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Chinese president returns home amidst continuing violence

Jul 08, 2009

There has not been any let up in the violence that erupted in the city of Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang region last Sunday. The conflict has its roots in ethnic tension that has been brewing between the Turkic Muslim Uighurs and the Han Chinese for many decades now.

Thousands of security forces have been deployed in the city of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang region to try to end deadly ethnic clashes.


The show of force comes as Chinese President Hu Jintao cut short a visit to Italy for the G8 summit to deal with the crisis.

The BBC's Quentin Sommerville, reporting from Urumqi's Uighur neighbourhood, says there are thousands of paramilitary police in the city in a situation he says is martial law in all but name.

The situation is still tense, with rumours of Han Chinese attacking a Uighur child and counter-rumours the other way.

President Hu was expected to join G8 talks taking place in Rome on Thursday.

A state visit to Portugal has also been cancelled, China's official news agency Xinhua said.

The authorities in Xinjiang have been told they have to sort the crisis out as soon as possible amid the embarrassment of Hu having to cancel his G8 attendance.

Violent protests

On Tuesday, riot police fired tear gas to break up groups of Han Chinese armed with clubs, who said they were angry at violence carried out by Uighurs in the north-western province.

"Officials say 156 people died in Sunday's violenc"

Early in the day, Uighur women had rallied against the arrest of family members, saying hundreds of their men had been detained arbitrarily in a massive police sweep through Urumqi's Uighur districts.

Later hundreds of Han Chinese marched through the streets of Urumqi smashing shops and stalls belonging to Uighurs.

Some of the protesters were shouting "down with Uighurs" as they rampaged through the streets armed with homemade weapons.

The Han Chinese said they were angry at the failure of security forces to protect their community on Sunday.

Officials say 156 people – mostly Han Chinese – died in Sunday's violence. Uighur groups say many more have died, claiming 90% of the dead were Uighurs. More than 1,400 people have been arrested over the violence.

One official described Sunday's unrest as the "deadliest riot since New China was founded in 1949".

The unrest erupted when Uighur protesters attacked vehicles before turning on local Han Chinese and battling security forces.

They had initially been protesting over a brawl between Uighurs and Han Chinese several weeks earlier in a toy factory thousands of miles away in Guangdong province.

China's authorities have repeatedly claimed that exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer is stirring up trouble in the region. But she said she was not responsible for any of the violence.

Some Uighurs support the notion of an independent state and there have been a number of bombings and some attacks on security forces.

Chinese authorities say the Xinjiang separatists are terrorists with links to al-Qaeda and receive support from outside the country.

Campaigners accuse China of exaggerating the threat to justify tough security clampdowns in the region.

Decades of ethnic tensions

The violence in Xinjiang has its root cause in ethnic tension between the Turkic Muslim Uighurs and the Han Chinese. It can be traced back for decades, and even to the conquest of what is now called Xinjiang by the Manchu Qing dynasty in the 18th Century.

In the 1940s there was an independent Eastern Turkestan Republic in part of Xinjiang, and many Uighurs feel that this is their birthright.

Instead, they became part of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and Xinjiang was declared one of China's autonomous regions, in deference to the fact that the majority of the population at the time was Uighur.

This autonomy is not genuine, and – although Xinjiang today has a Uighur governor – the person who wields real power is the regional secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, Wang Lequan, who is a Han Chinese.

Inward migration

Under the rule of the Communist Party, there has been considerable economic development, but life has been made more difficult for the Uighurs over the past 20-30 years by the migration of many young and technically-qualified Han Chinese from the eastern provinces.

These new migrants are far more proficient in the Chinese language than all but a few Uighurs, and tend to be appointed to the best jobs.

Not surprisingly, this has created deep-seated resentment among the Uighurs, who view the migration of Han into Xinjiang as a plot by the government to dilute them, undermine their culture and prevent any serious resistance to Beijing's control.

More recently, young Uighurs have been encouraged to leave Xinjiang to find work in the rest of China, a process that had already been under way informally for some years.

There was particular concern at government pressure to encourage young Uighur women to move to other parts of China in search of employment – stoking fears they might end up working in bars or nightclubs or even in prostitution, without the protection of family or community.

Islam is an integral part of the life and the identity of the Uighurs of Xinjiang, and one of their major grievances against the Chinese government is the level of restriction imposed on their religious practices.

There are far fewer mosques in Xinjiang than there were before 1949, and they are subject to severe restrictions.

Children under the age of 18 are not permitted to worship in the mosques, and neither are officials of the Communist Party or the government. Madrasas – religious schools – are also strictly controlled.

"All religions in China are subject to control by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, but the restrictions on Islam among the Uighurs are far harsher"

Other Islamic institutions that were once a central part of religious life in Xinjiang have been banned, including many of the Sufi brotherhoods, which are based at the tombs of their founders and provided many welfare and other services to their members.

All religions in China are subject to control by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, but the restrictions on Islam among the Uighurs are far harsher than against most other groups, including the Hui who are also Muslims but are Chinese speakers.

This severity is a result of the association between Muslim groups and the independence movement in Xinjiang, a movement that is absolute anathema to Beijing.

There are groups within Xinjiang that support the idea of independence, but they are not allowed to do so openly because "splitting the motherland" is viewed as treason.

During the 1990s – after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Muslim states in Central Asia – there was an upsurge in open support for these "separatist" groups, culminating in huge demonstrations in the city of Ghulja in 1995 and 1997.

Beijing suppressed those demonstrations with considerable force, and activists were either forced out of Xinjiang into Central Asia and as far away as Pakistan or were obliged to go underground.

'Climate of fear'

Severe repression since the launch of a "Strike Hard" campaign in 1996 has included harsher controls on religious activity, restrictions on movement, the denial of passports and the detention of individuals suspected of support for separatists and members of their families.

This has created a climate of fear and a great deal of resentment towards the authorities and the Han Chinese.

"The authorities in Beijing are unable to accept that their own policies in Xinjiang might be the cause of the conflict"

It is surprising that this resentment has not erupted into public anger and demonstrations before now, but that is a measure of the tightness of control that Beijing has been able to exercise over Xinjiang.

There are a number of emigre Uighur organisations in Europe and the United States; in most cases they advocate genuine autonomy for the region.

In the past, Beijing has also blamed an Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement for causing unrest, although there is no evidence that this ever existed in Xinjiang.

The authorities in Beijing are unable to accept that their own policies in Xinjiang might be the cause of the conflict, and seek to blame outsiders for inciting the violence - as they do in the case of the Dalai Lama and Tibet.

Even if Uighur emigre organisations wished to provoke unrest, it would be difficult for them to do so and there are, in any case, sufficient local reasons for unrest without the need for external intervention.

Clampdown on media

The Chinese government has made good use of its control over the nation's technological infrastructure to stop the spread of information about events in Urumqi.


It is well known that China has a sophisticated system that watches where Chinese people go online and monitors what they say.

The control has been extended to search sites, with many people reporting that no results were returned when they typed "Urumqi" into local search engines.

It is thought Chinese news sites relied on the official Xinhua news service for updates about events in Urumqi. Many disabled the chance to comment on stories to prevent negative posts about the lack of news.

Shirong Chen, China editor on the BBC's World Service, said the official news was appearing faster than during other times of crisis.

"What's also noticeable is that the official news agency, Xinhua, has learned from the Lhasa riot in terms of media management," he said.

"To be more credible, it released video footage a few hours after the event, not two weeks."

Within Urumqi many citizens reported that net access was non-existent, as authorities tried to limit the amount of information emanating from the province itself.

Source : BBC
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