*One very important note before continuing, the Chinese government has apparently restricted internet access, so the most readily available information is from mainstream media outlets. This post is simply meant to provide a recap of the situation as it is being reported. [See also, Chinese media coverage of the incident]
The situation in China finally hit the CNN frontpage briefly before getting drowned out by a story about Michael Jackson’s skin color, a ‘sexting’ teen, cops buying a doughnut shop, and Obama girls causing a fashion stir.
Thankfully, the beacon of balance and fairness in America – Fox News – had a small line about, “China Vows Executions for Rioters Behind Killings” (not much information there), buried underneath a story letting us know that it has not yet been clarified whether Michael Jackson will get a butter statue memorial or not (see “Jacko Butter Debate Churns“).
To find out what is going on requires some digging, and we hope to bring a recap to the events unfurling in China, and specifically how the Uyghur Muslim population there is affected.
Before continuing on to the present protests and incidents, it is important to quickly look at some of the history of the Uyghurs in China.
The Washington Post has put together a brief primer on the conflicts between China’s various ethnic groups here. The BBC also gives a historical breakdown of the events starting from around the 1940’s. One of the primary causes for conflict is the restrictions the Chinese government have placed on the ability of Uyghur Muslims to practice their religion. All religions are subject to state control by the government, but Islam seems to have received the harshest regulations. This is partially motivated by politics as well,
This severity is a result of the association between Muslim groups and the independence movement in Xinjiang, a movement that is absolute anathema to Beijing.
BBC also notes that the policies implemented have seemed to incite an excess amount of tension that the government seems unwilling to take responsibility for,
Severe repression since the launch of a “Strike Hard” campaign in 1996 has included harsher controls on religious activity, restrictions on movement, the denial of passports and the detention of individuals suspected of support for separatists and members of their families.
This has created a climate of fear and a great deal of resentment towards the authorities and the Han Chinese. ….
In the past, Beijing has also blamed an Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement for causing unrest, although there is no evidence that this ever existed in Xinjiang.
The authorities in Beijing are unable to accept that their own policies in Xinjiang might be the cause of the conflict, and seek to blame outsiders for inciting the violence – as they do in the case of the Dalai Lama and Tibet.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese government has also tried to label the Uyghurs as terrorists, despite a lack of evidence for the assertion (from BBC),
Beijing says Uighur militants have been waging a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting bombings, sabotage and civic unrest.
Since the 9/11 attacks in the US, China has increasingly portrayed its Uighur separatists as auxiliaries of al-Qaeda.
It has accused them of receiving training and indoctrination from Islamist militants in neighbouring Afghanistan, although little public evidence has been produced in support of these claims.
More than 20 Uighurs were captured by the US military after its invasion of Afghanistan. Although they were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for six years, they were not charged with any offence and many have now been accepted for resettlement elsewhere.
MuslimMatters also touched upon some of the crackdowns last year, noting restrictions placed upon the Muslims in Ramadan. And while the situation is affecting the predominantly Muslim minority there, there is a group of Christian Uyghurs that are also affected.
The violence occurring now is a fallout from protests that took place in response to clashes there. According to the BBC,
The Uighurs in Urumqi were reportedly angry over an ethnic clash last month in the city of Shaoguan in southern Guangdong province.
A man there was said to have posted a message on a local website claiming six boys from Xinjiang had “raped two innocent girls”.
Police said the false claim sparked a vicious brawl between Han and Uighur ethnic groups at a factory. Two Uighurs were killed and 118 people were injured.
A Korean paper also fills in a few holes,
Demonstrations that took place two days ago in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, led to major clashes that killed over 150 and wounded an estimated 800. The situation on the ground remains serious, with demonstrators regathering despite tight guard by military and police. … Most of the victims of the bloodshed were innocent victims.
Uyghur separatists who are pursuing sedition by stroking ethnic nationalism share in the blame for the recurring bloodshed in the region, but the Chinese authorities, who blame the separatists for the government’s severe crackdown, are also at fault. It is being reported that this incident started with a fight between Han Chinese and Uyghur workers at a toy factory in Guangdong province last month. Xinhua reported that two Uyghur workers were killed and about 60 injured when Han Chinese workers were provoked by rumors that a Uyghur worker had raped a Han woman. Photos of the scene, with people standing next to the bodies, circulated on the Internet, flaming anger from the Uyghur community. Uyghurs are saying the government lowballed the casualty figure and demanded it reveal the truth. These actions provided the backdrop for the latest bloodshed.
It is being said that Uyghurs are rioting due to strong feelings of being victimized by discrimination. The Turkic and Muslim Uyghurs have a different ethnicity, culture and language from the Han Chinese. ….
Ultimately, the Uyghur incident originates with China’s policies towards ethnic minorities. Without active efforts to respect the ethnic identity of minorities and reduce economic discrimination, the unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet cannot help but repeat itself. China must now re-examine its ethnic minority policies at its source.
Radio Free Europe adds that this is only the tip of the iceberg,
The fierceness of the rioting, in which by official count more than 150 people died, points to deeper wellsprings of discontent.
“Why they are so upset at the situation is because, every day, the government brings in hundreds, thousands, of [Han] Chinese into our motherland, East Turkestan — the Xinjiang autonomous region — but at the same time our people are sitting without jobs, suffering,” says Nizam Sametov of the Uyghur U.K. Association in London.
Sametov asserts that Chinese policy is to offer jobs to Uyghurs elsewhere in China, outside the Xinjiang region, thus reducing the concentration of this ethnic group. On the other hand, in the last five decades, there has been heavy Han immigration, so that today, Uyghurs barely outnumber the immigrants. … “Because our land is very rich in minerals, oil, gas, they just keep coming, every day bringing people from inside China to our own land. They hope soon that we will be a small minority, but we won’t,” Sametov says. “It is our own land.”
How the violence started is heavily disputed. The Uyghurs claim that the police started firing upon them, and the Chinese authorities say that the Uyghurs started the violence. The Chinese government’s control of the media has not helped produce the truth in this matter either.
A witness in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar told AP there was a protest there on Monday of about 300 people but there were no clashes with police. It is still unclear who died in Urumqi and why so many were killed.The Xinjiang government blamed separatist Uighurs based abroad for orchestrating attacks on ethnic Han Chinese. But Uighur groups insisted their protest was peaceful and had fallen victim to state violence, with police firing indiscriminately on protesters in Urumqi.Dolkun Isa, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) in Munich, disputed the official figures, saying the protest was 10,000 strong and that 600 people were killed. He rejected reports on Xinhua that it had instigated the protests. (BBC)
The Xinjiang government said that WUC leader Rebiya Kadeer was behind it, but she has denied such accusations, comparing them to the accusations that the Dalai Lama was behind Tibetan violence.
In reaction, many of the Han Chinese took to the streets as well.
There were reports of Han mobs assaulting Muslim Uighurs throughout the city, even as helicopters hovered overhead.
Ethnic Han Chinese residents armed with makeshift weapons and vowing revenge on Uighurs were seen roaming the streets for a second day. (VOA)
AP recaps the violence,
Thousands of Chinese troops flooded into this city Wednesday to separate feuding ethnic groups after three days of communal violence left 156 people dead, and a senior Communist Party official vowed to execute those guilty of murder in the rioting in western China. Long convoys of armored cars and green troop trucks with riot police rumbled through Urumqi … Other security forces carrying automatic rifles with bayonets formed cordons to defend Muslim neighborhoods from marauding groups of vigilantes with sticks. ….
Officials have said 156 people were killed as the Turkic-speaking Uighurs ran amok in the city, beating and stabbing the Han Chinese. The Uighurs allege that trigger-happy security forces gunned down many of the protesters, and officials have yet to give an ethnic breakdown of those killed. ….“When the Uighurs heard the people were fired upon, parents all came out looking for their sons and daughters,” he said, adding that security forces started to “disperse them by force, then started to beat them, tear gas them and shoot them.” [This] account could not be independently confirmed.More than 1,100 people were wounded in the violence. Dr. Yuan Hong of Urumqi People’s Hospital said most of the people treated at his facility were clubbed, while others had been cut by knives.
Ahmet was quick to rattle off a long list of grievances commonly mentioned by Uighurs. He accused the Han Chinese of discrimination and alleged that government policies were forcing them to abandon their culture, language and Islamic faith. … His neighborhood in southern Urumqi was targeted by mobs of Han Chinese who roamed the capital Tuesday seeking revenge. Ahmet’s friends had video shot by mobile phones and cameras that showed the stick-wielding Han men beating Uighurs. He pointed to blood stains on a white concrete apartment wall, where he said a Uighur was severely stabbed.
A Uighur college student who called herself Parizat added, “The men were carrying a Chinese flag. I never thought something like this would happen. We’re all Chinese citizens.”
The Uighurs accused paramilitary police of allowing the Han Chinese to attack their neighbors. But in the video, the troops appeared to be trying to block or restrain the mobs.
On Wednesday, the government warned residents against carrying weapons on the street, and most people generally complied. But there were groups of Han Chinese who tried to find soft spots in police cordons and rush into Uighur neighborhoods. ….The ethnic hatred in Xinjiang appears to run so deep that many Uighurs won’t express sorrow for the Han Chinese who were attacked Sunday.One of them was Dong Yuanyuan, 24, a newlywed who said she was on a bus with her husband getting ready to leave on their honeymoon. She said Uighur attackers dragged them off the bus and beat them until they were unconscious. Her husband was still missing, said the woman, who had abrasions on her face, arms and knees.
“My aunts have been going to all the hospitals to search for him. He must still be unconscious,” she told reporters who joined a government tour at the People’s Hospital.
Abdul Rehim, a Uighur with his left arm in a sling, said he was walking with his brother when a group of Han Chinese “just came out and did this to me.”
Another victim was Ma Weihong, who said she was walking home from a park with her 10-year-old son when the riot started. The boy suffered minor injuries, but the mother had a broken arm and wrist, missing teeth and head wounds.
Amidst the religious, political, and ethnic factors at play, unfortunately, it is the innocent civilians who become the victims.
The Huffington Post has a nice article which touches on some of the ramifications and expected outcomes of this incident,
For a few reasons, the Communist Party’s response is likely to be harsher, and even more sustained, than last year’s response to the Tibetan uprising. ….Second, the outside world’s familiarity with Xinjiang and Uighur plight is low. The region has never been romanticized in film and literature and only a few foreigners have visited. There are no transcendent architectural wonders a la Tibet’s Potala Palace that capture Western imagination. There is no roving ambassador, no Dalai Lama, to elicit sympathy for compromised values. Therefore, the global community’s response will be muted, led by diplomats and human rights groups, rather than CNN, bloggers and an indignant mass of activists. The issue will, sadly, fade quickly from the world’s moral radar screen. The Party will have significant room to maneuver.Third, the American “war on terrorism” – replete with kangaroo military courts and torture-extracted confessions – will make it more difficult for the West defend the interests of Uighur demonstrators, whom the Party has branded “terrorists.” Yes, there are a few separatists amongst the agitators, some of whom advocate violence as a means of advancing independence. The majority, however, want equal opportunity and protection under the law, and nothing more. But American Geneva Convention violations will lead to relatively sotte voce diplomatic condemnation.
Finally, and most critically, Chinese people “fear” Uighurs more than Tibetans. The former is unfamiliar, an “alien nation.” The latter, on the other hand, is a hot tourist destination. (Tibetans practice Buddhism and their appearance is not starkly different from the Han.) The people expect their government, first and foremost, to protect the country from danger. Most mainlanders view the unknown as a threat to stability and unity, a sacred national imperative. If the Party is seen as “soft” in dealing with the uprising, it will lose credibility — even legitimacy — in the eyes of many citizens, including new generation types, perhaps the most nationalist group of all. Despite a universal belief that the “autonomous region” is an inalienable part of China, denizens of Xinjiang are regarded as outsiders. Their religion, Islam, is “foreign,” associated with violence. (Only the Hui, an assimilated and geographically scattered Muslim minority, have been accepted as “real” Chinese.) Ethnically, the Uighur do not resemble Han. Their eyes are rounder and lighter. Their skin is olive, not “yellow.” In smaller towns, the Uighur, a Turkic people, do not speak fluent Mandarin due to a culturally tone deaf, memorization-driven education system.
So what will happen? The rebellion will be contained and Uighurs will continue to seethe.
To avoid adding fuel to the fire, the government will avoid extremely harsh measures – e.g., open gunfire — and keep the death count to a minimum. But make no mistake. Any fear of international opprobrium will not dampen the government’s determination to smother dissent. Under the guise of safeguarding stability, it will use coercive means to stanch future uprisings – e.g., torture, a continued tightening of digital communication that lasts for months, travel bans for Uighurs and journalists that extend into 2011, continued demolition of traditional neighborhoods and Draconian bans on community/religious congregation. The Communist Party believes “to scare the chicken, you must kill a monkey.” So it will hold high-profile show trials, covered only in Chinese publications. Some verdicts will carry the death penalty. Leaders will refuse to “negotiate” with Uighur leaders. Tension with minority populations will increase, reinforced by continued hiring discrimination and old-style, propaganda. (Today’s China Daily headline: “Locals hope for normal life after riot.”) I wish I could say the government will adopt a conciliatory approach and acknowledge the legitimacy of some grievances but primal dread of “looking weak,” exacerbated by a disinterested West, will cause tension to mount.