The deadly riots in Xinjiang this week remind us of the ongoing simmer of political violence in the province.
Xinjiang is not often included in the ‘Central Asia’ remit of many organisations, but it’s a bit of an arbitrary decision. The Uighurs are Turkic, Sunni Muslims with ancient trading ties to the rest of Central Asia (the two main branches of the Silk Road met in Kashgar, whose Old City is now being tragically razed by Chinese authorities). The province is beset by ethnic tension and political dissatisfaction with authoritarian rule, which only increased with the independence of the Central Asian states in 1991. Many Uighurs live in nearby states such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and there is also a sizable Kazakh community in Xinjiang (in each locale, discrimination and persecution of the respective ethnic minorities have become significant political issues). Xinjiang has a substantial geo-political importance: it is the largest domestic source of natural gas for an energy-craving China. It also shares with Kazakhstan the dubious distinction of being a national nuclear test site in the 1960s-70s. In short, the distinct political, economic and social dynamics within Xinjiang should not obscure the linkages and challenges it shares with its Central Asian neighbours.
Uighur grievances in Xinjiang are many; among the largest are the forced population transfers that over the years have increased the ethnic Han Chinese population in the province from less than 10% to more than 40%. Political, cultural and religious repression endures, justified by the Chinese government as a campaign against Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups (for which the evidence is equivocal). Refugees are often forcibly returned to China (including by Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), where they are treated as terrorists or criminals. A fuller picture of Uighur grievances can be found via the Uyghur Human Rights Project. Note the use of ‘East Turkistan’ rather than ‘Xinjiang’, a Manchurian word meaning ‘new frontier’ that many Uighurs find offensive.
The roots of the current outbreak of violence are well presented by a Global Voices account. Over the years, unemployed Uighurs have been aggressively recruited or intimidated into taking jobs in faraway Guangdong province; the concomitant transfer of Han Chinese into Xinjiang facilitates the massive swings in ethnic composition and cultural assimilation. Sreeram Chaulia of the Asia Times characterises it thusly:
“Forced population transfers have been a standard technique with which China managed to extend its sovereignty over lands and peoples in its western frontier with Central Asia. But the same incendiary method leads minorities to rise up in rebellion from time to time because of its implied endgame of extinction of a whole community possessing demarcating cultural characteristics. The poignancy of slowly becoming a minority in one’s own territory… is fertile ground for people banding together and waging a struggle through violent or non-violent means.”
Several weeks ago a smaller riot between Uighurs and Han Chinese occurred in Guangdong, sparked by rumours of a sexual assault by a Uighur worker (rumours being an enduring catalyst for group violence). Two Uighurs were killed. This spurred the original protest on Sunday in Urumqi, which began peacefully. Protesters claim violence erupted when police used unnecessary force to disperse them; authorities claim the police intervened only when protesters became violent. Han Chinese were attacked by Uighurs; two days later, Uighurs were targeted in revenge. The death toll currently stands at 156, a fairly high number for this type of violence (last year’s outbreak of violence in Tibet killed a few dozen).
For a very thorough roundup of this week’s events, check out the ESWN blog, which has media and blog reports, photos and YouTube videos.
Incidents of political violence will of course have distinct and unreplicated characteristics; but it is interesting to consider those elements that recur time and time again, especially in repressive environments. We see that rumours and small events can come to epitomise larger grievances and mobilise thousands. We see the multiplicity of aims and motivations for participating in protest and, perhaps, violence – political, economic, religious, ethnic, revenge, anger, and so on. Once again, an authoritarian state blames foreign elements and ‘evil’ ideologies for the violence provoked by its own policies and behaviour. And perhaps most worrying, no obvious resolution of the underlying conflict is visible. China will never tolerate an autonomous or independent East Turkistan. The Uighurs are not likely to completely abandon their political efforts (whether peaceful or violent) unless they are forcibly destroyed as a community – and conflict resolution via genocide is not the kind of solution anyone should discuss.
How will this week’s violence affect Uighur minorities in other Central Asian states? Will it have a significant radicalisation or mobilisation impact? Will it spur new government measures against them? Too soon to say definitively, but let’s keep an eye on it and return to these communities in a future post. In the meantime I suggest keeping up with the story on Global Voices, ESWN, RFE/RL, the New Dominion blog, and Al Jazeera, which today offers the intriguing article, ‘Muslim states “silent” on Uighurs’.