In Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province in western China, riots between Uyghur minorities and their Han majority neighbors claimed 197 lives and injured thousands in July 2009, reprising China's periodic problems with ethnic minorities living in its Special Autonomous Regions. The riots erupted out of Uyghur protests and culminated in both Uyghur and Han-initiated attacks and clashes with the police. The Chinese government has blamed the violence on Uyghur separatists and painted the riots as planned Muslim terrorist attacks. This move to blame the violence on religiously driven terrorism ignores the true roots of the violence in Xinjiang and undermines what should be China's core interests in the region.
The Chinese government has long been concerned with the instability of its western regions. In 2004, Chinese President Hu Jintao identified a trio offerces--extremism, separatism, and terrorism--to describe his concerns with the western region. While separatism has been a long-standing" point of contention for China and its Special Autonomous Regions, as evidenced by China's historical tensions with Tibet and Taiwan, terrorism and extremism only emerged as prominent Chinese domestic concerns after September 11, 2001. Since then, the Chinese government has worked consistently to connect issues of separatism with terrorism, even in the absence of any evidence of organized terrorist opposition to the Chinese government in Xinjiang. The government has emphasized China's porous western borders with Muslim nations and Xinjiang's resulting susceptibility to influence by Muslim extremism. This emphasis is misplaced. While al Qaeda members in Afghanistan have trained some Uyghurs for action in Xinjiang, the groups that have historically claimed responsibility for violence in Xinjiang are neither long-standing nor stable. Only one Uyghur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, has been listed as a terrorist group by the United States and the United Nations, and there is no evidence that it maintains cells in Xinjiang.
After the July riots, the provincial government in Xinjiang blamed the World Uyghur Congress, which seeks a united and independent nation of "East Turkistan" that would include parts of Xinjiang province in China, and its exiled leader, Rebiya Kadeer, for organizing the violence. China also alleges that the World Uyghur Congress has close ties to terrorism. Four days after the violence ended, the Chinese Politburo labeled the riots a product of the same trio of forces that President Hu originally identified: separatism, extremism, and terrorism. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the largely unarmed violence in Urumqi was religiously driven or that the riots were planned and organized by any significant portion of the more than 8 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang.
Though the Chinese government seems determined to attribute the unrest in Xinjiang to groups such as the World Uyghur Congress, it will eventually need to take on a more challenging task than finding a convenient scapegoat for the riots: minimizing the root causes of violence in Xinjiang and reducing the long-term tensions between the Han and Uyghur populations of Xinjiang. To achieve long-term peace, the government must acknowledge the array of forces that were the true causes of violence in July.
The principal Uyhgur grievances stem from the government's economic policy in the West and from unfair political treatment. …