Return of the repressed
China's harsh tactics in Xinjiang have only stoked Uighur rage. Joshua Kurlantzick on why Beijing can't quit the iron fist. In the past two weeks, the vast western Chinese province of Xinjiang has been rocked by some of the deadliest riots in China since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. The spark was supposedly a brawl at a factory in eastern China in late June between Han Chinese and Uighurs, which left two Uighurs dead. A week later, Uighurs - an ethnically Turkic Muslim minority who have historically resided in Xinjiang - stormed through the streets of Urumqi, the provincial capital, burning Chinese stores and attacking Chinese residents of the city with clubs and other makeshift weapons. Some local Chinese claimed the Uighurs were stoning Chinese to death.
In retaliation, Chinese in Urumqi armed themselves with axes and meat cleavers and stormed Uighur quarters of the city. The rioting soon spread to other cities in Xinjiang. To date, more than 180 people have been killed, according to estimates by the government, though the true number of deaths may be far higher. Xinjiang has long simmered close to the boiling point - and the very policies Beijing has put in place to ensure stability have had the opposite effect, further stoking Uighur anger. Before the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the Uighurs had a de facto independent state, and most Uighurs, who speak a language related to Turkish, have more in common with Turks and Central Asian Muslims than with the Chinese to the east.
Separatist sentiment has been strong in Xinjiang for the duration of Chinese rule, but it has spiked in the past decade. Many Uighurs feel they are losing control of their own homeland: encouraged by Beijing, growing numbers of Han Chinese have relocated to the sparsely populated province in search of work, drastically altering Xinjiang's ethnic balance. Cities like Urumqi now are majority Chinese, and Uighurs - who were a majority in 1949 - now comprise only about 40 per cent of the population.
The two populations lead largely separate lives, but as more Chinese migrants arrive, they cannot remain entirely separate. Tensions between the two groups have increasingly exploded into violence: in the early 1990s, Uighurs rioted against Chinese officials in several cities, and in 1997 bus bombings rattled the province. Uighurs in the city of Kashgar told me that street fights regularly erupted between Uighur and Chinese students.
When I visited Xinjiang several times earlier this decade, this anger was not hard to find. On the surface, Urumqi seemed calm: the city was growing fast, new skyscrapers dotted the downtown skyline, and I snacked on sushi at a new five-star hotel, surrounded by Chinese businessmen ordering plate after plate of fish and imported scotch. As part of a broader project called "Develop the West," the government ploughed billions of dollars in subsidies into Xinjiang, building gleaming new highways and other infrastructure projects. But this investment has done little to temper separatist anger: since 2003, Xinjiang's GDP has posted double-digit growth almost every year, but most of the new jobs have gone to Chinese migrants. The province has become a major source of gas and oil for the factories and wealthier megacities of eastern and southern China, but Uighurs have seen little benefit. According to one study by the Asian Development Bank, Xinjiang still has the worst income inequality in all of China, and Uighurs have the highest infant mortality of any group in the country.
In Kashgar, in far western Xinjiang, I sat in the interior courtyard of an old mud-brick home owned by a prosperous local Uighur family; their daughter, a bright teenager who spoke Uighur, Chinese, and English, had ambitions of starting her own business after university. After some initial shyness, the family, secure inside their home, lashed out at the Chinese government. "We can't even go on pilgrimage [to Mecca], we can't get any jobs - they control our whole life," her father told me. When I contacted them in subsequent years, I learnt that after succeeding in a Chinese university, their daughter returned to Xinjiang - where, as a trilingual young Uighur with a prestigious degree, she found precious few opportunities, and eventually settled for a low-level position in an export-import firm.
Beijing's investments in Xinjiang have not been accompanied by a relaxation of state control over the economy - in stark contrast to eastern China, where the government has gradually privatised state companies and created a class of entrepreneurs, who are now among the strongest supporters of the regime that helped them get rich. The regime seems unwilling to employ the economic policies that work in eastern China in Xinjiang, perhaps because it desperately needs the province's natural resources, and fears that any economic liberalisation will spark greater political unrest.
A similar fear has led the regime to impose on Xinjiang the old-fashioned social controls that have been relaxed in eastern China. The officially atheist government has allowed most major religious groups some freedom, as long as they do not challenge the regime, as Falun Gong once did. Large new churches have been built in Beijing, and young Chinese businesspeople have rediscovered Buddhism, sometimes travelling to remote parts of the country to seek out prominent monks. But in Xinjiang, where during the Cultural Revolution Red Guards housed pigs in local mosques, the authorities still harshly repress Muslim worship. The state has made it nearly impossible for Uighurs to perform the haj, security forces monitor even small Uighur family gatherings celebrating religious holidays, and the state has banned many forms of religious education for Uighur children. In Kashgar, the government is rasing entire neighbourhoods of traditional Uighur homes to make way for bland apartment blocks often filled by new Chinese migrants. Soon, the entire historic old city of Kashgar will be destroyed.
Many Western and Arab nations, consumed by their own war on terror, have looked the other way as Beijing has cracked down on Uighurs' religious freedoms - which has only encouraged China to get tougher. The administration of George W Bush, seeking China's support for the Iraq war, agreed to put an obscure Uighur group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (which may not even exist) on the State Department's watchlist of international terror networks, alongside truly dangerous operations like al Qa'eda.
China's iron fist in Xinjiang only fuels further anger, but Chinese officials admit that even if these repressive tactics appear counterproductive, they are afraid to make changes for fear that the slightest opening in Xinjiang will lead to massive unrest. But the status quo seems certain, as one Human Rights Watch report put it, to "encourage the development of more radicalised and oppositional forms of religious identity". Indeed, while the Uighurs have historically practised a mild form of Islam, harder-line elements have gained ground in the province in recent years. China claims that groups linked to Hizb ut Tahir, the global Islamist organisation, are operating in Xinjiang, and some Uighur organisations do appear to be embracing terrorist tactics. In the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, militants attacked a police post in Kashgar, killing 16 officers.
Even the riots in Urumqi will not prompt any change from Beijing, which worries above all about stability and its maintenance - and believes that any cracks in its authority, anywhere in China, will set off protests all over the country. By responding so harshly to provocations in Xinjiang (as it has also done in Tibet), Beijing believes it can warn would-be protesters elsewhere that despite granting some greater freedoms, it will not hesitate to return to the hard line. Already, after rolling convoys of paramilitary forces into the province, the Communist Party chief in Urumqi, Li Zhi, has promised the death penalty for rioters. Rushing back early from a meeting of the G8 industrialised nations, Chinese president Hu Jintao echoed the hard line, vowing to severely punish the rioters.
Beijing is right to be afraid. In the 1980s, unrest in Tibet helped spark nationwide protests that culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, and throughout Chinese history, rulers have been toppled by peasant revolts that spread from one part of the country to next, eventually reaching Beijing. Just last year, similar riots broke out in Tibet, and across the country rural unrest is rising; Beijing admits it confronts more than 50,000 "mass incidents" (i.e., protests) nationwide each year, with many protests motivated by grievances against corrupt local officials. Unless China's government takes a softer line, rather than responding to each protest with greater force, it's doomed to scenes like those in Urumqi over and over again.
Joshua Kurlantzick is the author of Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power is Transforming the World.
Updated: July 17, 2009 04:00 AM