Posted by: Brian | July 7, 2009

156 Killed, 800 Injured, 1,400 Arrested

I originally intended to make a series of posts tonight regarding my finals, various problems with my debit card, and the state of my preparations to depart Kunming. Instead, I feel compelled to provide my thoughts on the recent unrest in the Xinjiang region of China.

The numbers listed in the title provide some basic indication of the state of affairs in Xinjiang. That being said, they reduce what has happened to little more than statistics, devoid of any of the important issues that led to the riots. I’m by no means an expert on the matter – in fact, I’ve only been aware of the situation for a little over six hours, due to news website *mysteriously* being rendered nigh-unusable recently. That being said, there is more going on than meets the eye, and certainly more than news agencies are reporting (or being allowed to report).

Where to start? The situation is a difficult and complicated one. Currently, Xinjiang is one of China’s Autonomous Regions; the present population is split roughly in half between Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic minority group, and Han Chinese, who are China’s ethnic majority. Historically, the region’s population has varied as different groups gain and later lose control. Uighurs have had a clear majority presence since roughly the 18th century; Han Chinese have only had a significant population there since around mid-20th century. That being said, many Han Chinese also claim to have had presence in Xinjiang over 2,000 years ago.

Tension has existed between the two groups for decades. Uighurs view the growing population of Han Chinese as encroaching on their land; Han Chinese tend to think of Uighurs as hostile, violent, and untrustworthy. Uighurs regularly report experiencing extreme difficulty finding jobs or housing in Chinese cities, as well as general prejudice and distrust. Han Chinese claim that Uighurs are the beneficiaries of reverse discrimination, and that most Uighurs are thieves and thugs.

From what I’ve gathered, both groups’ claims are, at least to a certain extent, true. It remains something of a chicken-or-the-egg situation, though – the tension is cyclical. Han Chinese avoid dealing with Uighurs because they don’t trust them; Uighurs turn to petty crimes because they can’t get legitimate work; Han Chinese cry foul and discriminate even more. Tension, anger, and misunderstanding on both sides builds and builds and builds, until conflict was practically inevitable.

The riots are the result of an earlier incident, in which Uighur factory workers were accused to abusing Han Chinese women. A fight erupted, and several Uighur men died. A silent, peaceful protest of their deaths was started by Uighur demonstrators, but the protest quickly grew violent. Groups of both Uighurs and Han Chinese roamed the streets, attacking those of the opposite ethnicity. Once the Chinese paramilitary rolled in (literally rolled in; they subdued rioters with armored vehicles), something over 1,400 were arrested. Bear in mind that number is what was reported by Xinhua, the national government news agency, so it’s likely the the actual number was higher. The last count of the dead and injured showed 156 killed and 800 injured; the government has thus far refused to reveal what proportion of those numbers are Uighur versus Han Chinese.

This incident was the most violent protest since the Tiananmen Square Massacre 20 years ago, but it is by no means unprecedented. The Han Chinese have a history of clashing with the minority ethnicities China is home to, though the clashes with Tibetans are the most widely publicized. As an outsider, I’ll admit that the situation is not entirely clear from my perspective. I live in Yunnan, a southwestern province that is home to somewhere around two thirds of China’s minorities. Oftentimes, I have difficulty distinguishing between the various ethnicities unless I’m informed by a local. That may help explain why ethnic clashes occur more in the fringes of China’s territory, where strong concentrations of various minorities are more likely to exist. In those areas, which are often under-developed and lack basics such as stable sources of electricity, the Chinese government spends a significant amount of money to speed growth and bring quality of life on par with other regions. Along with that funding, though, come Han Chinese who are eager to settle in less-crowded areas. This tends to breed resentment among the local minority, who may prefer to think of themselves as a separate entity from China proper. Han Chinese can’t understand the feeling and declare them ungrateful. Rinse and repeat for a few decades, and you’ve got a serious problem on your hands.

Han Chinese view Uighurs as the aggressors in Xinjiang, and Uighurs probably feel like they’re being made the scapegoat for the problem. The conflict has bred even more animosity, particularly among the Han Chinese. Responses run the gamut, including implications that Islam is inherently violent and unwelcome in China, calling Uighurs terrorists, illogical blaming of the United States for those so-called terrorists, calls for a genocidal extermination of the Uighurs, and declarations that this is a Western attempt to destabilize and shame China. I could go on for hours, quite frankly. The illogical hatred and racism is simply astounding; you need only look to the comments section in this Economist article for examples.

Despite trying to cover all aspects of this situation, I’ve still probably managed to over-simplify things. That being said, I can tell you right now – this isn’t over, not by a long shot. China’s relationship with its ethnic minorities is a tortuous one, full of misunderstanding on both sides. If the Chinese government hopes to rectify the situation, it would do well to actually examine the problem, instead of sweeping it under the proverbial carpet. Standard party lines won’t solve anything here – in fact, they’ll probably make it worse. The government must engage in dialogue with the Uighurs and work to resolve differences. As it stands, all they’re doing is making an already-desperate group even more so.

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