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Understanding the Hotan (Xinjiang) Riot in China

The riot in the Uighur –dominated Hotan town of Xinjiang on 18 July 2011, resulting in loss of human lives (14 shot dead by Police and 4 others killed), has happened within few days after the second anniversary of the serious disturbances that took place in the region on 5 July 2009. It has occurred despite the stringent security measures taken by the authorities with an aim to prevent violence at the time of the anniversary and also when preparations are on, to hold the prestigious Asia-Europe International Exhibition in Xinjiang in August 2011.

The Hotan riot marks the second such instance to be noticed in Xinjiang ever since  Zhang Chunxian, the reformist-minded  leader took over from the long timer Wang Lequan as the region’s Party Secretary in April 2010; the first one having been a bombing incident at Aksu on 19 August 2010. Zhang is a reformist leader with experience in Hunan province and the Chinese media positively project him as one who could establish rapport with the masses, especially through reopening internet access, which stood denied to the people in the aftermath of 2009 riots and contacting the citizens through  his micro-blogs. The unrest in Aksu and Hotan, undoubtedly, brings no credit to him, but there are no signs so far of the Centre turning unhappy with him on that count. At the same time, looking unusual is the non-reporting as yet of any speech or  comment made by Zhang on the Hotan riot by the press in Xinjiang and the Centre; this contrasts with the  high publicity given to Zhang’s statement to the media few months back (China Daily, 9 March 2011). Some parts of that statement are still worth recalling. In it, Zhang acknowledged that the foundation to the social management in Xinjiang is still weak and as such, there are ‘grave challenges’ in maintaining regional social stability.  He also called for ‘preventing occurrences of mass incidents as well as violent terrorist attacks’. More significantly, he also said that  ‘he would learn technical lessons from the Middle East’, implying that he sees a comparison  between ‘Jasmine Revolutions’ in the Middle East  and the disturbances in Xinjiang. Turning attention to a wider picture, it becomes clear that there is no possibility of risk factors with respect to the Xinjiang’s stability diminishing soon.

In the matter of identifying the attackers, discernable is a subtle variance between the position adopted by the Xinjiang regional Government initially and that taken thereafter by the Central authorities in Beijing. To illustrate, Yang Guoqing, a senior official of the Xinjiang Region Public Security Department stated (Xinjiang Daily, 20 July 2011) that the attack was on a police station in the town  and  perpetrated by ‘Uyghur rioters’; he made no mention of involvement of ‘terrorists’. On the other hand, the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security Wu Heping disclosed (Beijing, 19 July 2011) that two of the 18 attackers belonged to ‘a terrorist group led by East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)’. Xinjiang officials promptly picked up the Centre’s version, with the Chief of the Regional information office, Ms Hou Huamin, as saying (21 July 2011) three days after the incident that the riot marked ‘a long-planned, unprovoked and severe terrorist attack in which knives and grenades were used’. On its part, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) stated (19 July 2011) that 100 un-armed local Uyghurs peacefully protested near the main bazaar of Hotan, against a police crackdown carried out some days back resulting in killing of 20 protestors. The WUC pointedly denied that a police station was attacked. Such differing versions of the attack raise a question – whether the attackers were peaceful civilians or terrorists?

The deeper meaning of the strident criticism now being levelled by authoritative Chinese media organs against what they call ‘Western Media defence’ of Hotan rioters needs to be understood clearly. Till 2007, the media indulged in attacking the US directly.  Beijing’s mouthpiece in Hong Kong, Ta Kong Bao, had alleged (January 2007) that the US was involved ‘in establishing an independence state in Xinjiang’. Since then, the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and  ‘Western anti-China forces’, not the US by name, have become the targets of attack in the press with respect to Xinjiang situation. The authoritative Global Times (12 August 2009) attacked the NED of funding Xinjiang separatist organisations led by Rebiya Kadeer. In the recent period, the same daily (Chinese language, 19 July 2011) quoted a Uyghur leader settled in Pakistan as saying that ‘splittist’  Rebiya Kadeer is getting support from the ‘Western anti- China forces’. In what appears to be a strong criticism, the daily’s English version next day alleged that ‘some Westerners including few officials’ openly expressed sympathy towards the Hotan rioters and declared that China should not expect Western support for its fight against domestic ‘terrorist’ forces. Interestingly, the Chinese media have refrained from commenting on the holding of the  “International Conference on Future of Uighur people in East Turkistan” at Washington in May 2011, during which the participants including some US Congressmen and representatives from the NED demanded self-determination for Xinjiang Uighurs’.

Given that Sino-US political equation has changed now, Washington has declared the ETIM as a terrorist organisation  and there are potentials for counter-terrorism cooperation between the two, the hesitation being noticed now of Beijing and the Chinese media to directly implicate the US for Xinjiang situation is understandable.  An interesting question will be whether the Chinese media will deviate from this practice.

Undeniably, there is a close connection between Party-Government machinery in China and the country’s official media. The latter often give space to views of experts on a variety of subjects. It may not be wrong to assume that such views have a bearing on the government’s policy making. Looking from this angle, the Chinese media attack on ‘Western anti-China forces’ may be seen as reflecting the continuing Chinese strategic suspicions about intentions of the West including the US with respect to Xinjiang.  The same may be true in the case of Tibet.

Also catching attention are comments made by some Chinese academicians implicating Pakistan with regard to Hotan riots. Pan Zhiping, an academician based in Xinjiang belonging to the Institute of Central Asia of the Academy of Social sciences pointed finger at Pakistan as the source of Hotan violence. He said (Global Times, 21 July 2011) that Hotan is close to the border with Pakistan and due to their affinity in religion and language, some Uighurs  are at the risk  of being influenced by terrorist groups such as the ETIM.  Li Wei, an anti- terrorism expert with the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), without naming Pakistan, acknowledged that the rioters were being influenced by overseas terrorism. According to Professor Zhao Gancheng, of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, the ETIM is very active in the soil of Pakistan. An interesting question will be how such seemingly negative feelings about Pakistan take further shape in China. As of now,  neither the party and state controlled media nor the Chinese Government have blamed Islamabad administration for its failure to control local support for the Uighur terrorists, which should come as no surprise in the present  context of China-Pakistan agreement to work together in countering terrorism (agreed upon during President Hu Jintao – Prime Minister Gilani meeting, May 2011).

The views being expressed by Chinese authorities and academicians that the violence in Xinjiang may not subside are also important pointers. Xinjiang Regional Congress Chairman, Nur Bekri (8 March, 2011) has stated that the task of maintaining stability in the region is complicated and heavy because the foundations are weak and the situation is still severe. As Prof Li Wei of the CICIR sees, it would be unrealistic to expect a quick end to Xinjiang violence.

The Chinese authorities stick to their view that there is no ethnic conflict in Xinjiang, there is unity between the Hans and Uighurs there and the Hotan incident is the handiwork of ‘terrorists’. Such logic looks lopsided as the fundamental reason behind the riots in that region seems to be the continuing discrimination of the Uighur population which in turn is leading to civilian protests. Beijing also appears to give undue emphasis to the role of the security forces to bring back normalcy in Xinjiang, for that matter in Tibet also. A case in point is the description of the People’s Liberation Army by the Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping (Lhasa, 19 July 2011) as “staunch and loyal guardian of social stability in Tibet”. However, signs are appearing now on Chinese intentions for a course correction. The Xinjiang Party boss is now giving equal stress to preventing “mass incidents as well as terrorist attacks”, indicating that addressing Uighur dissatisfaction should also be a policy priority.

The current ‘economic development’ strategy of Beijing appears to be appropriate. There has been a significant increase in the level of Gross Domestic Product of Xinjiang – Yuan 420.3 billion, 86.4% times higher than the figure for 1952, according to the Government White Paper on Xinjiang. Xinjiang Work teams have been established and a Xinjiang Work Conference System is now operational. But much more require to be done by authorities in China in the way of meeting the religious, cultural and political aspirations of the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

( Jointly contributed by Mr D.S.Rajan, Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai,India, and Mr Ashok Tiku, China analyst based in New Delhi,India,email:

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