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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

IS CHINA FRAYING?

July 17, 2009

Jul 9th 2009 


Racial killings and heavy-handed policing stir up a repressed and
dangerous province



IT BEGAN as a protest about a brawl at the other end of the country; it
became China's bloodiest incident of civil unrest since the massacre
that ended the Tiananmen Square protests 20 years ago. The ethnic
Uighurs in the far western city of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang
province, accused Han Chinese factory workers in the southern province
of Guangdong of racial violence against Uighur co-workers. By the time
Urumqi's Uighurs had finished venting their anger, more than 150 people
were dead and hundreds more injured.

Much is still unknown about what happened on the afternoon of July 5th.
A protest by several hundred people in the city's central plaza,
People's Square, moved southward into Uighur areas, including the Grand
Bazaar, a large shopping centre. Somehow--perhaps, overseas Uighur
activists say, because the police opened fire--it became an explosion
of anger, in which random Chinese were clubbed and stoned to death.

 Xinjiang is no stranger to unrest among its more than 8m Uighurs
(about 45% of the population according to official figures, which tend
to undercount Han Chinese migrants from elsewhere in the country). Many
Uighurs resent rule by China, which they accuse of trampling on their
Muslim Central Asian culture. It is not clear why the police failed to
stop the killings, nor how many of the deaths were caused by the
security forces themselves. Uighur exiles gave far higher estimates of
the numbers killed, which they said included many Uighurs.

The suddenness and scale of the violence, and its racist nature, were
reminiscent of rioting in Lhasa on March 14th last year that triggered
sympathetic protests by Tibetans across the Tibetan plateau. The
government fears that Xinjiang could face a similar convulsion. Both
Tibet and Xinjiang are sparsely populated, with vast areas of mountain
and desert. But together, and including Tibetan-inhabited areas
bordering on Tibet proper, they make up 40% of China's territory--in an
area of enormous strategic importance, bordering on South and Central
Asia.

Chinese officials were quick to accuse an overseas group, the World
Uighur Congress (WUC), of having "masterminded", "instigated" and
"controlled" the unrest in Urumqi, but have yet to offer proof. They
have particularly attacked the WUC's leader, Rebiya Kadeer, a former
member of Xinjiang's political elite. Ms Kadeer was one of the region's
wealthiest entrepreneurs until she fell foul of the authorities because
of her sympathies with Uighur nationalism and spent six years in prison
on state security charges. She now lives near Washington, DC.

 Remarkably for an incident so politically sensitive, the authorities
let foreign journalists go to Urumqi to cover the aftermath. (After
last year's unrest in Lhasa, Tibet was all but barred to foreigners,
journalists included.) The government was also unusually quick to
provide casualty figures--156 dead as THE ECONOMIST went to press, and
another 1,080 injured. It seemed confident that journalists would
confirm official accounts suggesting that those killed were
overwhelmingly Hans. But oddly, since hospitals keep records of the
ethnic origin of patients, the authorities have provided no racial
breakdown.

Foreign journalists who arrived on July 6th found the riot area full of
broken shop windows, fire-damaged buildings and scores of burned-out
cars. The manager of a car showroom said several hundred rioters had
attacked his business late on Sunday night, damaging or destroying more
than 50 vehicles. Among the dozens of riot victims admitted to the
nearby Urumqi Friendship Hospital was Huang Zhenjiang, a 48-year-old
Han-Chinese taxi driver, who described how he was attacked by rioters
with stones and clubs at the end of his shift. It was, he said,
"terrifying" and "unimaginable". Many residents spoke of rioters
smashing rocks on the heads of victims as they lay on the ground, and
even cutting off a girl's leg.

 The authorities may have been remarkably inept at preventing and
curbing the violence (especially since, as officials admit, they had
evidence that a protest was being planned). But they were swift to
start rounding up suspects once the rioting had died out later that
night. More than 1,400 people have so far been arrested. Urumqi's
Communist Party chief, Li Zhi, said those who had used "cruel means"
during the rioting would be executed. Xinjiang's governor, Nur Bekri,
who is a Uighur, said officials would use "all means" to maintain
control in the city.

They failed. On July 7th thousands of young Han Chinese rampaged
through the streets, calling for vengeance against Uighurs for the
earlier riot. "This is no longer an issue for the government," said one
man, with a club in his hand. "This is now an ethnic struggle between
Uighur and Han. It will not end soon." Carrying meat cleavers, axes,
clubs and shovels, Han demonstrators roamed in packs of 20-200, swiftly
changing direction whenever someone claimed to have spotted a Uighur.
"Kill Uighurs!", they cried. "Smash Uighurs!" and "Unity!" One
self-styled leader called out, "Don't break things!" as he exhorted a
large group towards an area surrounding a mosque. His call was met with
cries of "Don't smash things, smash Uighurs!" Police often made only
half-hearted attempts to stop these crowds.

More unrest boiled up on July 8th, even as President Hu Jintao flew
home before the G8 meeting in Italy to handle the crisis and thousands
more armed riot police poured into Urumqi's city centre in trucks,
troop-carriers and marching ranks. Many Urumqi residents believe the
new arrivals, though kitted out as members of China's paramilitary
police force, include regular army troops. Groups of angry Han Chinese,
mostly unarmed this time, ignored government warnings to stay at home.
They surrounded one-on-one fights between Hans and Uighurs and urged on
the Hans. Crowds also snatched away Hans who had been detained by the
police and set them free.

CLOSING THE MOSQUE
The Uighur side of the story has been slower to emerge. Many Uighurs
dismissed the government's account that the July 5th riot was part of a
separatist plot. But very few--such was the terror of police or Han
recrimination--were willing to say much. One Uighur owner of a clothes
shop, who claimed to have witnessed the riot from the beginning, said
it started as a demonstration calling on Xinjiang's governor to come
out and talk about what had happened in Guangdong. In the fracas there
on June 25th, Han Chinese workers had accused Uighurs of rape. At least
two Uighurs were killed in the fight.

After about 90 minutes the police told Urumqi's protesters to leave,
said the man from the clothes shop. The police then began shoving and
pulling demonstrators who refused to go. When some Uighurs responded by
smashing windows, the police used greater force, beating people and
firing their weapons. Violence by Uighurs then began to flare across
the city.

The response to the rioting elsewhere in Xinjiang has so far been less
explosive than the authorities feared. On July 6th in Kashgar, 1,080km
(670 miles) south-west of Urumqi, a group of Uighurs tried to stage a
protest in front of Idh Kah mosque, a city landmark. Two Western
tourists who witnessed the event said as many as 100 people took part,
shouting slogans and jabbing their fists in the air. Security forces
dispersed the gathering in less than an hour, without obvious violence,
and took away several protesters. The plaza in front of the mosque was
sealed off by riot police carrying clubs, and the mosque was closed.

The authorities may well have been better prepared in cities like
Kashgar. These places have more of a history of Uighur unrest than
Urumqi, which has long been dominated by Hans. The police say they have
"clues" that efforts have been made to organise protests in Aksu and
Yining. Yining, on the border with Kazakhstan, was the scene of rioting
in 1997.

The likelihood is that, as in Tibet, the authorities will clamp down
hard, and that this will fuel anger across a broad swathe of the
population. Xinjiang's most powerful official is a Han Chinese, Wang
Lequan, who is also a member of the ruling Politburo in Beijing. He has
held the post of Xinjiang's party chief since 1994, outranking Nur
Bekri, and has impressed fellow Chinese leaders with his tough approach
to Uighur nationalism. (One of his deputies, Zhang Qingli, went on to
become party chief of Tibet in 2005, an appointment that, in Tibetan
eyes, doomed any prospect of a softer government hand in their region.)
President Hu is no liberal on such issues himself. As party leader in
Tibet in the 1980s, he imposed martial law in Lhasa after protests
there in 1989.

Repression had already been stepped up in Xinjiang long before the
rioting. The escalation dates back to the launch of America's
anti-terror campaign in 2001. China then began linking long-simmering
separatist tensions in Xinjiang with the same forces of extremism that
America faced. It said one Uighur group, the East Turkestan Islamic
Movement, was part of al-Qaeda. America backed this assertion, but
Western human-rights groups said there was little evidence of
al-Qaeda's involvement in Xinjiang. China was playing up the
connection, they said, in order to justify harsher measures against
Uighur nationalists.

Twenty-two Uighurs were indeed caught by the Americans in Afghanistan
and sent to Guantanamo Bay. Four of them were freed in June and
resettled in Bermuda. The Pacific island of Palau has offered to take
13 others. The Uighurs insist they were not involved in any
anti-American operations in Afghanistan. But their capture helped to
bolster China's argument that it too faced an organised terrorist
movement backed by foreigners, even though occasional attacks in
Xinjiang hardly seemed well organised. Only primitive weapons were
involved in the two bloodiest incidents last year that were blamed on
terrorists--one against police in Kashgar that left 17 officers dead in
August, and bombings in Kuqa the same month that killed two people.
Suicide attacks, a hallmark of Muslim militancy elsewhere, are hardly
known in Xinjiang.

ECONOMIC JEALOUSIES
Since 2001 the authorities have banned private visits to Mecca and
insisted that those making pilgrimages there must go on organised
tours. The authorities have tightened controls on mosques in Xinjiang
and rules that ban children from receiving religious education. They
have warned students and civil servants not to observe Ramadan. A group
of Uighur women staged a protest in Khotan last year against local
government efforts to ban head coverings. (The NIQAB is often seen in
Xinjiang, especially on older women.)

But there is little evidence that Xinjiang's Muslims have been widely
affected by extremist movements elsewhere in the region. In the rioting
in Urumqi, racial discrimination is likely to have been a bigger source
of grievance than religious repression. Uighurs have faced more such
discrimination in the past year as a result of security measures in the
build-up to the Olympic games in Beijing in August. Police harassed
Uighurs then because of their perceived potential links with terrorism.
Hotels had to report the registration of Uighur guests to the police.

Security is again being tightened across China as the authorities
prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the country's founding on
October 1st. This will involve a huge military parade through central
Beijing, which the authorities fear could become a target for
discontented minorities. The event coincides with the 60th anniversary
of communist rule over Xinjiang. Even without Urumqi's unrest, Uighurs
had been likely to feel the pressure as the celebrations draw near.

Economic factors come into play, too. Many Uighurs resent what they see
as the business advantages enjoyed by Han Chinese immigrants, whose
clan, commercial and political networks extend across China. The recent
economic crisis may have exacerbated problems faced by Uighur migrant
workers in other parts of China, such as those in the skirmish in
Guangdong. Millions of people have lost their jobs as a result of
China's recent export slump.

Many Uighurs feel that their culture is being threatened by a massive
influx of Han migrants in recent years. China has stepped up investment
in the western region to give the area a greater share of the
prosperity that the east has enjoyed. The government denies it is
trying to change the ethnic mix of Xinjiang, but Uighurs complain that
Hans have enjoyed the lion's share of dividends from the investment
drive. Some of them also worry about China's efforts to promote the use
of Mandarin in Xinjiang's schools. Uighurs complain that the Han
Chinese tend to look down on them as uncultured ruffians. The violence
in Urumqi is likely to reinforce both these stereotypes--and the
Uighurs' vivid sense of alienation.

WHO TO TALK TO?
After the unrest in Tibet, China could at least placate Tibetan and
Western opinion by talking to the Dalai Lama. It failed to pursue this
option effectively, holding three rounds of discussions with the Dalai
Lama's representatives but offering no concessions. In the case of
Xinjiang, China is even less likely to open a dialogue.

Ms Kadeer, the figure with greatest clout among the Uighur diaspora
abroad, also commands some respect in Xinjiang itself. But she has been
so vilified by China that contact is barely imaginable. She also lacks
the Dalai Lama's political clout. Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights
Watch, an American NGO, says she is hardly known in the Xinjiang
countryside. China's official media have heaped scorn on what it says
are her ambitions to gain the kind of respect that the Dalai Lama
enjoys in the West. Even though President George Bush met Ms Kadeer in
2007, few outside the Uighur nation have heard of her.

With the West itself preoccupied by the threat of Islamic extremism,
China is even less reticent about cracking down in Xinjiang than it is
in Tibet. Journalists have long been largely barred from visiting
Tibet. But after the attacks of September 11th 2001 China became
increasingly willing to allow foreign media to travel around Xinjiang,
even without official permission (though some were still stopped by the
police). It may have calculated that media visits would reinforce
images in the West of a China beset by Islamist militancy. In Urumqi
this week, the authorities set up a press centre and organised visits
to affected areas for foreign journalists.

The government, however, was unusually quick to restrict internet and
mobile telephone communications. It has been spooked by the role of the
internet during recent unrest in Iran. The Iranian opposition has
sparked considerable online discussion in China, as well as
disapproving coverage in the official media. Within hours of the Urumqi
riot, internet access was cut across Xinjiang (the first time such a
wide outage has been reported anywhere in China, even during the unrest
in Tibet). International telephone calls were blocked. Within 48 hours
text-messaging services were also suspended. A few broadband lines were
kept open in an Urumqi hotel for the media.

But China could be heading for the same spiral of anti-Western
sentiment that followed the unrest in Tibet. Urumqi's unusual openness
to foreign media contrasts with an outpouring of contempt for Western
media coverage of the event in the Chinese press and on the internet. A
similar response last year fuelled nationalist anger among urban
Chinese and strained China's ties with some Western countries. (A few
foreign journalists in China received death threats because of their
coverage of Tibet.) The Western media have been accused of being too
sympathetic to the Uighur rioters. The GLOBAL TIMES, an ardently
nationalist publication published by the party's main mouthpiece, the
PEOPLE'S DAILY, has been among the leaders of the anti-foreign-media
charge.

Last year public anger over Tibet was particularly aimed at France,
because of the disruption of an Olympic torch parade through Paris in
April by pro-Tibetan protesters and a suggestion by President Nicolas
Sarkozy that he might boycott the Olympics. Mr Sarkozy turned up in the
end, but relations between China and France were soured for months, and
were further aggravated by a meeting between Mr Sarkozy and the Dalai
Lama at the end of the year. In the Xinjiang case, America is more
likely to be in the line of fire as the host of Ms Kadeer, who sought
asylum there after being released from prison on medical parole in
2005. China has long been grumbling about America's refusal to
repatriate Uighur detainees at Guantanamo Bay to China because they
might be mistreated.

China can count on strong moral support from its Central Asian
neighbours, with which it is co-operating closely to try to combat
cross-border militancy. In the old alleyways of Kashgar, now being
rapidly torn down as part of an urban-renewal programme that is
fuelling yet more resentment among local Uighurs, official painted
slogans condemn Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group calling for a
universal caliphate. The group, which has roots across China's borders,
has started to gain recruits in Xinjiang, but is not thought to be
widespread. China's efforts to establish common cause with its
neighbours, and to encourage them to stamp out Uighur militancy in
their own territories, may partly explain the prominence that Kashgar's
authorities give the organisation.

America feels these closer ties with Central Asian countries are being
forged at its expense. But it appreciates China's quiet support for the
anti-terror campaign, including intelligence-sharing. America has no
interest in supporting Uighur nationalism and exacerbating instability
in an already volatile region. Xinjiang for now is one unstable Muslim
area of the world where America is not a public enemy, at least among
its Muslim population. It will require a skilful balance between the
preservation of crucial ties with China and support for the rights of
an aggrieved minority to ensure that this remains so.

CORRECTION: we originally wrote that four Uighurs were sent from
Guantanamo Bay to the Bahamas. In fact they were sent to Bermuda. This
error was corrected on July 15th 2009.
 


See this article with graphics and related items at

http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13988479

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