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Xinjiang: Deadly Violence Highlights Deeper Ethnic Tension

On July 5, 2009, bloody violence broke out in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China’s far west. Per Chinese official reports, around 8 p.m., thousands of rioters suddenly began to attack civilians. They “were beating innocent people, smashing cars and buses, and burning police cars … in a southern area of the city.” [1]

The official announcement reported 197 deaths, including 134 Han Chinese. Scores of Uyghurs were presumably killed by police gunfire, but local sources indicate a much higher number. A Uyghur man who claimed to have saved some Han people told a reporter, “I think more than 500 people died, Han and Uyghur together.” [2] [3]

Feeling unprotected, some Han people took matters in their own hands. On July 7, thousands of Han men and women took to the streets and attacked Uyghurs for revenge. One young man told a Times reporter, “The Government is far too soft. They don’t dare to go out, even though a hundred people have been killed. We don’t feel safe. We have to protect ourselves.” [4]

The clash between Uyghurs and Han Chinese continued for three days until July 8, when the police finally brought the situation under control. [5].

Unlike last year’s crack down on Tibetans, when foreign reporters were banned, China allowed foreign media to visit Urumqi. However, in an attempt to control information, Internet and cell phone services in the Xinjiang region were cut off to “prevent violence from spreading to other places.” [6]

Subsequently, tens of thousands of Han Chinese took to the streets asking for resignations of party officials and better state protection. In August and September, Xinhua reported a spate of syringe attacks in Urumqi. The government arrested 3 people and sentenced them to up to 15 years in prison. Then on September 16, China announced the breakup of a bomb-making plot in Xinjiang. [7] Finally, as the CCP consluded its 4-day annual summit, it announced its intention to “effectively prevent and absolutely crack down on ethnicity-relatied separatist activities.” [8]

Who is the Culprit?

The direct cause of the Xinjiang violence seemed to be an earlier ethnic brawl in a toy factory in the southern city of Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. On June 26, a rumor spread that six Uyghur workers had raped two Han women. The rumor triggered deadly fighting between the Han and the Uyghur workers; two Uyghur workers were killed. Among the 118 injured, 79 were Uyghur. [9] Officials later confirmed that the rumor was started by a disgruntled former employee and the alleged rape never happened.

Within days, the news spread to Xinjiang, home of the Uyghur workers 2000 miles to the northwest.
Outraged by the violence against their compatriots and unhappy about the government’s handling of the Shaoguan incident, thousands of Uyghurs in Xinjiang began a protest on the evening of July 5, demanding a full investigation of the Shaoguan killing. Police attempts to disperse the group failed, and violence quickly broke out. [10] The Chinese government offered a different explanation. On the morning of July 6, hours after the incident, Chinese officials concluded that Rebiya Kadeer, a Uyghur woman living in the U.S., was behind the Urumqi violence.
“The unrest is a preempted, organized violent crime. It is instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws in the country,” a government statement said.

The government claimed to have obtained an Internet posting by the World Uyghur Congress, an exiled group headed by Ms. Kadeer, which called on the Uyghur people “to be braver” and “to do something big.”

Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang regional government and a Uyghur, blamed the tragedy on “three forces”: terrorism, separatism and extremism, and linked Ms. Kadeer to all of them. [11]

On July 7, as thousands of Hans armed with makeshift weapons were out attacking the Uyghur quarter, Urumqi party secretary Li Zhi climbed atop a car and pleaded with them to go home. To remind people of their real enemy, Li yelled, “Down with Rebiya!”

The exiled Uyghur leader strongly denied her involvement. In a July 8 Wall Street Journal article, she stated, “I unequivocally condemn the use of violence by Uyghurs during the demonstration as much as I do China’s use of excessive force against protestors.” [12]

Ms. Kadeer also suggested that, “The Chinese wanted a riot in order to justify a larger crackdown; it’s an attempt to create solidarity between the Han and the government at a time when there is insecurity. [13]

It is not the first time that China has pointed a finger at outside “forces” for its domestic conflicts. After the police crushed Tibetan protests in March 2008, the government blamed the Dalai Lama for “instigating the violence,” and called the Nobel Peace Prize Winner “a wolf wearing a monk’s robes.” [14]

Heightened Ethnic Tension

Regardless of who is responsible, after the bloodshed, the already strained ethnic relations between the Uyghur Muslims and Hans substantially worsened.

Since the Communists came to power in 1949, millions of Han Chinese have migrated to the oil rich region. In 1949, the Han population was merely 6 % in Xinjiang; by 2000, the number had jumped to 40%. The recent economic development may have brought benefit to the region, but many native Uyghurs felt left out.

For years, the government adopted “affirmative action” type policies that gave the ethnic minorities (including the Uyghurs) more privileges. The minorities are exempt from the “one-child-per-family” mandate imposed on the Han people; college admission scores are adjusted to favor minority students.

The most controversial practice was the leniency on crime. In 1984, the Communist Party Central Committee Document Number Five announced a policy known as “liang shao yi kuan,” or “two less and one tolerance.” That is, it declared, “To ethnic minority criminals, we should insist on ‘less arrests, and less sentencing.’ In general, when dealing with (minorities), we should be more tolerant.”  [15]

Many Han Chinese complained that this policy encouraged criminal activities such as robbery, rape and manslaughter. They also saw it as reverse discrimination.

Some minority scholars argued that the policy’s negative effect was exaggerated. [16] Others pointed out that ethnic minorities suffer excessive punishment for alleged “separatist activities,” a political crime used mostly to persecute Tibetans and Uyghurs. [17].

It is hard to defend the government’s ethnic policies in light of the facts: large-scale bloodshed has broken out in Tibet and Xinjiang two years in a row. These incidences remain like slaps in the face to President Hu Jintao, who after becoming China’s top leader in 2003, has been building his legacy based on a “harmonious society” theory. The bloodshed in Urumqi reminds people just how unharmonious the society has become. Hatred among Han people toward the Uyghurs is especially disturbing.

In a Chinese blog, an angry reader wrote:
“All Uyghurs should be killed. The communist party gave them everything, and they received a good education. Their lives are many times better than in the old society (before 1949). Yet they are still not satisfied. They are truly an inferior race.” [18] After Ms. Kadeer’s article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the online comment area was swamped with protests:

(Incorrect wordings are copied as is)
Lin Zhang: “Why did not the WSJ invite Bin Laden to give his opinions?”

Fu Lai Zhuang wrote:
“China should sent people to learn from US America about how the whites manage to tame the Red Indian and wipe out the entire native cultures and people. US America has done a very good job, do you see any Indian problem now? Nothing right? China should just change the US America slogan “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” to “the only good Uyghur is a dead Uyghur.” [19]

Although a public poll on Xinjiang is not possible, it is likely that many in China share these strong sentiments. Netizens have explicitly used words such as “kill them,” “no mercy,” “Uyghurs are pigs,” and “blood for blood,” to express their indignation. There is an overwhelming call to undo all preferential policies for minorities.

Nationalism is a double-edged sword, as the government knows. It appears that the authorities have taken action to clean up the Internet. For instance, the reference to killing all Uyghurs [18] was later removed.

Uyghurs feel equally bad, or worse. They believe they have become second-class citizens in their native land. Their language, culture and religion are not respected. Although their rights to have more than one child were not taken away, their freedom to worship and travel have been restricted. At almost every level of government, the Uyghur cadres are almost always figureheads, while their Han party secretaries are the real bosses. There is a growing feeling that, if the current hard line approach does not change, more and more Uyghurs will be pushed toward pro-independence. [20]

Could the Tragedy Have Been Prevented?

Some analysts argue that the July 5 killings could have been avoided or controlled. On July 21, Uyghur reporter Hailate told Yazhouzhoukan (a Hong Kong based magazine) that he personally warned the top government leaders in Xinjiang of the potential bloodshed.

Based on his information, Mr. Hailate was convinced that bloody violence was imminent:
“On the next morning (July 5) around 10 a.m., a friend and I went to see a main leader in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. I told him, ‘As a man of conscience, I must tell you, there will be bloodshed today. The government should take urgent action.’ I made three suggestions. 1) Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, should make a public speech before noon; 2) inform all Han people working in Uyghur quarters to close their shops and go home as soon as possible; and 3) deploy as many troops as possible; block off Uyghur minority quarters; set up check points at key traffic intersections; patrol the area and declare a curfew in the evening. The leader told me he would report to the higher authorities. But it turned out none of these proposals were adopted.”

Mr. Hailate was not convinced that Rebiya Kadeer was the mastermind. In his words, “Rebiya does not have much intellect.” He thinks members of the pan-Islamist group Hizbut-tahrir organized the attacks. [21]

Hu Ping, chief editor of Beijing Spring and a Chinese dissident living in New York, believes that the Chinese government chose to wait for the bloodshed to escalate. In his analysis, the government knew a bloody assault on the Han would take place; it even took proper measures to protect Urumqi’s communist party compound, but it failed to provide advance warning, let alone protection to its citizens. After the citizens suffered heavy casualties, the government came out to restore order. [22]

The government’s tactic may have worked for now, but President Hu Jintao and other top leaders have no reason to celebrate.

A Dangerous Future

The BBC recently interviewed Wang Li Xiong, author of “Huang Huo (Yellow Peril)” and a leading independent researcher on Tibet and Xinjiang, to discuss the Xinjiang issue.

In his 2007 book “Wo de Xi Yu; Ni de Dong Tu” (My Western Territory; Your Eastern Turkistan), Wang predicted that Xinjiang would replace Tibet to become the hottest spot for ethnic unrest in China.

He believes that the July 5 Xinjiang violence brought his prediction closer to reality. In his opinion, the long existing “ethnic friction” has now grown into a “racial clash.” He worries that the worst is yet to come. Wang said, “The gravest danger is the trend (of a developing racial clash). I think the situation is beyond the point of no return. It (the bloodshed) has divided people entirely along racial lines.”

About the preferential treatment of minorities, Wang said: “The government imposes harsh political policies on ethnic minorities, and to balance the persecution, it allows them some petty perks. But the two special treatments are self-conflicting. When minorities are unhappy about the political suppression, they express their anger using their special privileges.”

“The inequality in law enforcement has created strong resentment among the Hans. So the political suppression plus the perks have produced the worst outcome.”

Wang thinks the government was aware of its failure, but refuses to admit it. He observed, “The people in charge of minority regions and ethnic policies have forged an alliance of many government agencies. I call it an ‘anti-separatist group.’ Its business interests, social status, its rights and finances all depend on its hard line position. The tougher it is, the higher its political position, and more power and money it gets.”

Wang Lixiong is pessimistic about Xinjiang’s future. He believes future conflicts are likely to be very severe. “It (the destruction of the current political system) may be more damaging than the collapse of the Soviet Union, because the collapse of the Soviet was mostly peaceful. But the disintegration of Yugoslavia, especially the Bosnia war, was much more bloody. It came with ethnic cleansing and mass murders. This situation can happen in Xinjiang. Xinjiang’s population is three times larger than that of Bosnia; its size is much larger. The future conflict could surpass the Bosnian war in both the scale and severity.” [23]

The Dalai Lama also believes the Xinjiang incident proves China’s policy failure, but he sees hope. In a recent meeting with reporters in Geneva, he described a “very clear” split between hardliners and moderates among China’s leaders, adding that many Chinese leaders privately acknowledged a need “to implement a more realistic policy.” He is optimistic about the future, “After five years, 10 years, I think things will change.” [24]

It is hard to argue with his comments. Ten years will bring many changes, but the million-dollar question is: Can China’s current communist government stay in power for 10 more years? Many people think they know the answer. But do they really?


[22] Hu Ping, “Questions on July 5 incident,” July 29, 2009,
[23] Wang Lixiong, “Thoughts on Xinjiang’s Future”, BBC, August 6, 2009
[24] “Uighur unrest shows China’s failures, says Dalai Lama,” Reuters, August 6, 2009