x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sense of normality returns to Xinjiang

While the region recovers from the ethnic violence that left at least 184 dead, rights groups expect a clampdown similar to Tibet.

Armed Chinese policemen and soldiers check an ethnic Uighur's car at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang.
Armed Chinese policemen and soldiers check an ethnic Uighur's car at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang.

BEIJING // Calm began to settle in China's far-flung Xinjiang region yesterday as traffic returned to the streets where racially motivated violence left at least 184 dead in the July 5 riots. The deployment of thousands of heavily armed troops patrolling the regional capital has brought assured security to some and scrutiny to neighbourhoods closely monitored. "I am feeling under a lot of pressure because since July 5 they have arrested thousands. The families want them released early, especially because in Uighur families it's the men who earn a living," Alim, a Uighur working in the city government told Reuters.

Large numbers of troops have been reported to be concentrating on Uighur districts of the city. State media said 1,400 have been arrested for the violence. Officials have vowed to enforce the death penalty on those found guilty. There remains a divide in Urumqi where last week angry mobs took to the streets carrying out ethnically motivated attacks. "It feels like it's getting back to normal now but I feel there's going to be more problems," Xia Lihai, a Han Chinese man, told Reuters. He feared further Uighur protests.

The Chinese leadership have said stability is the number one priority in the region and released revised statistics on the number of injured in last week's violence. Injuries have risen by 600 to at least 1,600 state media yesterday reported. Zhou Yongkang, China's top leader of national security called for a "wall of steel" to win the war of maintaining Xinjiang stability," on a tour of the Xinjiang's southern Kashgar and Hotan cities.

State-run media are acting as advocates for ethnic unity. But internet and telephone lines across the Xinjiang region are still down, restricting the flow of information. Human Rights Watch said they expect a political crackdown to ensue in the coming weeks and months, calling for independent investigations into last week's riots, as Beijing draws plans to deal with the long-term aftermath of the deadliest civil unrest in decades.

"I think that what we are going to see is a very tight regional clampdown and its not going to be dissimilar to the what happened last year in Tibet, said Rosann Rife, from Amnesty International. Security experts say the government will step up surveillance to find those responsible for the deaths. "If they go too far cracking down it will attract other sympathetic groups," Steve Vickers, the chief executive of FTI-International Risk, said.

The Chinese Communist party maintains that the riots were politically motivated, holding "hostile" international Uighur groups responsible for the mass chaos, which forced president Hu Jintao to return home from Italy abandoning plans to attend the G8 Summit. Officials say 137 of the dead were from the Han Chinese ethnic group, which are now the majority in key Xinjiang cities. Forty-six were reported to be from the Uighur ethnic group and one man from the Hui ethnic group.

Experts are questioning how ethnic tensions can be quelled. The resource rich region's stability is not just a question of national security but also has economic strategic significance. Xinjiang, which borders eight countries, is considered a politically sensitive region like Tibet. The far stretching western region was not fully taken under Chinese control until the Chinese Communist party came to power in 1949. October marks the 60th year the party has been in power and the leadership is keen to prevent the rise of mass incidents in a year riddled with sensitive dates, including last month's 20-year anniversary of the violent clampdown of the Tiananmen Square protests.

The government says that the timing of last weeks riots were planned to draw attention to separatist causes as China's national day approaches. Beijing has been accused of using the threat of terrorism in Xinjiang as an excuse for the suppression of a people that share a common religion and culture to Central Asian countries. "It's a complicated situation. There is a gritty small insurgency." So far there have been little evidence that they are heavily armed or sophisticated," Mr Vickers said.

"Uighurs have all sorts of grudges that go back hundreds of years." Ms Rife, of Amnesty International, said: "We have said for quite a while now that the government frequently equates any redress as terrorism or separatism when it comes to Uighurs." Uighurs claim that their culture has been diluted by the government-encouraged influx of Han Chinese, China's predominant ethnic group, to the region.

Uighur groups accuse the government of intentionally curtailing their culture. Human rights groups have called on the government to acknowledge the ethnic tensions. "The idea that ethnic violence permeates an entire group is false. We have seen people on the other side who have gone out and helped people from different ethnic groups. People are willing to cross the line but the government has made it worse," Ms Rife said.

dvincent@thenational.ae