Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Recent Xinjiang Riots: A Commentary

The riots that have rocked the southern Chinese province of Xinjiang may remind the Beijing political leadership yet again of the fragility of the Chinese state and that the threat of separatism and identity politics are alive and kicking. Unless Beijing takes steps to assimilate the Uighurs into the Chinese society and usher in economic and social development for them, the problem can linger and become a hotbed for violence and terrorism in China.

While the Chinese leadership has maintained that Xinjiang does not pose any serious challenges, there is also hype about terrorist threat that stems from the Xinjiang Uighur movement. For instance, the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of security Luo Gan stated that the “overall situation in the region is satisfactory, but the police and security agencies should be prepared for dangers.” This is the case because China fears that the religious and ethno-nationalist movements in the Central Asian region could easily spread across the border to Xinjiang.

Xinjiang undoubtedly is an area of significant strategic importance to China, given that it borders eight nations in Central and South Asia. The region is an energy-rich area, and the third largest oil-producing region in the country. Proximity to the Central Asian nations provide China with abundant opportunities to promote border trade, tap oil and gas resources from Central Asia in addition to keeping US influence in Central Asia under check through various means, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

The Uighurs numbering 130 million are one of the 55 officially designated minority groups in China. They are believed to be enjoying all the civil rights of full citizenship, beneficiaries of certain affirmative policies of the Central government, and enjoy less strict family planning regulations. Unlike the rest of China, the Uighur population are allowed to have two or three children. However, this group remains much poorer, less educated and are not well-represented in the Communist Party or government positions. It is an irony that Uighur top party leadership is under a Han Chinese. While some of the other minority groups -- Zhunag with a population of 16 million, Hui Muslims of 10 million, or the Lhoba with only 3,000 -- have also been treated not too fairly by the state and have had conflicts at a local level, they have not resulted in political or separatist movement status. This has been mainly on account of the Chinese policy of changing the demographic mix of the region by promoting Han migration to Xinjiang.

It might be pertinent to understand the background of the current Uighur movement. The Qing Dynasty gained control over East Turkestan (the current Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) in the 19th century. But as central control weakened as a consequence of the Chinese civil war, the ethnic Uighurs sought to re-establish sovereignty over their homeland. They managed to establish themselves as Republic of East Turkestan for a brief period from 1945-49. However, after Mao’s victory in the civil war in 1949, the PLA troops re-entered Xinjiang and established complete control over Xinjiang. This was in fact the first wave of population shifts that took place in the region. Thereafter, the Chinese leadership began consolidation of the area by sending retired ethnic Han Chinese soldiers into Xinjiang to form new units called “Production and Construction” Corps (Bingtuan). The second wave of population shifts took place in the 1990s, due partly to the disintegration of Soviet Union and thereafter Beijing’s fear of instability creeping in the region. This time around, China fashioned major economic incentives to move Han population to Xinjiang. Beijing also undertook the “Big Development of the Northwest” that brought in nearly two million Han Chinese to Xinjiang. Although there was a surge in the economic sphere with massive subsidies, oil exploitation and rapid urbanization, Uighurs did not benefit from any of these and this created bitterness in the minds of the Uighurs.

The Beijing government has followed rather illiberal policies of pumping in Han Chinese into areas inhabited by migrants, whether it is in Tibet or in Xinjiang. Such policies implemented by Beijing have altered the population balance in a significant manner and has aggravated the situation. The area, which had a mere 6 to 7 per cent of Han population, is today 40 to 45 per cent Han. Fearful of marginalisation through such proactive measures by the Chinese government, Uighurs have become fiercer in their agitation against Chinese rule in Xinjiang. In 1996, the Chinese government decided to adopt a series of measures on the Uighurs termed as “Strike Hard” (Yan Da) campaign to re-establish firmly its control on Xinjiang.

Similarly, the local leadership of the Central leadership has taken measures that would further isolate the Uighur minority. For instance, in 2002, Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan declared that the Uighur language was “out of step with the 21st century,” and accordingly, the government started to shift the entire education system to Mandarin, replacing Uighur teachers with Han Chinese. The local officials went to the extent of organizing public burnings of Uighur books. Control over religion and religious practices too were implemented, including religious weddings, burials or pilgrimages to the tombs of local saints. Earlier in 2008, the government announced plans to demolish the city of Kashgar, one of the oldest cultural centre of the Uighur civilization. This move was to uproot 50,000 families from their traditional homeland to some new township.

While this is one side of the story, the other side relates to the reports of apparent linkages between some of the Uighur groups and terrorist organisations like Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb-ul-Tahrir, Jamaat-i-Islami, Tableegi Jamaat, and such other groups that operate out of Central Asia. This has constrained American moves to pressurise the Chinese governments on human rights issues particularly after September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. There have been however reports by human rights groups worldwide to suggest that the Chinese leadership is using the campaign against global terrorism as a way to crackdown and thereby curtail the Uighur movement.

Recent Violence
The recent violence started with a minor brawl between Uighurs and Han Chinese workers at a local factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong on June 25, 2009, leading to the deaths of two Uighurs. This in turn is believed to have set the trigger for the July 05 riots. Chinese leadership continues to argue that the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Uighur separatist group associated with Al Qaeda, is driving the hatred and fuelling the violence in Xinjiang. The leadership is also of the view that it is the ETIM leadership, located in Waziristan on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that is responsible for a series of bombing in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China prior to the Beijing Olympics. For the first time, the government, through an article in People’s Daily, also blamed the United States, accusing that it financed the World Uygur Congress led by Ms. Rebiya Kadeer’s organization, and other organisations that advocate human rights and democracy for ethnic Uighurs in China.

The Beijing leadership has reacted to the violence rather aggressively, trying to crush the uprising and preventing any spread of it to other parts of the region. About 20,000 troops from nearby regions were brought into Urumqi after the violence began, forming cordons between ethnic Uighur neighborhoods and those dominated by Han Chinese. The government has also enforced severe restrictions on any religious and cultural expression including the Friday prayers by the Uipghur’s Muslim population. Further, China has interpreted any expression of dissent and anger as advocating separatism, thereby crushing it by repressive means. Advocating separatism is a crime under Chinese law that can be met with death penalty. The party chief of Urumqi, Li Zhi, did not mince words of their intentions when he said, “To those who have committed crimes with cruel means, we will execute them.”

China, in order to cash in international support and sympathy for the Xinjiang fiasco, implanted the Al Qaeda element and that China was fighting the Al Qaeda in the global war on terrorism. However, the manner in which the whole issue has been treated by China has invited Al Qaeda right into their borders. Following the death of nearly 200 people, Al Qaeda has issued warning to China, more particularly the Chinese abroad in Africa. Meanwhile, protesting against the killing of nearly 200 Uighur Muslims, thousands of Turks and Uighur expatriates took to demonstrations and burning Chinese flags and Chinese products. Unless China puts out a more nuanced response, the troubles in Xinjiang could spiral out of control.

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