Guy Rundle enjoyed himself in Crikey last week by berating the right for its silence over the Honduran coup, as compared to its vocal support for pro-democracy forces in Iran. I think the analogy is a bit overdrawn, but fundamentally his point is correct: freedom and democracy should be defended against all comers, not just our own ideological foes.
But now, even as the imbroglio in Honduras continues, comes another test of people’s consistency: violence erupted yesterday in Xinjiang, with three people reported killed in clashes between local Uighurs and Chinese police.
Xinjiang doesn’t get a lot of coverage here, but it’s not a difficult issue to understand. It’s a classic case of old-fashioned imperialism. Just as in neighboring Tibet, the Chinese keep control by military force over an ethnically distinct and hostile population. No-one seriously disputes that both regions would vote for independence if given the chance, and the Chinese government is correspondingly determined to ensure that doesn’t happen.
No doubt colonialism has brought economic benefits to Xinjiang — just as did, for example, British rule in India. But the desire for freedom is not appeased by affluence. (Wikipedia’s entry on Xinjiang is very useful for those wanting to bring themselves up to speed.)
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As well as all the difficulties of facing a wealthy and well-armed imperial power, the Uighurs face an additional drawback: they’re Muslims. So, even though there is no evidence of them being particularly prone to fundamentalism, the media all too often abet the Chinese government’s narrative by portraying them as “Islamists” and “terrorists” — just like their counterparts in Kosovo, Chechnya, Kashmir, southern Thailand, and so on.
Back in 2005, the last time there was serious unrest in Xinjiang, China claimed the Uighurs “receive direct support from Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda group”. (Nearby Uzbekistan went one better, accusing its rebels of “a foreign-assisted coup aimed at forming an Islamic caliphate.”)
So if Honduras was a test for hypocrisy on the right, Xinjiang should spread discomfort more widely. China’s regime is more comprehensively repressive than either Iran or Honduras; if anyone is entitled to self-determination, the Uighurs should be.
But speaking out on their behalf means offending not just some Middle-eastern theocrats or Latin American generals, but one of the world’s economic powerhouses. Let’s see how many are willing to take the risk.