Beijing, not Moscow, is the home of imperialism

March 5, 2014

One has to wonder if American Secretary of State John Kerry, Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird and all the preened diplomats of the European Union know a colonial, expansionist power when they see one.

The sound and fury they have managed to aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin in the last few days has been vastly entertaining. But it was evident from the start that, as Ukraine sank into internal chaos, Putin had cause to try to ensure the security of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the continuation of the 1997 agreement under which Moscow maintains a naval base at Sevastopol in the Crimea.

Yet other events on the other side of the world in the last few days should have alerted Kerry, Baird and the rest that there is a would-be imperial power at work, a power which already occupies large colonial possessions and is hungry for more. That power is not Russia, but China.

On Saturday a group of six men and two women armed with knives and machetes attacked crowds of people in the railway station in Kunming, the capital of China’s south-western Yunnan province. When the orgy of slaughter was over they had killed 29 people and wounded another 143.

Police shot and killed four of the attackers at the scene. A wounded woman and three other people have been arrested.

Beijing has labelled the incident a terrorist attack, but has heavily censored reports in state-controlled media. The reason is that the attackers were Muslim Turkic Uighers from the north-western region of Xinjiang, which the local people call East Turkestan.

The Chinese name means New Territory, and the Qing Dynasty in the 1870s occupied this vast, arid region which contains most of China’s oil and gas reserves. East Turkestan briefly regained its independence in the 1930s before being re-occupied, first by the Soviet Union and then, in 1949, by China’s Communist regime.

Soon after, China also occupied its other great colonial possession, Tibet. The people of both of these colonies have been restive ever since, with violent incidents becoming more frequent in recent years as Beijing has strengthened its grip, suppressed local cultures and religion, and promoted the immigration of Han Chinese settlers who have come to dominate the economies.

In Tibet in recent years there have been several major clashes between local people and the Chinese authorities. But the most persistent protest in recent months has been Tibetan Buddhist monks killing themselves by self-immolation as a demonstration against religious persecution by the Chinese authorities.

Xinjiang, however, is a classic example of the saying that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Inspired by Muslim insurgencies in the Middle East and Central Asia, the Uighers have embarked on a campaign aimed at convincing Beijing that the current policy of suppression in Xinjiang is more trouble than it is worth.

There have been about 200 violent incidents in Xinjiang in the past year, but a hallmark of the Uigher campaign is to launch terrorist attacks elsewhere in China. The aim of attacks, such as Saturday’s blood bath in Kunming, and a car bomb attack outside the Forbidden City in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in October last year, is to make Chinese people feel unsafe everywhere in their country.

A major motive behind Beijing’s censorship of reports of the Kunming attack and other similar incidents is to try to stop or contain public anxiety. But in the Internet age, censorship cannot be complete and there has been much discussion of the station attack on Chinese social media sites.

Probably as a result there was a serious incident in a railway station in the southern city of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, on Monday. Something caused panic among the crowd in the station and several people were trampled in the chaos.

As well as using all means available to hang on to its existing colonies, Beijing is intent on developing the military and political muscle to expand its empire. First on its list are resource-rich or strategically important areas such as the South China Sea, the East China Sea and Taiwan. In these three cases Beijing has manufactured “historic” claims to these territories and is pursuing a policy of gradual encroachment.

The encroachment in Southeast Asia and in Africa is largely economic, but in many cases the result is to create the kind of “vassal states” that paid tribute to and often gave political suzerainty to imperial China.

In the context of Putin’s actions in Crimea in the last few days, ostensibly to protect the territory’s Russian population, it is Russia that may well find itself the target of China’s imperial expansion.

The population of Russia’s huge and resource-rich Far East territories has been failing for many years. It was home to eight million people in 1998 and now has fewer than six million, partly because of a declining birth rate, but also because young Russians have been moving to the west of the country seeking work.

Meanwhile, just across the Amur River border there are 110 million Chinese looking for land and opportunity.

Regularly, there are stories in the Russian media that a hidden invasion by Chinese is already underway. Reports that there are five million illegal Chinese immigrants living in the Russian Far East are undoubtedly an exaggeration, but the true number may well be in the tens of thousands, and there are many more who slip back and forth across the border doing business.

In cities like Vladivostok there have been riots against Chinese traders who are seen as undermining Russian businesses. It is quite easy to imagine a scenario where Beijing feels, like Putin, it is necessary to mount an expedition to protect its people.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014