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The Ethnic Tinderbox Inside China

International Outlook


The Dalai Lama's Mar. 22-27 visit to Taiwan is causing a big brouhaha in Beijing. Chinese officials, edgy after a string of fatal bombings in Xinjiang and Beijing, say the trip "undermines the unity of the Motherland" and claim that the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism is fomenting separatism. But the Dalai Lama, who preaches nonviolent opposition to China's repression, may be the least of Beijing's separatist worries.

China's whole periphery, from Xinjiang to Tibet and Yunnan, is now a necklace of ethnic discontent. Xinjiang's Uigur Muslims delivered their separatist message with bombs after Deng Xiaoping's death. Now, they are calling for strikes. "Xinjiang has the potential of becoming China's Northern Ireland," warns Barry Sautman, social science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Beijing would need to overreact badly to reach such a pass. But the initial omens are not promising. Nerves in Beijing are on a hair trigger as Deng's successor, President Jiang Zemin, seeks to strengthen his grip on power. Reports from Uigur exiles claim that mass arrests and summary executions of Muslim demonstrators by Chinese security forces provoked the bombings.

NOT SPONTANEOUS. If Beijing believes some of the scary scenarios now making the rounds, the latest bloody incidents could look like an innocuous prelude. One Chinese dissident, who spent more than a decade exiled in Xinjiang, says the current violence is a deliberate strategy, decided by many disaffected groups long ago, to test Beijing's resolve and power once Deng died. "Beginning now, from year to year the crises will increase," he says.

Beijing seems stunned by the possibility that ethnic unrest might be infectious. But officials are stumped about how to vaccinate the system against it. Policy swings wildly from turning the screws of repression even harder to killing with kindness through occasional conciliatory gestures such as promising to improve living standards for minorities.

The authorities' worries may be justified. Ethnic disturbances could jump from Xinjiang to Tibet and other areas. Hui Muslims, for instance, are chafing under the majority rule of China's dominant Han people. Late last year, they blocked streets in the Shaanxi city of Xian for days after a Hui died in police custody. The Hui also present a more insidious threat to central control. "The drug trade, which is growing all over China, is in their hands," says James Seymour, a China specialist at Columbia University.

RIOTS PREDICTED. Calls for stability at the recent National People's Congress meeting in Beijing are telltale signs. They are code for worries that the Communist Party's rule may itself be vulnerable. Chinese labor activist Han Dongfang, now exiled in Hong Kong, points to millions of losers from Deng's economic reforms. In such situations, argues Han, Chinese people traditionally see three options: submission, suicide, or rebellion. While dispossessed workers may still be at stage one, warns Han: "the shift to option three happens suddenly, without warning."

Even optimists can foresee worker riots. William Overholt, managing director for Asia research at Bankers Trust Asia Ltd. in Hong Kong, predicts them along with continued challenges to authority by minorities. But he says that's a far cry from toppling the party and defeating the 3 million strong People's Liberation Army.

Jiang, however, is taking no chances. It wasn't a joke when he donned a Uigur Muslim skullcap at a recent party event in Beijing. The Dalai Lama in Taiwan and separatist bombs at home have captured his and the party's attention.By Dave Lindorff in Hong Kong EDITED BY JOHN TEMPLEMANReturn to top


Both Americans and Japanese are happier about U.S.-Japan bilateral ties than they have been for years. A Yomiuri Shimbun-Gallup Organization poll of more than 3,000 people in both countries in January found that 46% rated mutual relations as "good" or "very good."

That's the best level since President Ronald Reagan's days and a dramatic improvement from the record low of less than 30% in 1995. The main reasons: reduced bilateral trade tension and less Japanese anxiety over the military alliance. Strains peaked after three U.S. servicemen raped an Okinawan schoolgirl in 1995. They eased with last year's agreement to return the U.S. air base at Futenma in Okinawa to Japan.EDITED BY JOHN TEMPLEMANReturn to top

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