have also redoubled particularly after the PAP’s foiling early this month of attempts by two “terrorist” groups to disrupt the Olympics by means that include blowing up installations and kidnapping tourists and athletes in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Some 45 suspects were detained and 109.5 kilograms of explosives seized in operations in January and April (China Brief, April 14).

Public Security Ministry spokesman Wu Heping claimed that one of the Uyghur groups was connected to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which has been listed by the United Nations as a terrorist organization. In his press conference, Wu hinted that the campaign against anti-Beijing, anti-Olympics and other destabilizing elements had been extended to the entire nation. “We are facing a real terrorist threat,” Wu said. “All walks of life and the public should maintain a high degree of vigilance.” Wu gave no details on what ordinary Chinese should do (China Daily, April 10; The Guardian, April 10; Time Asia, April 28). Political and diplomatic sources in Beijing say cadres in charge of organization and propaganda have disseminated the leadership’s instructions about a “people’s warfare campaign against terrorism” (fankong renminzhanzhengyundong) during ideological indoctrination sessions in party and government departments as well as at factories, schools and other units. Party members and ordinary citizens have been asked to report suspicious characters to the police and to be on guard against “destabilizing forces” and “anti-China elements at home and abroad.” At a national meeting on “the comprehensive rectification of social law and order” earlier this month, Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang urged the people to work closely with police to turn over suspects and thwart efforts to disrupt the Olympics. “We must establish a law and order prevention and control network based on the principle of joint defense by police and the people,” said Zhou, a former Minister of Public Security (Xinhua News Agency, April 9; The Guardian, April 21).

There is little doubt that the “people’s war” to combat separatism and protect the Olympics has been aided by the flare-up of nationalistic sentiments. The relatively small number of liberal party cadres as well as dissident intellectuals who have urged a return to the conciliatory Tibetan policy of late party general secretary Hu Yaobang have been effectively silenced. In late March, 30 prominent writers, lawyers and professors wrote an open letter calling on the CCP to start a dialogue with the Dalai Lama and to allow UN investigators to look into the recent riots (Washington Post, March 23; New York Times, March 24). “The CCP has used the handy weapon called nationalism to silence those who question the authorities’ handling of Tibet,” said a Beijing-based magazine editor who requested anonymity. Appeals by NGOs in and out of China to CCP authorities to release jailed dissidents such as internationally known AIDS activist Hu Jia have been drowned out by the nationalistic cacophony. The same applies to a four-month-old signature campaign that urged Beijing to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) before the Olympics. While more than 14,000 Chinese, including prominent lawyers and legal scholars, had signed the petition, nothing more has been heard about it (, March 25; Radio Free Asia, January 1; Taipei Times, April 8).

Last Saturday and Sunday, slogan-chanting groups ranging in size from a couple of hundred to a few thousand staged protests outside Carrefour supermarkets in a dozen-odd Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai. The biggest rallies took place in the inland cities of Wuhan, Xian and Hefei. During a confrontation between protestors and police in Dalian, Shenyang Province last Sunday, several young demonstrators were arrested. The nationalists’ ire was focused at the French government’s alleged failure to provide adequate protection to bearers of the Olympic torch during the Paris leg of its global relay—as well as pro-Tibetan statements made by several French officials and parliamentarians. Carrefour was chosen as the target not only because it is the most visible French company in China but also due to rumors that surfaced on Chinese blogs and message boards that its owners had made donations to the Dalai Lama’s cause. The anti-French rallies constitute the largest manifestation of nationalism since the month-long anti-Japanese protests in the spring of 2005 (AFP, April 20 and 21; Ming Pao, April 20 and 21).

Equally striking has been the high-decibel PR campaign launched by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) against CNN and a host of other Western media. Partly in support of Beijing’s fulminations, several thousand ethnic Chinese last Saturday staged protests outside CNN offices in Atlanta and Los Angeles. While the immediate cause of the confrontation were remarks made by CNN commentator Jack Cafferty that the Chinese were “goons and thugs”—Cafferty insisted that he was referring to the PRC government, not the Chinese people—both MOFA and overseas Chinese groups close to Chinese embassies and consulates in different cities had since early April savaged Western media for demonizing the Chinese government, particularly its treatment of Tibetans and Uyghurs (New York Times, April 16; The Associated Press, April 20; Ming Pao, April 20 and 21). The Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents Club of China has protested against the CCP administration’s targeting of the foreign media—as well as denying access to reporters representing news organizations that had apparently been blacklisted by MOFA. Individual Beijing-based journalists have also complained about receiving hate-mail. Yet from Beijing’s perspective, protests against Western media in different U.S. and European cities have put pressure on “China bashers” among the foreign media. More importantly, much of Western criticism of China’s human rights record has become discredited in the eyes of ordinary Chinese. The vendetta against so-called hostile Western press will thus go some way toward serving the CCP’s goal of insulating the populace from stories about the seamier sides of the Chinese reality, which are only available in the international media.

There are signs that the CCP leadership has started to try reining in the excesses of the nationalists, particularly what the domestic press has labeled “angry youths.” Last Saturday, major media ranging from People’s Daily to Liberation Daily carried editorials and commentaries on the same theme: that “patriots”—especially young people among them—should concentrate on helping Beijing host a “perfect Olympics” rather than venting their ire through “irrational” actions such as boycotting the goods of a certain country. Xinhua urged fellow citizens to “focus their energy on doing well [in] their [own] jobs; building up the economy, and holding a successful Olympics.” China Youth Daily asked young nationalists to “channel their patriotism to actions for [national] development,” adding that boycotting Carrefour would only hurt the Chinese themselves. There were also reports that dozens of universities had barred students from leaving campus to join Carrefour-related protests (Xinhua News Agency, April 19 and 20; Ming Pao, April 20 and 21; Wen Wei Pao, April 21).

It is significant, however, that no ministerial-level cadre has yet made any comments on the possible abuse of patriotic imperative. By contrast, major incidents such as the anti-American protests in 1999 and 2001, as well as the anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2005 were stopped after senior cadres had made public appeals in the media. For instance, a televised speech on May 9, 1999 by then Vice President Hu Jintao effectively halted demonstrations by students and other “patriots” over the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade a few days earlier. The weeks-long anti-Japanese rallies and riots in 2005 only came to an end on May 17 after officials including then Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Trade Minister Bo Xilai had made remarks condemning “irrational nationalism” and urging an end to the campaign to boycott Japanese products (BBC, May 10, 1999; Ming Pao, May 17 and 18, 2005). That no senior cadres have yet spoken out could be an indication that the CCP leadership thinks it still stands to benefit if nationalism can be shepherded along officially designated courses.

For President Hu Jintao, who was party secretary of Tibet from 1988 to 1992—the events unfolding in Tibet now are probably reminiscent of the 1987 protests which brought Hu to Tibet—the nationalistic fervor enveloping the nation could serve the additional purpose of diverting attention away from whether senior cadres at both the central and regional levels need to take responsibility for the unexpectedly serious unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang. Several top officials running western China, including the party secretaries of Tibet and Xinjiang—Zhang Qingli and Wang Lequan, respectively—are long-standing protégés of the president. Despite the fact that vigilance over the “splittist conspiracies” had been heightened since last winter, regional cadres seemed to have been caught off guard by the protests in Tibet as well as four neighboring provinces (Reuters, April 21; New York Times, March 24).

Indeed, President Hu, deemed a hardliner on issues affecting national sovereignty and the CCP’s prestige, is convinced that the party has no other option than revving up a “people’s war” against separatists—and to ensure that China earn its global spotlight through hosting a Olympics that is free of either protests or quasi-terrorist incidents. During an inspection trip to PLA units in Hainan Island earlier this month, Hu, also commander-in-chief, asked officers and the rank and file to work harder in maintaining the integrity of Chinese sovereignty and to get ready for “military struggle” against unnamed enemies. Apart from combating “splittists” in western China, PLA and PAP units will turn out in force to thwart possible “terrorist” attacks during the Beijing Olympics. Hu indicated that China’s defense forces must “never slacken in pushing forward preparations for a military struggle” against domestic and foreign foes. “We must ceaselessly boost our ability to tackle different types of threats to our security,” added the supremo (Liberation Army Daily, April 10). Given that nationalistic and pro-government voices are set to dominate China’s universe of discourse until at least the Olympics, the Hu team seems assured of ironclad support from the great majority of Han Chinese in waging ever-tougher versions of “people’s warfare,” which includes rounding up more “conspirators” in Tibet and Xinjiang, and heavy-handed ideological education for Han Chinese about the imperative of fighting “splittists and traitors” among ethnic minorities.