Big Trouble in Big China: Far West Terrorism, Trade Problems With Taiwan and Hong Kong Wants Something Called Democracy

China is having difficulties, west, east and center. The biggest trouble spot is in far northwest Xinjiang, with violent attacks against authorities. China calls the acts terrorism, but because news reporting isn't allowed, it's impossible to know whether elements of the local Uighur population are seeking separation from China, protesting against conditions, or are indeed engaged in terrorism. All are likely.

In the latest violence, dozens were reported killed when a police station and other offices in two towns were attacked by what China described as a terrorist mob. Muslim Uighurs say Chinese security forces are causing incidents by cracking down on local activities during Ramadan, the holy month.

Then the body of a controversial government-appointed imam was found outside a mosque in the old Silk Road city of Kashgar in southern Xinjiang, apparently assassinated.

In one apparent response, China charged a Uighur economist at a Beijing university with separatist activity. Ilham Tohti had been held since January.

In all, the violence of July 28 is only the latest in a series of Uighur attacks that date to the 1990s, when China first ordered its "strike hard" campaign. Hundreds have been killed, and the violence has extended to Beijing's Tiananmen Square and to Kunming in southern China, where 29 were killed at a train station in March. And after China's president Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang, another incident occurred, causing an irate President Xi to vow to crush terrorists like "rats scurrying across the street."

Xinjiang, more than 2,000 miles west of China's capital of Beijing, is less than a province, officially an autonomous region. The native Uighur population is outnumbered by Chinese Han, who moved into the region after China's communist revolution. The Uighurs claim they are being economically marginalized by the imported population, with Chinese officials biased against native cultural and religious practices.

If Xinjiang were China's only problem, the government's carrot-and-stick policies might keep order nationally, but Taiwan and Hong Kong also continue to be increasingly disturbing.

Taiwan is China's nightmare, and much of the tension with the United States and China's muscling into the East China and South China Seas can be traced to fears over Taiwan. Independence efforts ebb and flow in Taiwan, but the appeal of the separatist Sunflower movement greatly disturbs China.

The movement recently took aim at China's trade relations with Taiwan, seeing them as one-sided. When China's senior official for Taiwan relations, Zhang Zhijun, made an unprecedented visit to Taiwan in June, protests forced him to cut short his trip and hurry back to the mainland.

In Hong Kong, unlike Taiwan now fully a part of China, residents have long complained of China's heavy hand in local rule. Now China has promised fresh elections of leadership for Hong Kong, but with a caveat. China will select the candidates from which Hong Kong voters must choose. In response, Hong Kong residents by the thousands have marched and signed petitions in protest.

None of these problems by themselves, whether caused by the violent Uighurs or the Taiwanese trade protesters or Hong Kong's democracy-seekers, are sufficient, even collectively, to shake China's growth and military and economic strength. Just travel around the world and see the hordes of wealthy Chinese touring abroad. They are testimony to the Chinese economic miracle and to the late President Deng Xiaoping's promise that all Chinese will be rich.

Multi-millions are not rich, however, and many are far below the poverty line, as distance grows between China's cities and its rural regions, where the poor mostly remain.

Add to this mix the growing reports that China's real estate bubble could burst and its economy falter. Moreover, outsized defense spending and wild infrastructure projects with rows of empty buildings and highways -to- nowhere are creating boondoggle profits and corruption.

President Xi Jinping has a pick-and-choose policy of fighting corruption, most recently attacking a retired senior official who was a member of the ruling Politboro, causing fears among the elite, including China's military.

The overriding problem is the Chinese Communist Party's search for an excuse to stay in power. Communism as an economic tool has long been discarded, replaced by today's government-controlled capitalism. The Chinese leadership has substituted nationalism as its cry, even going so far as digging up decades-old wartime records to use against Japan and pushing around the Philippines and Vietnam for their properties in the South China Sea.

Historically, these are not the signs of a confident nation. All is not well in Big China.