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Urumqi: No Fresh Violence, But Tension Persists

There have been no fresh reports of violence from Urumqi, but tension persists. This tension is partly due to the anger of the Uighurs over what they describe as the indiscriminate use of force by the local authorities against Uighur protesters on July 5 and 6,2009, and the anger of the Han Chinese over what they project as the brutalities allegedly committed by the Uighur Muslims against the Han Chinese and over the failure of the security forces to protect them.

2. As a result of the disturbances for four days from July 5, the confidence of both the Uighurs and the Han Chinese in the local security forces has been shaken—each for different reasons. Army units, which were rushed to Xinjiang on the orders of President Hu Jintao, in his capacity as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, after his premature return from Rome without attending the G-8 summit, may have to stay in the province for a long time. The aggravated polarization in the relations between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese has complicated the situation for the Chinese authorities.

3. The situation in Urumqi and the rest of the Xinjiang province is not being handled by Prime Minister Wen Jiabo, but by Meng Jianzhu, State Councillor, who is the Minister for Public Security and in that capacity is the chief of China’s internal intelligence and homeland security set-up, and by Zhou Yongkang, who is a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and in that capacity supervises the internal security apparatus. These are the only two leaders, who have been touring the affected areas and reassuring the Han Chinese that the Government will act firmly to prevent any more violent incidents.

4. Zhou Yongkang, who visited Kashgar and Hotan in Southern Xinjiang on July 11 and met the local officials and Han Chinese community leaders, called for a “steel wall” of security to “win the tough war of maintaining Xinjiang’s stability.”

5. The Chinese are not clear in their mind as to who were responsible for what happened. They continue to blame the Munich-based World Uighur Congress (WUC) for the outbreak of violence. While the protest demonstrations on the evening of July 5 were definitely held by secular Uighurs sympathetic to the WUC, nobody knows who caused the subsequent brutalities against the Han Chinese—men and women. Reliable reports say that even pregnant Han Chinese women were not spared by the rioting Uighurs.

6. The Uighurs constitute only 15 per cent of the population in Urumqi. The Han Chinese constitute about 75 per cent. It is, therefore, difficult to understand how elements from such a small minority managed to kill so many members of the majority community in a brutal fashion. This indicates the possibility of the infiltration of pro-Al Qaeda and pro-Taliban elements sympathetic to the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan (IMET), who are strong in the interior areas, into Urumqi to take advantage of the protests organised by the sympathisers of the WUC to create a mayhem. The Uighurs constitute the largest ethnic group in the interior.

7. The Chinese authorities continue to allow foreign journalists to cover the situation in Urumqi. While they have allowed tourist groups, which were already in Xinjiang at the time of the outbreak of the violence to continue their tours without asking them to leave, they are discouraging group tour companies from taking new groups to Xinjiang on the ground that many tourist buses were destroyed by the Uighurs during the riots and that the local authorities may not be able to provide effective security to the tourists.

8. Last Friday, while some mosques in Urumqi remained closed, some others held their Friday prayers, which were largely attended by the local Muslims. Some foreign journalists in Urumqi reported that the Chinese authorities had banned the prayers and that some mosques had held the prayers in defiance of the Government ban. This has been strongly denied by the local authorities. According to them, there was no such ban. They contended that while some clerics held the prayers as usual, some others decided on their own to cancel the prayers due to the continuing tension. They maintained that the Government had no role in this decision.

9. The Chinese authorities have, in the meanwhile, revised upwards the number of fatalities. Initially, they had given the figure as 156. On July 11, they revised it as 184—- of whom 137 were Han Chinese. They have cautioned that the number of fatalities might go up since many of the injured undergoing treatment in hospitals are in a critical condition.

10. It is still not clear why Hu had to cancel his participation in the G-8 summit despite the danger of its being perceived by the outside world as indicating that China was losing control in Xinjiang. It would also be projected by his domestic critics as “loss of face for China”. In a commentary by the Asia Times Online’s China Editor, it has said that this was because that only Hu, in his capacity as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, could have authorised the movement of the Army to Xinjiang to take over the responsibility for law and order. Since neither Wen Jiabo nor any of the other political leaders from the Standing Committee of the Politbureau is a member of the Commission they could not have taken this decision in the absence of Hu. While this explanation sounds plausible, this may not be the complete explanation. There are undercurrents of tension in the leadership over the fact that for the first time China had to suffer a “loss of face”. Maintaining face is very important for the Chinese.

12. The Urumqi uprising has created tension in China’s relations with Turkey, which has characterized the situation in Xinjiang as genocidal and has called for a debate in the UN Security Council. This has been opposed by China. The Central Asian Republics and the Secretariat of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation have described the situation as an internal matter of China. Western reactions have been restrained and there has been an attempt not to embarrass China by exploiting the situation. While there was considerable sympathy for the Tibetans last year and many expressions of solidarity with them, similar sympathy and expressions are not to be seen in the case of the Uighur uprising. The world does not want another Islamic trouble spot in addition to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Chinese are banking on this and encouraging the foreign journalists to go to Urumqi in the hope that they would see for themselves the dangers of a new Islamic trouble spot.(13-7-09)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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