Sunday, July 19, 2009

Trouble in Xinjiang

Pent up frustrations result in violent riots in Uyghur capital in China

Incidents of ethnic violence involving deaths of more than 190 people, rocked Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China on the 5th of July, when rioters belonging to the predominantly Sunni Islamic Uyghur ethnic denomination attacked members of the Han Chinese community in the city. The immediate trigger for the incidents in Urumqi was the violent targetting of Uyghur migrants by Han workers in a toy factory in the southern China province of Guangdong on June 26th. Miffed by what some Uyghurs felt as Chinese government inaction in bringing the guilty Han workers to justice, protests were staged in Urumqi, which further transformed into a bloody ethnic riot with Uyghurs attacking the migrant Han Chinese population. While Xinjiang has been rocked by sporadic incidents of violence for quite some time, including terrorist bombing and other riots, the incidents of July 5th were of such an alarming order that the Chinese President Hu Jintao had to shorten his visit to the G8 summit in Rome to return back to his country.

The official reaction of the Chinese government was to blame external forces for these incidents, pointing fingers at an Uyghur separatist leader (of the World Uyghur Congress) based in the United States. But just as in the Tibetan set of events last year, the riots in Urumqi must be attributed to resentment among the minority ethnic groups of China's population and umbrage against some of its government's policies. One such policy is the "Western development" initiative launched in the later half of the 1990s which involved the large scale capital investment in utilisation and extraction of natural resources in an endeavour to economically develop the western regions of China. Simultaneously there was also an influx of ethnic Han Chinese to partake in the economic benefits of the growth process in these regions, including Xinjiang. What has been resulted is the garnering of a large share of the employment opportunities by the Han migrants. This combined with measures such as teaching of Mandarin in schools in Xinjiang has not gone down well with the local Uyghur speaking people. While the Chinese government insists that these policies are meant to give better opportunities to the Uyghurs, that perception is not shared by the local indigenous population in Xinjiang. Thus despite certain concessions to minorities such as the relaxation of the One-Child policy or other social measures, resentment against Han in-migration, corruption among the ruling elite, lopsided development and employment opportunities plus perceptions of cultural suppression has seen Uyghurs increasingly getting antipathetic to the Chinese government. This resentment also resonates with the perceptions of rising inequality and government corruption elsewhere in China.

China's Constitution and its instituted 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law provides for ethnic minorities the right to protect, preserve and promote their cultures. Apparently the intent to respect and provide for diversity in the Constitution and in the autonomy law has not translated fully in its implementation in Xinjiang (as in Tibet), giving rise to grievances. In the medium and long term, the Chinese government has to bring make a paradigm shift from its current policy of conflating all forms of Uyghur dissent and grievances within "separatism, extremism and terrorism" to adopt a far more accommodative approach basing itself on the stated aims of the Constitution. The relative restraint with which the Chinese government handled the aftermath of the July 5th incidents could be a starting point. Merely blaming the separatist elements in the Uyghur diaspora for "fomenting" the riots is not going to help resolve the situation that resulted in the incidents in the first place.

The danger of a Han chauvinist and nationalist reprisal and consequent repression of Xinjiang remains, but thus far the Chinese government both at the national and at the local levels have tried to restore normalcy by appealing for calm while engaging in bringing those engaged in murder and violence to justice. The relative freedom and access given to the press (both local and foreign) in covering the events after the July 5th incidents suggests a marked change from the Chinese government response to the Tibetan incidents last year.

Beyond the political measures, the Chinese have to revisit the capital intensive growth paradigm as well, not just in the western regions but elsewhere in the mainland as well. Due to objective conditions - the global financial crisis and the structural problems in the Chinese economy, the Hu Jintao regime has instituted a more populist set of policies than its predecessor, but that is still not enough to mitigate the socio-economic troubles faced by the nation.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly.

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