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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Behind the Violence in Xinjiang

July 10, 2009

By Nicholas Bequelin
International Herald Tribune - July 10, 2009

(Hong Kong, July 10, 2009) - The eruption of ethnic violence in China's
Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the most deadly recorded in decades,
seems to have taken both Beijing and the world by surprise. It should not
have.

The violence, coming on the heels of massive protests in Tibet less than 18
months ago, reflects the profound failure of Beijing's policies toward
national minorities, whose areas represent almost four-fifths of the
country's landmass but whose population makes up only 8 percent of China's
1.3 billion people.

The Uighur people, much like the Tibetans, have a history, culture, religion
and language distinct from the rest of China. Their homeland, the ring of
oases that formed the backbone of the Silk Road in ancient times, was only
incorporated into the Chinese empire in the 18th century. And the effective
colonization of Xinjiang only started after the 1950s, when Beijing began to
settle People's Liberation Army soldiers who had put down the short-lived
independent East Turkestan Republic (1944-1949) on military state farms. The
proportion of Han Chinese in the population of Xinjiang leaped from 6 to 40
percent as a result of state-sponsored population transfers from other parts
of China.

A second massive assimilation drive was initiated in the 1990s, prompted in
part by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Beijing's fear of
instability in the region. This time, instead of relying on forcible
population transfers, Beijing created economic incentives to attract new Han
settlers. In less than a decade, an ambitious program called the "Big
Development of the Northwest" brought between one and two million new
Chinese migrants to Xinjiang.

Economic development surged, spurred by a combination of massive subsidies,
oil exploitation and rapid urbanization. But the Uighurs were not part of
the rising tide. Resentment over job discrimination and loss of lands
swelled, combined with anger at China's religion policies and the stream of
new settlers.

The government's response was purely repressive. Already sharp limits on
religious and cultural expression were further tightened. Any expression of
dissent became synonymous with advocating "separatism" - a crime under
Chinese law that can carry the death penalty. Any sign of ethnic
distinctiveness outside of the sanitized version promoted by the state was
denounced as a plot by "separatist forces abroad." After a failed uprising
in the city of Yining in February 1997, the authorities launched a massive
crackdown that led to tens of thousands of arrests and dozens of executions.

For most Uighurs, Xinjiang increasingly became a police state, where they
lived in fear of arrest for the slightest sign of disloyalty toward Beijing.

Even prison officials started to complain to Beijing that prison and labor
camps across the region had become jam-packed. Isolated acts of anti-state
violence, such as the assassination of Uighur "collaborators," attacks
against police stations and the explosion of two bombs in Urumqi buses in
February 1998 only reinforced the determination of the state to increase its
repression. After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, the Chinese
began to justify its campaigns in Xinjiang as a contribution to the global
war on terror. China also used its growing international influence to secure
cooperation from neighboring states to arrest and deport Uighurs who had
fled persecution.

Although there is no dispute that clandestine Uighur groups have from time
to time carried out violent attacks - most recently in a series of bombings
and attacks on Chinese soldiers just before the Olympic Games - the massive
propaganda offensive about the threat of "East Turkestan" terrorism drove
Chinese public opinion toward an even more negative perception of the Uighur
people, who in turn felt increasingly ostracized and discriminated against.

Beijing's accelerated attempt over the past few years to forcibly refashion
Uighur identity has also fueled growing resentment. Following Xinjiang Party
Secretary Wang Lequan's declaration in 2002 that the Uighur language was
"out of step with the 21st century," the government started to shift the
entire education system to Mandarin, replacing Uighur teachers with newly
arrived Han Chinese. The authorities also organized public burnings of
Uighur books. Control over religion was extended last year to prohibit
traditional customs such as religious weddings, burials or pilgrimages to
the tombs of local saints.

Earlier this year, the government suddenly announced plans to raze the city
of Kashgar, the centuries-old cultural center of the Uighur civilization and
one of the only remaining examples of traditional central Asian
architecture. In a few weeks, the old city will have almost entirely
disappeared, forcing out 50,000 families to newly constructed, soulless
modern buildings.

This is the backdrop against which Uighurs reacted to graphic images
circulating on the internet last week of Uighur workers being beaten to
death by Chinese coworkers in a Guangdong factory. They took to the streets.

Unless the government addresses the root causes of ethnic tensions and ends
its systemic human rights violations, the chances of more violence will
remain high.

Nicholas Bequelin is a senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
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