The Uyghur dilemma, 2009-14

Five years after ethnic tensions in western China's Xinjiang province exploded into violence, the political situation there remains troubled.

Enver Tohti
5 July 2014

Five years ago, on 5 July 2009, news emerged of rioting and ethnic conflict between the Uyghur and the Han, the largest ethnic group in China. The bloody clashes took place in Ürümchi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China's far west, and  claimed over 200 lives according to the official tally.

For those directly involved, as well as those indirectly implicated in the rioting, it was a tragic day. Friends and families of the victims have suffered great torments, while hundreds of Uyghurs are still waiting to hear about the fate of their missing menfolk who were rounded up in the aftermath of the riot. In fact, it was a protest march by hundreds of Uyghur women in Ürümchi on 6 July, demanding the immediate release of their missing loved ones, that changed the western media’s initial indifference towards the event.

In this sense, by catapulting a local conflict onto the world stage the riot and its aftermath heralded the beginning of wider international awareness of the Uyghur cause. Today, many more people know about the Uyghurs, the historic inhabitants of the vast region known as the  "new territory/domain" (Xinjiang) which lies beyond the western limits of the Great Wall of China.

Five years on, the nature of the Ürümchi events is still unclear. Was the key event a riot or an uprising against Chinese colonial rule, a spontaneous outburst or a premeditated uprising, even an organic expression of prevailing discontent about the social injustice and racial discrimination practised by the People's Republic of China?

What is clear is that the events of this day five years ago were the violent expression of dangerous tensions in Xinjiang that over the previous decade had been heightened by several factors: a shifting demographic balance engendered by a large influx of internal migrants, land grabs, the over-exploitation of limited natural resources, the marginalisation of the indigenous inhabitants, and an increasing wealth gap along ethnic lines. In turn these reflect the legacy of events since in the mid-18th century, when the region was annexed by the Manchu Qing dynasty. Today, the situation in Xinjiang is again worsening, and heading towards an impasse for the Uyghurs and the Chinese state alike.

The blame-game

The Ürümchi incident was followed by much coverage in the international media. But in China itself, the state's media control made it the only official source of information, which it used to the full: blaming the rioters and emphasising their brutality, as well as targeting separatist elements both inside Xinjiang and among the Uyghur diasporas, and "China haters" in the west. In this way the state intentionally diverted attention from its own policy failures which were at the root of increasing ethic tension in the region.

Beijing labelled the incident a "premeditated, organised violent crime... instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws from within. It was a serious crime masterminded and organised by three evil forces: terrorists, separatists and religious extremists at home and abroad, who want to destabilize and ultimately to destroy the unity of the motherland."

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a United States-based dissident organisation, rejected this analysis and itself blamed the biased nationality policy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The WUC also strongly condemned the Chinese government’s heavy-handed suppression of a peaceful protest by young students, who on 26 June 2009 had demanded that the government act on incident in a toy factory in Shaoguan city, in China’s Guangdong province, when migrant Uyghur workers were attacked and killed by a Han mob.

In that case, an online rumour had been spread by a laid-off Han worker to the effect that a group of Uyghur workers had sexually assaulted two Han girls. This led to a deadly clash between Han and Uyghur factory workers. which, according to official sources, resulted in two deaths and hundreds of injuries. A survivor’s account, however, said that over 100 Uyghurs were killed when a group of over 600 Uyghurs had been attacked by thousands of Han Chinese armed with machetes and clubs. An online video-clip taken on the day shows least three corpses lying on the street as a young woman is chased across a factory yard and assaulted.

The details provided by the WUC about the 5 July riot in Ürümchi suggest that around 5pm local time a peaceful protest began with thousands of Uyghur students marching towards People’s Square and massing in front of the provincial government building. They were carrying the Chinese flag and expressing their anger at the authorities’ indifference to the Shaoguan toy-factory incident. But instead of recognising and rectifying the root cause of the problem, the Chinese government ignored the link between the Shaoguan incident and the subsequent Ürümchi protest, choosing simply to castigate the WUC as trouble-makers.

In turn the WUC denied any involvement and claimed the riot was the culmination of long-standing problems, such as discriminatory state practice in Xinjiang. A day after the protest in Ürümchi, the Han residents of the city organised a revenge attack on Uyghur neighbourhoods, even though there was by then a heavy presence of military and police in the city. Social media disseminated clips showing a soldier distributing clubs to the Han assailants. However, this episode has never been reported even when the 5 July protest is mentioned in Chinese media and official reports.

The crackdown on the Uyghurs in the aftermath of the riot, lasting more than a year, was heavy-handed and indiscriminate. It included house-to-house searches, disappearances, torture and restrictions on movement. Many of those detained were summarily executed or sentenced to lengthy imprisonment. Five years on, there are still many unanswered questions around these events, and the likelihood of the full truth ever coming out is diminishing.

There is, though, no real evidence that the anti-Chinese riot was premeditated and orchestrated from outside. It is obvious that the protest started as a peaceful demonstration, was not anti-government in nature or part of an anti-Han plot. It is harder, amid the blame-game,  to ascertain how it turned violent. Fom the Uyghur perspective, the Shaoguan toy-factory incident poured oil on the flames of already increasing Uyghur disquiet, which was shared by other ethnic and religious minority communities in Xinjiang. The same doubts surround the hypothesis that the authorities were in the know about the protest, and even allowed it to take place. It would be hard to identify the regime’s motivation, and who would benefit from even worse tensions in Xinjiang.

The broader discontent

The WUC's "time-bomb" analogy, used in reference to the Uyghur problem, encapsulates the tension simmering in Chinese society in general, and in minority areas in particular. When dealing with large-scale social incidents, the regimeseems to have no other weapon but suppression. Today, there are daily news reports of clashes with the police over various unaddressed grievances nationwide. Police brutality, imprisonment, torture and the killings of protesters are common in the PRC. The situation in minority areas is especially acute, in that they are the most disadvantaged sections in the areas where they live and they feel marginalised in their own land.

In the modern period, the roots of Uyghur discontent lie in the ethnic policy pursued by the Chinese regime in Xinjiang in the post-Mao era. After Mao Zedong's in 1976, economic reforms heralded the end of three decades of self-imposed seclusion, and transformed China into a vibrant economic power. In the three subsequent decades, hundreds of millions were raised from poverty and economic achievements boosted the regime’s confidence; but with that came a change in China’s attitude towards its ethnic minorities, a shift reflected in the increasing mistreatment of the Uyghurs.

In Xinjiang, visible changes took place in these years: in transport and communications, in urbanisation and inward investment. These brought a huge influx of Han migrants, which changed the local demographics over a very short span of time. The proportion of Han has increased from under 5% in 1949 to over 40% today, making the Uyghurs a minority. This has intensified competition for scarce resources and put pressure on the already vulnerable ecology. The most controversial of all these steps has been the exclusion of the established population from the resultant economic, political and cultural opportunities. Outside investors even bring in their own workforce and civil-service positions in minority-dominated areas have been disproportionately filled by the Han, while more and more ethnic-minority college graduates have been left jobless.

The Han influx into Xinjiang has not been reciprocated by allowing more Uyghurs to make a living in China proper. Moreover, the space for the Uyghurs within and without Xinjiang has become more restricted. In the interior provinces, for instance, many hotels have been ordered to refuse rooms to Uyghurs, or anybody with a Xinjiang ID card. Such strict conditions on Uyghurs' movement - including obstacles to their obtaining residency or business permits, or passports - compels them to stay in Xinjiang, where they already feel belittled and dependent on the state for their survival. For instance, their lands are often expropriated by the local authorities with little or no compensation, thus creating a new class of landless peasants. When such actions are disputed, legitimate complaints are ignored and the plaintiffs suppressed or detained for daring to speak out.

Even moderate voices like Ilham Tohti, the economics professor in Central Minzu University in Beijing, have been silenced for promoting inter-ethnic understanding and speaking out for the Uyghur cause. The Uyghur experience is part of a nationwide campaign against dissent: human-rights activists, political dissidents, the “Tiananmen mothers” and many more are bearing the brunt. But the harsher the clampdown, the stronger becomes the resistance. In the Uyghur case, this pattern has manifested itself in the Tiananmen suicide-attack, the Kunming railway-station knife-attack, the Ürümchi bombing, and the recent almost daily skirmishes in south Xinjiang.

The real trigger

In conclusion, the Uyghur issue is becoming critical for the CCP, and the regime seems to have run out of ideas to deal with it effectively. No meaningful change in the political environment has been observed since 2009, even as the ethnic tensions in Xinjiang seem to be spilling beyond the confines of Xinjiang into China's interior. In late May 2014, for instance, the authorities removed restrictions on the use of weapons and authorised the police to open fire without advance warning or identifying themselves, if they believed a situation was dangerous.

The CCP is right to say that the Uyghur problem in Xinjiang is not at heart an ethnic issue, but wrong to say that separatism, religious fundamentalism and extremism are behind recent events. The party also lacks the courage to take responsibility for its failure to forge a multicultural nation-state. The only reasonable way forwards involves genuine reflection on and assessment of the merits of the issues, and discussions leading to a political solution. I believe, as a leading representative of the Uyghur dissident movement in the UK, that the latest tensions and incidents are triggered mostly by social and economic grievances. Uyghurs are more concerned with achieving equality of opportunity and the same treatment as other citizens, rather than the far-fetched dream of secession and setting up an independent state. It is up to the Chinese state to listen to them.

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