x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Stability in riot-torn Xinjiang a top priority

Experts say tensions in the two autonomous regions, Xinjiang and Tibet, are the direct result of Chinese government policies.

Paramilitary police patrol the streets of Urumqi yesterday as more roads and shops reopen.
Paramilitary police patrol the streets of Urumqi yesterday as more roads and shops reopen.

BEIJING // Mai Mai Ti leans on his bicycle-cart on the side of a busy road in Beijing. His Mandarin is tainted with Xinjiang tones and he signals the price of his goods to his customers with his hands rather than his words. Last year he moved to the capital from Urumqi, Xinjiang's riot-torn city that last week witnessed the deadliest unrest in six decades of Communist rule.

"There is no problem in Xinjiang, everything is fine," the 21-year-old Uighur said nervously, when asked about the violence. Uighurs have been reluctant to speak of the violence that officials say left a number of Han Chinese dead in the regional capital in underlying the political sensitivity of the ethnic tensions in China's western region. "Uighur's loyalty to China is constantly being tested. It is assumed that they are involved in separatist movements. They are treated like they are guilty until proven innocent," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Xinjiang expert based in Hong Kong.

The Chinese government must restore stability in the western resource-rich region where thousands of Uighur and Han Chinese took to the streets last week clutching makeshift weapons and mobile phones to record the mass ethnic violence. But in order to guarantee stability authorities must acknowledge the ethnic tensions, analysts say. "Unrest in Urumqi should not come as a surprise because the Communist authorities' oppression of Uighur has been brutal and unrelenting in the last six decades, particularly since the September 11 terrorist attacks," said Nury Turkel, a Washington-based Uighur-American lawyer who has worked with Guantanamo Uighurs captured in Afghanistan.

"What we have seen so far is in line with what we saw 18 months ago in Tibet. The government will implement a systematic crackdown on Uighurs," Mr Bequelin said. The nature of China's one-party system means that tensions, be they ethnic, economic or social, are often translated and portrayed as political unrest by the party and treated accordingly, analysts say. With no political opposition, the central government makes an enemy of anyone who seeks redress for injustices, Mr Bequelin said. Uighur groups say they have for decades been treated like they are political dissidents, terrorists or separatists for speaking out against ethnic and economic injustices.

The 1990s saw a massive infiltration of separatist movements in the region by Chinese security forces. In the months before last year's Beijing Olympics, state media reported that police had arrested scores of terrorist groups. Security experts have said there has been little evidence of sophisticated weaponry and questioned the real threat of Uighur terrorism. Sixteen police were killed in the week before the Olympics by Uighurs.

The government has said news of protests at Chinese embassies in Europe and the United States were an indication that the July 5 riots were orchestrated from abroad. Yesterday the violence continued in Urumqi with two Uighurs shot dead by police, state media reported. Officials said a group of Uighurs were attacking others from the same ethnic group. Experts say tensions in the two autonomous regions, Xinjiang and Tibet, are the direct result of government policies and it is no coincidence that they have witnessed comparable unrest.

The Chinese leadership has blamed outside forces for both uprisings, where groups of angry young men took to the streets attacking Han Chinese. China officially has 55 ethnic groups but Tibetan and Uighur groups say that their cultures are deliberately suppressed. "The government believes relentless oppression of the Uighur is the way to achieve stability in China," Mr Turkel said. Uighurs, the mostly Muslim people who share cultural heritage with Central Asian countries, have been restricted from travelling independently to Mecca for the annual haj. But the central government supports Islamic studies for Hui, a largely Muslim Chinese ethnic group, which shares a common culture with Han Chinese.

Xinjiang's economy has developed substantially in recent years but Uighur groups say that they have not benefited. The government has encouraged the mass migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang, which is home to eight million Uighurs. Han now outnumber ethnic Uighurs in many of the region's key cities. "Mutual stereotypes have developed between the two ethnic groups," Mr Bequelin said. "There is a deep resentment between them."

dvincent@thenational.ae