Monday, July 13, 2009
The riots in Xinjiang - Is China fraying?
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 Guantánamo Bay. Four of them were freed in June and resettled in the Bahamas. 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.
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.
How Hans dominate these days
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.
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 Guantánamo 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.