A green light to attack the Red Dragon

Yesterday’s massacre of Chinese police officers highlights the dangers behind the international politicisation of the Olympics.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

Much is still uncertain, or unknown, about yesterday’s massacre of 16 Chinese policemen in Xinjiang. But one thing seems pretty certain to me: the attack highlights the deadly dangers inherent in Western elements’ relentless politicisation of the Olympic Games, and their flattery and encouragement of separatism in China.

According to reports, two men, believed to be from the Muslim ethnic Uighur group, drove a truck into a group of 70 unarmed police as they jogged through the city of Kashgar in the Muslim-populated north-western region of Xinjiang. After ploughing them down, the two men reportedly threw homemade hand grenades at the officers and stabbed some of the survivors. Fourteen police died at the scene; another two died later in hospital.

Chinese officials are pinning the blame on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a tiny militant Uighur group that wants Xinjiang – which, like Tibet, is an ‘Autonomous Region’ – to become an independent country named East Turkestan. Western commentators argue that the attacks are a deadly reminder of China’s ‘Muslim problem’, and evidence that the rising power in the East is more ‘delicate’ than it lets on (1).

Yet there might be more to this assault than Western and Chinese observers recognise. The timing of it is particularly striking. Just four days before the start of the Olympic Games, as the world’s eyes are on China, an alleged Uighur cell launches its most audacious attack in over a decade. According to one expert, Uighur Muslims have not launched any serious attacks in their ‘sporadically violent rebellion’ since 1998; now they have executed ‘the deadliest attack on Chinese forces in a decade’ (2).

Perhaps they have taken their cue from the vast international line-up of government officials, political outfits, NGOs and radical activists who have transformed this week’s Games into an opportunity to ‘humiliate China’ (3). The politicisation of the Games – especially by groups in the West – has been relentless. Human rights groups publish posters declaring: ‘Promises Broken: Olympic Values Betrayed.’ Others place adverts telling us ‘China has blood on its hands’. They call on world leaders to ‘insist that the Chinese government honour its [human rights] pledges’ (4).

The opportunistic transformation of a sporting event into a political platform for attacking China has been so thorough that even athletes have been roped in. They have found themselves ‘overwhelmed by political menu choices’ and by numerous ‘wardrobe decisions’ about what shade of anti-China bracelet they should wear. ‘Every time you turn around, there is someone trying to make a statement about something’, complained an American triathlete (5).

It seems clear that the near-global discussion of Beijing 2008 as an opportunity to ‘humiliate China’ has helped to create a volatile atmosphere in the more restive regions of China. It seems to have given a green light for attacks against the Red Dragon.

No doubt, Western activists had in mind polite political boycotts or stirring China-critical speeches by Gordon Brown (a paragon of moral virtue, of course). But once you have comprehensively politicised the Games, and encouraged condemnation of China, there is little to stop disgruntled or violent groups from taking ‘the opportunity’, too.

The riots by angry Tibetans in March, which were the worst disturbances in Tibet for more than a decade, coincided with the start of the Olympic torch relay. Waving placards written in English and posters showing the five Olympic rings as handcuffs (designed by a Western human rights group), Tibetans seemed to be energised in part by Western culture’s feverish discussion of China as ‘morally unfit’ to carry the torch (6). Now, the worst disturbances in Uighur territory for more than a decade have been launched just days before the Olympics. And why not? After all, as we have been told time and again by respectable international activists, the Olympics are the ideal opportunity to air one’s grievances against China.

Furthermore, a great deal of Western activism on China now amounts to the encouragement of separatism. In recent years, human rights groups have slowly but surely shifted their focus from demanding real liberty for all the Chinese people to insisting on ‘cultural respect’ for Tibetans, Uighur Muslims and other minorities. They now focus, less on the denial of freedom to the Chinese people, than on the ‘cultural genocide’ in Tibet or on what one commentator today describes as the Uighur people’s ‘right to be themselves’ (7).

This shift reflects a sea change in Western politics in recent years – a move away from notions of universality and equality towards the celebration of difference and separateness. Some Chinese intellectuals are deeply concerned about the potential impact of this politics in China. As Mark Leonard, author of What Does China Think?, argues: ‘Chinese thinkers talk about the danger of separatism.’ (8)

And it isn’t only state-friendly thinkers. When I was in Beijing last month, I met a Chinese academic who said that where he and some of his colleagues criticise the nature of the Chinese state (it is illiberal and corrupt), too many Western human rights activists criticise the existence of a ‘Chinese centre’, the very idea of a Chinese nation that incorporates many different peoples. He said this is not helpful to the demand for reform of the Chinese state.

Western encouragement of separation in China, its celebration of ‘distinct identities’, not only threatens to unleash instability in this vast nation – it also undermines the case for equality and freedom in China by elevating special interests over the universal needs of the Chinese people.

The outbursts of violence in Tibet in March and Xinjiang this week can be seen in some ways as bloody expressions of the international demonisation of the Chinese. Western observers’ politicisation of the Olympics, and their cajoling of Chinese minorities, threatens to have a ‘balkanising’ effect in China. And if we do not challenge this cynical process now, we may soon discover that separatist instability in China will make the tragedy that occurred in the real Balkans seem almost benign by comparison.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Delicate China, The Times, 5 August 2008

(2) Attack on police casts pall over Games, Globe and Mail, 5 August 2008

(3) See Using Tibet to settle scores with China, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) China is losing the human rights race, The Times, 14 July 2008

(5) See Using Tibet to settle scores with China, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) See Invasion of the ‘robotic thugs’, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Has China got a terrorist problem?, The Times, 5 August 2008

(8) Charting China’s Intellectual Development, National Public Radio, 21 June 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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