The Uighur protests could strengthen the hand of China’s hardliners—at a cost to us all
After playing a constructive role at the London G20 summit in April, China gave $50bn to the IMF and dispatched ships to catch pirates off the Somali coast. Optimists will say that such good behaviour is a further sign of the long-term integration of China into the global economy and political system. They can point to 30 years of economic reform, the steady growth of personal freedom within China and even modest moves towards democracy, such as village elections in many provinces.
But recent events must give optimists pause for thought. On a visit to China in late June I was reminded that within the Chinese system there is a constant battle between liberals and authoritarians, and the hardliners have started to win more of the arguments. The violence in Xinjiang will only strengthen their hand. Most Chinese think that the government has been too soft on the Uighur rioters—and although China is not a democracy, public opinion (as revealed by comments on websites, at least) does influence policy. Even before the Uighur riots, last year’s protests in Tibet and the recent 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square had made China’s leaders wary of relaxing their authority. So had fears that the current economic crisis would lead to social instability.