Unrest In China Highlights Plight Of Ethnic Minorities

Uighur men leave a mosque in the Uighur sector of Urumqi in western China's Xinjiang province

Eugene Hoshiko

Uighur men leave a mosque in the Uighur sector of Urumqi on Tuesday. AP

by Anthony Kuhn

All Things Considered, July 14, 2009 · Shock waves from violence in China’s far west continue to spread. On Monday, police shot dead two ethnic Uighurs in the city of Urumqi, where rioting killed more than 180 people last week.

Countries with large Muslim populations, including Iran and Turkey, have questioned China’s treatment of the mostly Muslim Uighurs, a Turkic minority numbering about 8 million and mainly residing in China’s Xinjiang region.

This is the second year of major ethnic unrest in western China, after riots in Tibet last year. The events have prompted renewed debate over the treatment of ethnic minorities in China.

Details about the unrest in Xinjiang this year and Tibet last year are still hotly disputed. Why did the government take hours to stop the violence? Did peaceful protests precede the riots?

Unrest In Urumqi

Uighur eyewitnesses say that on the evening of July 5, Uighurs demonstrated against the government’s handling of a brawl that occurred June 26 in southern Guangdong province. At that time, ethnic Han and Uighur workers at a toy factory had fought; two Uighurs were killed.

Mohammed, an unemployed 22-year-old Uighur in Urumqi, was present at the July 5 demonstration. He fears arrest and asked that he be identified only by his first name. He says he arrived at Urumqi’s People’s Square at 7 p.m. on July 5, with the protests already under way.

“At first, the protesters were very orderly. They said, ‘Don’t smash anything. Don’t oppose the government. We’re protesting legally.’ They shouted slogans. They said, ‘Give us a proper explanation for the events of June 26.’ But the police just continued to arrest our people. What could we do about it?” he said.

Assessing Root Causes

In a televised speech last week, Xinjiang’s Communist Party Secretary Wang Lequan rejected this narrative. Instead, he named U.S.-based Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer as the mastermind behind the riots.

“The incident was caused by foreign hostile forces headed by Kadeer and a few bad people at home, who hyped the toy factory brawl, turning it from an ordinary criminal incident into an ethnic incident,” he said.

Kadeer has denied instigating the violence. The Chinese government denies that its religious, minority and economic policies were factors in the unrest. But Mohammed says it was precisely these policies that sent Uighurs into the streets.

“In Urumqi, there are many unemployed young Uighur guys like myself. We are unable to get bank loans. Han people can get loans in just 15 days. We can get nothing. I think recent events were related to the government’s pressures on us,” he said.

Outwardly, the government appears unwilling to reflect on the roots of the crisis.

Gardner Bovingdon, a Central Asia expert at Indiana University in Bloomington, says that Communist Party hard-liners have dominated policy toward minorities for more than two decades.

“Anyone who raises the specter of actually responding to popular protests by minorities by accommodating their wishes is shouted down, for fear that showing any sign of weakness or flexibility will invite further protests,” he explained.

Rethinking Policies, Language Of Ethnicity

But there is debate beyond the rhetoric. For years, critics have suggested a re-examination of China’s Soviet-style system of “autonomous zones” and affirmative action for Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities.

Retired Nanjing University professor Wang Yingguo argues that these policies have actually made it harder for minorities to develop a Chinese identity.

“The general trend of the Chinese nation has been for assimilation. But the establishment of these autonomous zones has created an artificial separation between races and locked in their differences,” he said.

Wang and other critics also suggest updating the language of ethnicity. Chinese use the term minzu to mean both “ethnic group” and “nation.” In fact, China has been a multiethnic empire for centuries.

But until about 100 years ago, Chinese saw their nation as limited to the Han ethnic group. Tibetans, Uighurs, Manchus and other ethnic groups were not considered Chinese. Wang says these concepts remain muddled.

“We say that China has 56 ethnic groups. But our national anthem refers to ‘the Chinese ethnic group.’ So what do we mean by ethnicity? It’s a mess,” he said.

Experts say that of all the tasks China faces in its quest to become a modern nation, none is more urgent than making the rhetoric of a multiethnic state match the reality.

But to watch Urumqi split into armed ethnic gangs last week was to see that goal deferred, perhaps for quite a while.


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