Xinjiang: Barking Up the Wrong Trees

By Gee, John | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 2009 | Go to article overview

Xinjiang: Barking Up the Wrong Trees


Gee, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The violence in Xinjiang that left at least 192 people dead in July took China by surprise. It was sparked by a June 26 incident in Guangzhou, the capital of Canton province in southeastern China. On that day Han Chinese residents attacked Muslim Uighur workers whom they heard had molested a local woman. Two workers were killed. The woman later said she had been frightened by the workers, but that they had not harmed her.

On July 5 around 3,000 Uighurs gathered in Urumchi, Xinjiang's capital, to call for a thorough investigation of the incident. The protesters also raised claims of oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. The protest degenerated into a riot in which hundreds of Han Chinese were attacked and more than 100 killed. The following Tuesday, Han Chinese mobs attacked any Uighurs they could find.

Beijing clearly was caught off balance by the violence. The local police were unprepared for the first clashes. When the news broke, President Hu Jintao cut short a visit to Italy and hurried back home.

Because the central government was anxious that the clashes not ignite anti-China hostility in Muslim countries, its answers to criticisms from them were somewhat milder in tone than those usually adopted in response to anything that is regarded as foreign meddling in China's internal affairs. Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan referred to violence against Uighurs (who, like a number of other Central Asian peoples, speak a Turkic language) as "like a genocide," but instead of reacting with high-volume denunciations of his words, China concentrated on more subdued statements of its official position.

Beijing was quick to blame the violence on separatist groups, particularly the World Uighur Congress, whose leader was once a successful businesswoman in China, but currently lives in Virginia. Responding to journalists who asked questions about China's alleged oppression of Uighurs, the authorities emphasized how much they had invested in Xinjiang and how far living standards had risen.

On the ground, something more basic seemed to be going on. Uighurs have seen a region in which they formed the great majority of the population in 1949 become one where development investment has drawn in such a number of Han Chinese that they now make up over 40 percent of the population, while the Uighurs now make up 45 percent of Xinjiang's 21 million people. Local Uighurs believe that Hans get most of the best jobs, while Hans tend to argue that they are willing to take advantage of opportunities and work harder. There is not much of a meeting of minds on such things.

Beijing's policies towards Xinjiang during the era of economic reform since 1978 seem to have been marked by complacency toward nationality and religious issues rather than a deliberate effort to affirm control and suppress Uighurs through bringing in Han Chinese. Focusing on economic expansion, the central government was largely oblivious of the rising discontent in Xinjiang among Uighurs, and wrote off sporadic acts of violence as terrorist attacks by small but vicious networks inspired from abroad. Now it will have to rethink.

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