Uprising in Urumqi - Beijing cracks down on a Muslim minority

JULY 8, 2009.
Beijing cracks down on a Muslim minority.
From today's Wall Street Journal Asia.

Authoritarian states are typically less stable than they appear, and China is no exception. This week's ethnic riots in western Xinjiang province are the deadliest on record since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Until the Chinese government is truly accountable to its citizens -- both the majority Han and other ethnic minorities -- these kinds of deadly uprisings will continue.

Sunday's riots started when around 3,000 ethnic Uighurs, including many high-school and college students, gathered to protest ethnically motivated killings in a factory in China's southern Guangdong province. The riots turned violent but, thanks to China's information firewall, no one knows exactly why. State-run media report that Uighurs had attacked Han Chinese and count at least 156 people killed and more than 1,000 injured.

Government outlets blamed Uighur "separatists" and labeled U.S.-based Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress, the "mastermind" of the violence. Ms. Kadeer denies this in an article on a nearby page. Yesterday, thousands of Han Chinese, armed with homemade weapons, swarmed the streets of Urumqi, calling for revenge. Police stopped them with tear gas, but not before they had destroyed some Uighur shops. Other protests and violent outbreaks ripped across the city.

China's draconian policies in Xinjiang stem in part from fears that the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group who speak a Turkic language, want to secede from China. The province is rich in oil and gas reserves and shares a sensitive border with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Russia (which has tried to foment uprisings in Xinjiang in the past). There are about 10 million Uighurs in Xinjiang.

But these fears are no excuse for China's punitive and often violent suppression of the Uighurs. Beijing has poured money into a quasimilitary conglomerate, the "Bingtuan," which runs businesses and large farms in the region. Bingtuan jobs often go to Han Chinese immigrants who receive economic incentives to move west. Meanwhile, a 2006 government policy encourages migration in the opposite direction -- i.e., getting young Uighur men and women to work in coastal factories. The program is designed to get young Uighurs to "integrate" (read: marry) into Han society.

These policies threaten the very existence of Uighur culture. Today Uighurs comprise less than half of the population of Xinjiang, according to official Chinese government statistics -- down from around 75% in 1949, when Mao Zedong's army took control of the area. Recently the government announced it would tear down the old city of Kashgar, the Uighur's cultural home, and replace it with a "new" old city. China also restricts the use of the Uighur language in schools and requires state employees to eat during Ramadan, when devout Muslims fast during the day.

Beijing's reaction to Sunday's riots is thus true to form. Officials say 1,434 people were arrested, and Uighurs protesting yesterday told journalists that the men in their families had been arbitrarily rounded up. As of last night, Urumqi is subject to a curfew. The Internet has been cut off and mobile phone access is limited. Foreign reporters have been allowed into the region -- in contrast to the March 2008 Tibet riots, when they were kicked out -- but they are accompanied by government minders.

Like Beijing's brutal response to the Tibet riots, a crackdown will only strengthen the Uighurs' pro-independence movement. This holds risks for Beijing. Although most Uighurs advocate peaceful methods to achieve equal rights, a fringe of violent extremists already exists. During the Olympics last year, three attacks on government outposts in Xinjiang killed 21.

The immediate priority must be to stop further killing in Urumqi and other Xinjiang cities, either by Han or Uighurs. But to prevent violence from recurring, Beijing needs to address the concerns of a Uighur population who have no say over the policies that have transformed their homeland and threaten to eradicate their way of life.

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