Sparks of separatism

Print edition : July 31, 2009

A car that was burnt in the riots in Urumqi, the capital of Chinas western Xinjiang province, on July 6.-PETER PARKS/AFP

THE bloody riots that erupted in Urumqi, the capital of Chinas Xinjiang province, in the first week of July evidently took the authorities by surprise. The riots, which had a distinct ethnic colour and were among the worst in the country since the revolution 60 years ago, started when a large crowd of armed Uighurs, without any warning, attacked their Han neighbours. (Hans are the majority ethnic group in China.) Before the police and security forces could restore order, more than 150 people were killed. Hundreds of shops and property worth millions were destroyed in the rioting, which lasted for around three days.

There is video footage showing horrific scenes of mobs lynching innocent passers-by on the basis of their ethnicity. Han Chinese retaliated by targeting some Uighur neighbourhoods. Peace was restored only through the massive deployment of troops on the streets. According to reports, daily life returned to normal in Urumqi a week after the riots.

That the situation was serious was attested by the fact that President Hu Jintao rushed back from Italy, cutting short his participation in the G-8 summit. China was expected to play an important role in the debates relating to the global financial crisis and climate issues. The Chinese government is not known to press the panic button in haste and values the countrys image as a society where all ethnic groups live in harmony. Hus sudden departure from Rome is an indication that Beijing views the events in Urumqi as a serious threat to national unity.

The spark that led to the riots can be traced to events that took place in Guangdong province in June. The Early Light Toy Factory in Shaoguan city, owned by a Hong Kong business magnate, had hired 800 Uighur workers in line with the governments policy of hiring labour from poor ethnic minorities. Local workers, already feeling the after-effects of the global economic meltdown such as lay offs and reduced pay packets, did not like this. Unfounded rumours spread by a disaffected worker that six Uighur co-workers had sexually assaulted two Han Chinese led to violence, which resulted in the deaths of two Uighur workers and injuries to many others. Uighur separatists used the Internet and other media to inflate the number of Uighurs killed in Guangdong.

The protests and riots in Urumqi were sparked off by Uighur students demanding justice for their compatriots killed in Guangdong province. Li Zhi, Urumqi Communist Party secretary, said that the university students were misled and should be treated leniently. He, however, warned that those who committed crimes with cruel means would be executed. Hu described the riots as a serious violent crime elaborately planned and organised by three forces at home and abroad; the forces he was alluding to were religious extremists, separatists and terrorists. Speaking at a Communist Party conference in the second week of July, Hu said that it was important for all the minorities to live in harmony and develop together. He told the delegates that it was impossible to separate the Han people from the minorities.

A group of Han Chinese on a street in Urumqi on July 7. The police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of Han Chinese protesters.-PETER PARKS/AFP

Beijing has specifically blamed the Uighur separatist leader Rebiya Kadeer for extending support to the perpetrators of the latest violence in Xinjiang. There were serious incidents of violence in the province in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. A group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party took credit for a series of bomb attacks in several Chinese cities, including deadly bus bombings in Shanghai and Kunming. Rebiya Kadeer, who was once a successful multi-millionaire entrepreneur in China, now lives in the United States. She heads the World Uighur Congress.

Before the events of September 11, 2001, key policymakers in Washington viewed the Uighur separatists in a favourable light though their cause celebre remained the Tibet issue. The U.S. Congress had in fact funded the Uighur separatists. After September 11, the U.S. needed Chinas help and support in its war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2002, the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was classified as a terrorist movement by the administration of George W. Bush and its financial assets were frozen.

Many Uighur fighters were trained in Afghanistan by Al Qaeda. China believes that more than 1,000 Uighur fighters were trained in Afghanistan before 2001. After the American invasion of Afghanistan, 110 fighters managed to return to Xinjiang and around 600 escaped to Pakistan. Around 300 were reportedly killed or captured by the Americans. Only recently, six Uighur prisoners were released from the notorious Guantanamo base prison. Uighur and Uzbek fighters have the reputation of being among the fiercest Al Qaeda terrorists. China has blamed Uighur separatists for more than 200 terror attacks between 1990 and 2001.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), located in western China, is one of the largest provinces in the country and accounts for one-sixth of its territory. It borders the Central Asian republics, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Uighurs, who number around 20 million, are among the largest of the 56 ethnic groups that constitute the Peoples Republic of China. Uighurs constitute 45 per cent of Xinjiangs population. They have close cultural and religious links with the Turkic peoples of the neighbouring Central Asian countries. Though the ETIM wants the creation of an independent Islamic state, the majority of Uighurs do not seem to share that goal.

The region had very brief periods of independence when central rule in Beijing was floundering. In 1933, rebels declared the creation of an Islamic Republic of East Turkestan, but it only lasted for a year. In 1944, encouraged this time by the Soviet Union, an East Turkestan Republic was created. Once China emerged from the throes of the civil war in 1949, the region was reabsorbed into the Peoples Republic. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the independent Central Asian republics in the early 1990s was a source of encouragement to Uighur nationalists.

The Chinese government insists that Xinjiang has been an inseparable part of the unitary multi-ethnic Chinese nation since 206 B.C. In China, the region is known as Zhongguo Xinjiang (Chinese Xinjiang). But there are some Uighurs who continue to dream of an independent homeland. They were encouraged by many Islamic countries before the events of September 11. Even now, there is an undercurrent of sympathy for the separatists. A Turkish Cabinet Minister called for a boycott of Chinese goods, but the Turkish government has distanced itself from his comments.

Rebiya Kadeer told reporters in Washington that Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and the Central Asian republics have all been deporting Uighurs opposing Chinese rule. She said that the only friend was the West. Western democracies are supporting us and we are grateful, the separatist leader said.

Rebiya Kadeer, Uighur separatist leader, at the National Press Club in Washington on July 6. She now lives in the U.S.-NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

The Chinese government has made special efforts to develop Xinjiang. In the early 1990s, special economic zones were located there to spur growth. In 1991, the Tarim Basin Project was launched to raise the regions agricultural output. The per capita income of Xinjiang as a region is the highest after the south-east coastal region of China. Family planning norms applicable to the majority of the population were relaxed for the Uighurs. Rebiya Kadeer herself is the mother of 11 children. New mosques were built.

Many prominent Uighur intellectuals and the majority of the populace are supportive of the central governments economic policies in the region. Uighurs occupy important positions in the Communist Party hierarchy. A senior leader of the Xinjiang Communist Party and Chairman of the XUAR, Nuer Baikeli, is a Uighur.

Rapid industrialisation coupled with urbanisation seems to have alienated a section of the populace. Large numbers of Han Chinese from the overpopulated eastern part of the country have settled in Xinjiang. They have, of course, contributed to the dynamic economic growth of the region. But, living cheek by jowl in urban areas with the Uighurs, many of whom are devout Muslims, they have in the past occasionally become a factor in tensions boiling over. The number of Hans settling in Xinjiang has risen considerably since the early 1950s. According to the latest figures, of the provinces 18 million people, around 42 per cent are Han.

The increased use of Mandarin in educational institutions was not welcomed by many Uighurs. The central governments position was that proficiency in Mandarin would help the Uighur minority compete on an equal footing with other Chinese in the market economy.

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