Riots Sparked by Racial and Religious Tensions in Xinjiang, China
Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver Sun
4 September 2009
Chinese security forces chase Han Chinese demonstrators at a roadblock during a protest at the center of Urumqi in China`s Xinjiang Autonomous Region September 4, 2009. Tension flared in China`s western city of Urumqi on Friday, when hundreds of Han Chinese tried to push past security barriers into an ethnic Uighur neighbourhood and shouted demands for better security. The confrontation came a day after many thousands of Han Chinese massed in the streets in Urumqi, regional capital of Xinjiang, protesting that they were the targets of mysterious attacks with syringes and that authorities had been too slow to punish Uighurs behind deadly riots on July 5
Police used tear gas against demonstrators in China`s far north-western city of Urumqi today as thousands of Han Chinese settlers continued demands for better security against the native Uigher majority.
The protesters took to the streets of the capital of Xinjiang region for the second day claiming the authorities have been slow to punish Uighers, a Muslim Turkic people of Central Asia, for deadly racial riots in July in which nearly 300 people died.
Han Chinese also claim they have been the targets of attacks in recent days by Uighers stabbing them with syringes. Police and hospitals say over 500 people, mostly Han Chinese, have been subject to these attacks, but none has been seriously injured.
As local police and authorities attempted to lower the tension by appealing for calm, Beijing`s Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu arrived in Urumqi with a different message.
He accused terrorist and separatist elements among the Uighers for inciting the syringe attacks and the July riots.
"We should quicken the pace of dealing with the detained suspects and dig up the plotters behind this, and severely punish the murders," Meng said.
Meng`s arrival in Urumqi and his comments are a measure of the anxiety Beijing feels about the unrest in Xinjiang.
The Communist Party has always fostered intense Han Chinese nationalism, but as the 60th anniversary of the party coming to power approaches on October the 1st, this policy is showing signs of backfiring.
An uprising by Tibetans early last year and international condemnation of Beijing`s crackdown led to an outpouring of uncontrolled Chinese nationalist anger. Some of this anger was directed at Beijing for failing to uphold the country`s pride.
And the Chinese protesters in Urumqi in the last two days have massed outside the regional administrative headquarters demanding the resignation of the province`s most powerful official, the secretary of the Communist Party.
There has been growing unrest in Xinjiang for many years as Beijing has encouraged the movement into the province of Han Chinese settlers from overpopulated regions of the country.
Uighers complain that their Turkic Muslim culture is repressed, that they are denied education and that Chinese are given preference in employment.
China`s False Monoculture
Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times
15 July 2009
By blanketing the oil-rich Xinjiang with troops, China`s rulers may have subdued the Uighur revolt, which began in Urumqi, the regional capital, and spread to other heavily guarded towns like Hotan and Kashgar, the ancient cultural center whose old city is to be razed and redeveloped to help drain supposed jihadist swamps. But this deadliest case of minority rioting in decades—along with the 2008 ethnic uprising across the Tibetan plateau—shows the political costs of forcible absorption, shattering the illusion of a monolithic China and laying bare the country`s Achilles` heel.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party had gone to unusual lengths to block any protests from flaring during this symbolically important year marking the 60th anniversary of its coming to power.
For example, the 20th anniversary of "June 4," the date of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of prodemocracy protesters, went by without any incident because of heavy security in Beijing. A security siege in Tibet similarly ensured that the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan national uprising against the Chinese occupation and the Dalai Lama`s consequent flight to India passed off peacefully. A confident Beijing then provocatively observed March 28—the 50th anniversary of its declaration of direct rule over Tibet—as "Serf Emancipation Day" with a national holiday, as if it just realized it liberated Tibetans from serfdom half a century ago.
Against that background, the Uighur rebellion—in the 60th-anniversary year of the Chinese annexation of Xinjiang—is a rude jolt to what is now the world`s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy. Tibet, which was forcibly brought under Chinese rule in 1950, remains tense since last year, with foreign reporters still barred from traveling there.
The policies of forced assimilation in resource-rich Tibet and Xinjiang—at the crossroads of Asian civilizations—began after Mao Zedong created a land corridor link between the two rebellious regions by gobbling up India`s 38,000 square km Aksai Chin, part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Aksai Chin provides the only accessible Tibet-Xinjiang route through the Kunlun Mountains.
Aksai Chin began coming under Chinese control in the 1950s through furtive encroachment, before Mao consolidated and extended China`s hold by waging open war on India in 1962. A year later, Pakistan ceded to China a 5,120-square-km slice of the Kashmir territory held by it.
Today, about 60 percent territory of the People`s Republic comprises territories that historically had not been under direct Han rule. China, in fact, now is three times as large as it was under the last Han dynasty, the Ming, which fell in the mid-17th century. Territorially, Han power thus is at its zenith, symbolized by the fact that the Great Wall was built as the Han Empire`s outer security perimeter. Xinjiang and Tibet, by themselves, make up nearly half of China`s landmass.
The Manchu assimilation into Han society and the swamping of the locals in Inner Mongolia have left only the Tibetans and the Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang as the holdouts.
But the events since last year have come as a painful reminder to the Chinese leadership that its strategy of ethnic and economic colonization of the traditional Tibetan and Uighur lands is stoking deep unrest. While government efforts to spread Han language, culture and commercial power have bred local resentment, economic development in those regions—largely geared at exploiting their resource wealth—has helped marginalize the natives. While the locals get the menial work to do, the Han settlers hold the well-paying jobs and run the show, overtly symbolizing an equation between the colonized and the colonizers.
More importantly, the very survival of the major non-Han cultures in China is now threatened. From school-level indoctrination and forced political reeducation to Draconian curbs on native farmland and monastic life, Chinese policies have helped instill feelings of subjugation and resentment in Tibet and Xinjiang.
To help Sinicize the minority lands, Beijing`s multipronged strategy has involved five key components: cartographically altering ethnic-homeland boundaries; demographically flooding non-Han cultures; rewriting history to justify Chinese control; enforcing cultural homogeneity to help blur local identities; and maintaining political repression.
Demographically, what Beijing is pursuing is not ethnic cleansing in these regions but ethnic drowning. This strategy to ethnically drown the natives through the "Go West" Han-migration campaign is tantamount to cultural annihilation. A first step in that direction was the cartographic reorganization of minority regions. In gerrymandering Tibet, Beijing placed half of the Tibetan plateau and nearly 60 percent of the Tibetan population under Han jurisdictions in the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. Tibet`s cartographic dismemberment set the stage to ethnically swamp the Tibetans, both in the separated parts and in the remainder Tibet deceptively named the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The Tibetan and Uighur languages already are disappearing from local schools. Rapid Sinicization of their pristine environment, however, has only sharpened the Tibetan and Uighur sense of identity and yearning for freedom. After all, if current trends continue, Tibetans and Uighurs will be reduced within decades to the status of Native Americans in the United States.
Reliable information on the casualties and continuing arrests in Xinjiang is hard to come by. At the first sign of trouble in Tibet or Xinjiang, Beijing cuts off local Internet and cell-phone services and imposes a security lockdown through curfews and virtual martial law. Few believe the official death toll in Xinjiang. After all, Beijing has insisted only 13 people were killed in spring 2008 in Tibet despite the Tibetan government-in-exile documenting some 220 Tibetan deaths.
Significantly, there are important parallels between the Tibet and Xinjiang violence. The ethnic uprisings in both regions erupted after authorities tried to disperse peaceful protesters in the local capital—Lhasa and Urumqi—where Han Chinese now outnumber the natives. In both regions, the protesters vented their anger on Han settlers. And just as Beijing was quick to link the Dalai Lama to last year`s Tibetan insurrection, it blamed the Xinjiang bloodshed on exiled Uighur leaders, specifically the Washington-based Rebiya Kadeer, helping to lift her from relative obscurity to international prominence. An exbusinesswoman, Kadeer, however, is no advocate of violence, although she spent six years in a Chinese jail and two of her sons are still imprisoned in Xinjiang.
While Beijing was quick to clamp down on information about the events in Tibet and Xinjiang, it applied media-management lessons learned in Tibet to its handling of the news on Xinjiang. One lesson was that it had to go beyond suppression of facts to information spin to tone down coverage of the developments. So, as opposed to the way it shut out the media from Tibet, it readily let foreign journalists to the violence-scarred Urumqi for stage-managed tours.
But as in Tibet earlier, the Chinese propaganda machine focused on portraying the dominant Han settlers in Urumqi as the hapless victims, with the state media showing no images of Han attacking Uighurs or security personnel employing brute force. Indeed, presenting restive, disadvantaged minorities as ungrateful, violent races resistant to the Han civilizing influence has been integral to the regime`s repression.
Alas, the central plank of the Chinese system remains uniformity, with President Hu Jintao`s slogan of a "harmonious society" designed to undergird the theme of conformity. Little surprise Hu`s public response to the Uighur unrest was to ask local authorities to "isolate and deal a blow" to the troublemakers rather than seek to address the causes of the festering discontent. Brutal repression is a sure recipe for more unrest.
While India celebrates diversity, China honors artificially enforced monoculturalism, although it officially comprises 56 nationalities—the Han nationality (which, according to the last census in 2000, accounted for 91 percent of the total population) and 55 ethnic minority groups. China seeks not only to play down its ethnic diversity, but also to conceal the cultural and linguistic cleavages among the Han majority, lest the historical north-south fault lines resurface with a vengeance.
The Han—split in seven or more linguistically and culturally distinct groups—are anything but homogenous. The major languages in China other than those in minority homelands include Mandarin, Hakka (spoken in several southern areas), Gan (Jiangxi province), Wu (Zhejiang province), Xiang (Hunan province), Yue (mostly Guangdong province), Pinghua (an offshoot of Yue), Southern Min (Hokkien/Taiwanese) and Northern Min.
Yet the CCP has used the myth of homogeneity to fan Han nationalism. This myth, originally designed to unify the non-Manchus against the Manchu Qing Dynasty, was invented by Sun Yat-Sen, who led the republican movement that took power in 1911. The subsequent imposition of the northern language, Mandarin, helped establish a lingua franca in a diverse society but, almost a century later, it is not Mandarin but the local languages that remain commonly spoken.
Today, thanks to the greater self-awareness flowing from advances in information and communications technologies, the Hakka, Sichuanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fujianese, Swatow, Hunanese and other communities officially classified as Han are reasserting their distinctive identities and taking pride in their cultural heritage.
China`s ethnic problems won`t go away unless the rulers stop imposing cultural homogeneity and abandon ethnic drowning as state strategy in minority lands.
After the 2008 Tibetan uprising, 2009 will go down as the year the Uighurs revolted.
With next year marking 60 years of Chinese occupation of Tibet, the spotlight will stay on China`s internal challenges. And with economic growth slowing and domestic unrest growing at about the same rate as China`s GDP, these challenges indeed extend to the Chinese heartland.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
Ethnic Unrest in Xinjiang
Part 1: Uighurs Lament their Lost Homeland
13 July 2009
As it did in Tibet, the Chinese leadership is harshly cracking down on unrest in Xinjiang. The region`s Muslim Uighurs feel degraded and robbed of their culture while they suffer in their homeland under the dominance of the Han Chinese.
Hairegul is wearing a pink T-shirt with the word "Sunshine" printed on the front. Her fingernails are the same shade of pink, her eyelashes are painted with mascara, and she is adept at flipping her long black hair back and forth. Meanwhile, Wang Xiaomei`s hair is pinned up and five rhinestone studs sparkle in her left ear. She is wearing a striped sweater and clunky, brightly colored plastic bracelets around her wrist.
Unrest in Urumqi
Hairegul is a Uighur and Wang Xiaomei is Han Chinese. They are both daughters of affluent parents, 21 and in the middle of their semester exams at a teacher training college in Urumqi. The two women live in the same dormitory and are sitting in the same classroom. They are both studying music and want to be teachers. They have the same dream.
A light summer rainstorm is about to descend on Urumqi, the capital of China`s western Xinjiang province. A few days earlier, clashes between Uighur and ethnic Chinese students resulted in bloodshed. "We don`t dare go out into the streets," say Hairegul and Wang . "We don`t know how we`ll get home after the exams."
When a group of Uighur students tried to stage a protest march on Sunday, 5 July, police broke up the gathering. Uighurs then began attacking Han Chinese in the streets, and some set fire to and looted shops. The ensuing massacre has since shaken the country and horrified the world. At least 184 people are believed to have been killed, including women and children, and more than 1,000 were injured. It is not yet known how many of the casualties could be attributed to beatings and how many to police bullets. President Hu Jintao took the unrest so seriously that he left last week`s G-8 summit in Italy and quickly flew home.
Wang became caught up in the chaos by accident. "It was so horrible, the way they were beating people. I couldn`t watch, and so I fled to a police station," she says, fighting back tears.
A Booming Economy
Xinjiang—"New Border" in Chinese—is an enormous region that connects China with Central Asia. Of Xinjiang`s roughly 20 million inhabitants, about nine million are Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group many of whom are Muslim. They want to hold onto their region and their culture, and they feel that the Han Chinese dominate them and treat them with contempt.
The name Xinjiang evokes images of the ancient caravans that once passed through the region, along the Silk Road. Even today, the landscape is dotted with oases surrounding earth-colored mosques, where old men in long beards, wearing traditional "dopa" hats on their bald heads, sit in front.
The central government in Beijing pumps billions into Xinjiang each year, transporting the abundant oil and natural gas into its booming eastern provinces. As a result, the economy in Xinjiang has grown faster than in many other Chinese provinces for many years.
Urumqi, the focus of the unrest, is a city that has plunged headlong into a new era. High-rise buildings dominate the downtown area and Western influences are evident in the city`s Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, Max Mara boutiques and Adidas shops, and yet the romance of the Orient still exists alongside Urumqi`s more contemporary elements. Uighurs can be seen selling melons and raisins in bazaars and vendors barbecue shish kebabs on street corners. Uighurs and Chinese normally live and work in relative harmony in Urumqi, even if relations between the two groups are not necessarily friendly.
But then the unrest broke out. At the beginning of last week, a crowd of Han Chinese suddenly appeared in the streets, seemingly out of nowhere. Wielding clubs, iron bars and spades, they were intent on avenging the Chinese who had died on that violent Sunday. "Kill, kill!" some of them, including young women, shouted. The crowd smashed the windows of Muslim shops and upended a car in front of a mosque across the street from the bus terminal.
"They killed four of us at the bazaar, just an hour ago," says a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. She pulls out her mobile phone to show us photos of a man streaming with blood. "He is dead," she says.
"They Will Kill Us All Tonight"
Others fetch a video camera to show footage they filmed from a window, when police officers attempted to push away Han Chinese zealots who were throwing stones at the Uighurs. One of them was waving a Chinese flag. A large puddle of blood appears on the video. "A dead man was lying there. The government is not protecting us. They have announced that they will kill us all tonight," says a slender student.
In Urumqi`s old Muslim neighborhood, in the shadow of the skyscrapers, people live in old apartment buildings and poorly constructed huts. The government is trying to renovate the district, and it has built hospitals, mosques and a new bazaar there in recent years. On one wall, there is even a drawing of Mao Zedong shaking hands with a bearded Uighur.
Residents look on with suspicion as a column of policemen dressed in black, wearing helmets and wielding batons, passes by. Armed policemen squat on the sidewalk in front of a bank, next to their shields and helmets. An officer is reading out loud from the People`s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, in which the lead article mentions "terrorists" and "separatists"—the official account of the turmoil.
The Communist Party leadership is trying to regain control over the city through sheer force of numbers. A kilometer-long convoy of the Armed People`s Police enters the city from the south, along New China Street. The men stand in the trucks, their shields and guns at the ready. Following behind are water canons, armored personnel carriers, command centers, ambulances and SUVs.
Many are still wondering how this could have happened and why Uighurs and Han Chinese who, until now, have gotten along as neighbors, coworkers and fellow students, would suddenly start attacking each other with clubs, knives, spades and axes.
In an echo of its reaction to last year`s unrest in Tibet, the Communist Party is once again looking abroad to assign the blame. This time it is not the Dalai Lama Beijing is blaming, but a relatively unknown Uighur businesswoman who wears her hair in long braids: Rebiya Kadeer, 62, who was imprisoned for six years "for leaking state secrets" before being permitted to leave the country and travel to the United States.
Journalists and academics appearing on state-controlled television are quick to offer conspiracy theories. As in the case of the Tibetans, they say, the Uighurs are backed by "certain" governments seeking to split China and stand in the way of its becoming a peaceful major power. They deliberately decline to mention which governments they are referring to.
Part 2: "We Live From Hand to Mouth"
The spark for the current crisis began in a toy factory in the southern province of Guangdong. On June 26, violence erupted between Han Chinese and Uighur migrant workers at the factory, in the wake of a rumor that Uighurs had raped Han Chinese women. Two Uighurs were killed in the fighting.
The rumor was apparently false and now the Uighurs have become deeply mistrustful. "We don`t believe the reports in the press," says Hairegul, the student in Urumqi. "We had heard that 200 people were killed, not two. That was why the students took to the streets."
Anyone who hopes to uncover the roots of the friction should travel to two Urumqi neighborhoods. One is the bitterly poor area along Dawan South Street, where men are slaughtering two sheep in a small market and where veiled women dart through narrow side streets.
The residents are from places like Kuqa, Aksu and small oases bordering the Taklamakan Desert, where they were no longer able to eke out an existence as farmers. Their world was turned upside down and factories now stand where they once tilled the land. Unable to make a living in the countryside, many have come to the capital to look for work—though their prospects are slim.
One vendor opened a small shop on one of the street corners a few weeks ago with his family`s accumulated savings. He sells household goods, including pots, toothpaste and honey. A few telephones are displayed in his shop, in a place where no one can even afford to buy a mobile phone. A woman in a black caftan covering everything but her eyes sits at the cash register. The couple has a young son and the family lives behind a pink curtain in the shop. "We pay 600 yuan a month in rent, and then there are the expenses, but I haven`t made a profit yet," says the shopkeeper. 600 yuan is about €60 ($84).
"Hardly any of us have work," says a tailor as he walks into the shop. "We live from hand to mouth. There are factories here with thousands of workers, and not one of them is a Uighur."
Two car dealerships across the street were burned down on Sunday. The owner is a Muslim, and so were the arsonists. For several days in a row, soldiers and policemen came to the neighborhood at night and dragged off dozens of men and adolescents.
"We Are Faster and Better Educated"
The second neighborhood is in the brown hills in the southern part of Urumqi, where large slums have sprung up in recent years. Some of the dwellings are nothing but crude wooden shacks. Uighurs from the oases and Chinese immigrants live in these crowded slums.
Uniformed men in steel helmets stand guard at the entrance to a small street market, where there have also been killings. Members of the two ethnic groups attacked one another, although no one knows who initiated the violence. Mrs. Tian is from Sichuan Province. She sells hard liquor from large clay jars, in a shop called "For Calming."
"The Uighurs complain that we took away their homeland," she says. "And they`re right. Most of the vendors in this market are now Han Chinese. We are faster and better educated. The Uighurs have trouble with the Chinese language."
The Han Chinese make up about 92 percent of China`s population, which also comprises 55 ethnic minorities, including the Muslim Uighurs, who feel marginalized.
Up to two million Han Chinese have moved to Xinjiang since the 1990s. For the new settlers, who see Xinjiang as simply another part of the People`s Republic, this is perfectly normal. However, a Beijing observer characterizes the migration as a "Palestinization" of the region. The Han Chinese, he says, behave live colonial masters, forcing local residents to switch to Beijing time, even though the sun rises two hours later in faraway Urumqi.
Clamping Down on the "Three Forces"
Fearing that Xinjiang could become a hotbed for Muslim terrorists seeking to use violence to secure independence for an "East Turkistan," the Communist Party has clamped down in the past few years, particularly with a recent campaign against what it calls the "three forces"—terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. Those who criticize the government risk being imprisoned on charges of separatism or terrorism.
In the modern city of Urumqi, more and more Uighur women have taken to wearing veils, even though this deprives them of any opportunity to find work. A woman, speaking flawless Chinese, says that she once worked in a telephone shop, until she was fired after being told to choose between her veil and her job.
Under these circumstances, the Muslim residents of Urumqi are becoming increasingly enraged at being treated like strangers in their own homeland. Many feel that they are misused as colorful traditional dancers and singers, and only valued when Beijing wants to demonstrate how harmoniously the ethnic groups in the People`s Republic can live together.
What happens next, after the tragedy of Urumqi? "I want things to be the way they used to be," says Wang, the music student. "But things should also be more just," says her fellow student Hairegul, the Uighur.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan