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Turmoil in Xinjiang – Beijing has a Problem

The Chinese authorities are usually loath to admit any weakness or anything wrong with the system, stability or their control. Thanks to globalisation and information explosion, they have begun to admit draw backs at times.

When the Chinese President drops the high profile G-8 meeting in Italy and rushes home, the situation must be very serious. President Hu Jintao who was in Italy on an official visit and continued there with the G-8, returned to Beijing on July 7, even before the summit got under way.

What is more disturbing is that neither Premier Wen Jiabao, Vice-President Xi Jinping or executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang took President Hu’s place at the summit.

Instead, State Councillor Dai Bingguo was sent to represent China at the G-8. Dai Bingguo’s capability is not in question. He is a member of the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party which puts him in a position of power higher than his government position suggests. He is an expert negotiator having negotiated the boundary agreement with Russia and currently also China’s Special Representative in Sino-Indian border negotiations. But it is difficult for him to carry the mandate the President or Premier would.

Reports from China suggest that all top leaders including the highest governing body of the Communist Party, the Political Bureau and its nine member standing committee are ensconced in the capital’s Zhongnanhai compound. The seriousness with which the Chinese leaders are taking the Muslims Uighur riots against the Han Chinese and the latter’s retaliation, is far more than the Lhasa riots by the Tibetans last year. A comparison with the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy student protesters at Tian An Men Square in which more than 300 protesters were killed by troops would be a more apt comparison.

The Uighur protests were sparked off in Urumqi on July 5 afternoon where news reached that Han Chinese workers had beaten to death two Uighurs and injured about a hundred in the Southern province of Guangdong. The Chinese officials have reported this publicly, and are looking for a man an unemployed Han Chinese worker whose false rumour about Uighur workers raping two Han women in the factory resulted in the incident.

Normally, this would have passed off as a law and order issue. The situation may have built up to such an exploding point over the past months, years and decades that a peaceful demonstration by a few hundred Uighurs galvanised to a huge mass of protesters by late evening, who turned on the Hans of the city.

What really sparked off the riots is not clear yet. The Chinese authorities claim that the riots were instigated by Rebia Kadeer, head of the World Uighur Congress (WUC) based in the US. Kadeer has refuted the allegation. Kadeer was a wealthy Uighur business woman in Urumqi, who was arrested and jailed by the Chinese authorities on the grounds of supporting and funding the separatist Uighur Organisation, the East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIP). It is banned by the US, UN and the Chinese as a terrorist organization linked to the Al Qaeda.

The history of this issue is complicated. The Uighurs are Turkish speaking and ethnically different from the Hans. The new Chinese government took over Xinjiang between 1949 and 1954 and incorporated it into the People’s Republic of China, much in the same way they did in the case of Tibet. The Uighurs protested in various ways till the early 1960s. They held some hopes when in 1978 Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping discarded Maoist policies and promised real autonomy of religion, culture, language and a stake in the economy. That, of course, was short lived.

The Uighurs, who do not want to be assimilated with the Hans, are a deprived lot. In 1949, the Uighurs comprised 90 per cent of the population in Xinjiang. Today, the Chinese and Uighurs are almost equal. In Urumqi, the Hans overwhelm the Uighurs 70-30. In job and economic activities, the Hans receive preferential treatment. In Urumqi, the Uighurs and Hans live in well understood segregation, and the squalor in the Uighur section is starkly visible.

The Uighurs, like the Turks, used to believe in Kemal Ataturk’s policy of separating religion and politics. But as the Islamic tendency in Turkey started to grow in the late 1980s, the Uighurs followed suit. In the early 1990s the Uighur separatists decided it was essentials to have the support of their Muslim clergy if they wanted to take their aspiration to the living rooms, kitchens and bed rooms of their people.

The Chinese authorities cannot absolve themselves of the blame for germinating Islamist Uighur independence seekers. During the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, China trained and armed Uighurs to fight alongside the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Along the way, the Mujahideen was Pakistan’s ISI, the Taliban, the Al Qaeda, and Pakistani created terrorist organizations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and others. The Uighur fighters ensemble with all others as a grand orchestra.

Battling for independence for the Islamic community in Afghanistan, the Uighurs started replicating this blue print in Xinjiang. Many of them are still under Taliban protection and ideological support in Pakistan’s tribal areas, though under pressure from Beijing Pakistan hands over small groups who are executed on being handed over to the Chinese authorities. Acting on a confidential message from President Hu Jintao earlier this year, President Zardari worked on the Pak army to deport 10 Uighurs to China. Their fate is not known. The ISI has been complicit in harbouring Uighur militants in Pakistan. During Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s visit to China in 1992, Chinese Premier Li Peng minced no words in conveying this to her, but also stated that Ms. Bhutto did not have the power to alter the situation very much.

All these developments have been compounded by China’s state policies in Xinjiang. Of course, the huge area of Xinjiang with its sparse population is very rich in oil, gas and minerals that China needs direly for its development. But from the very beginning in the 1940s, the Chinese communists led by Mao Zedong saw Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia as buffer regions against inimical states. The natural population of these regions who had their population spread across the borders could not be allowed to develop in strength, to ensure Han security. Hence, beat them down and swamp them with Hans.

From the mid-1990s, Beijing implemented the “strike hard” campaign to eradicate or subdue Uighur separatists. It saw many innocent Uighurs eliminated or transferred to labour camps. The ‘Go West’ policy which started around 2000 to develop western China engulfed the Uighurs with Chinese overlordism. The very low profile Xinjiang Construction Corps comprising retired Chinese military and security forces officers who had served in the area most of their lives, acts not only as an information collection agency but works within the Uighur system to weaken the people and indoctrinate them. This organization is everywhere in Xinjiang but hardly ever visible.

The Chinese leaders are very aware that the support to the Uighur independence militants does not come only from Pakistan-Afghanistan Islamists. There are about 6 million Uighurs in neighbouring Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kirghizstan, where they enjoy empathy from their Muslim population who have ethnic connectivity with the Uighurs.

There are Islamic NGOs in the Gulf and the Middle East providing some funding to the Uighur separatists through the Fergana Valley. Support to human rights of the Uighurs in China is rising in the west. The European Union is particularly sensitive to human rights issues. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was emphatic on the treatment of the Uighurs following the July 5-6 violence.

The Chinese leaders have issued a stern warning that those responsible for the riots would be dealt with severely and ring leaders executed. These riots will, of course, be quelled. But the executed will be remembered.

The Chinese leadership is in a quandary. They know the west will not impose sanctions like they did after Tien An Men Square incident. China has too much of a global pie today. Yet they are acutely aware that in this global world without information boundary, howsoever they may try to block news, very little can be hidden. At the same time, the Chinese see a big question mark other than their hard line burning-down-the-opposition policy.

The Chinese leadership have real reasons to worry. There are severe problems of law and order, unemployment and retrenchment, corruption and exploitation of the poor in the rural areas by party apparatchiks with the help of the police. Their media policy of openness has changed to rigid control. Then there is a rising call for democracy and transparency not from the students this time, but from a group of old and retired party leaders and some activists. Even bits in the official media have started questioning the secrecy law where the accused does not have the freedom to present his defence. These are only a representative of the challenges the leadership is facing.

A reading of the official media suggests a deficiency of unanimity at the top echelons of the leadership.

The fire in Xinjiang may be doused, but some embers may quietly remain to start another and large fire. The heart of the Xinjiang uprising may not be localised in the sense of one single issue. Restiveness is all over the country, and the leaders know it. Their intense consternation is not without reasons.

Worst of all, the Chinese claim that all minorities are very happy in China has been blown by the Urumqi riots and last year’s Lhasa riots.

(The author, Mr.Bhaskar Roy, is an analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at

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