Uighur Grievances Remain Unresolved After Riots in China

John Cheng Jul 30, 2009

On Wednesday, during a visit to Japan, the prominent Uighur exile and activist Rebiya Kadeer repeated her denunciation of China’s heavy-handed response to ethnic violence earlier this month between Han and Uighurs. Upon reflection in the aftermath of the unrest, the riots should be interpreted as a glaring symptom of the communist government’s continuation of repressive policies toward minorities.

The descent into bloodshed began with the Chinese government’s lax investigation into a Han-Uighur factory fight in the southeastern city of Guangzhou, prompting peaceful Uighur protestors to march down the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, on July 5. Chinese armed forces cracked down on the demonstrators. Enraged Uighurs attacked Han civilians, generating Han assaults on Uighurs. Chinese troops then responded by intensifying their presence and have admitted to killing a dozen Uighurs.

China has arbitrarily rounded up swaths Uighur men, accused of encouraging or participating in the riots. Detainees under Chinese custody, predominantly Uighur, are at risk of being executed, and due process of law will likely be circumvented.  

Chinese authorities officially state that 197 people, mostly Han, have died, while Uighur rights activists say the death toll is much higher, that security forces bear much of the responsibility for casualties, and that the victims were largely Uighur. Journalists have had difficulty confirming these competing claims.

What is clear, however, is that China is reacting to a problem it has created, worsened, and allowed to fester over time. Attempting to carefully craft a positive image for itself in the eyes of the world — a futile endeavor — is a greater priority for China than genuinely re-examining the conditions in which Uighurs live.

Chinese military and police brutality are only an immediate, if not extreme, response to Uighur discontent that both masks and fails to redress its root causes. The cycle of joblessness, discrimination and state repression in Xinjiang — with parallels in America’s race riots of the 1960s — keeps the possibility alive for future uprisings.

The Uighurs are a minority ethnic group who practice Islam, with a population totaling roughly 8 million in Xinjiang. Before the 1949 communist revolution, the Uighurs had twice achieved temporary independence. The Han, on the other hand, are China’s most populous ethnic group, and have dominated the nation politically.

Disregard of human rights is second-hand nature to the corrupt officials running the Chinese government. Since the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, it has been the policy of the Chinese government to accelerate economic liberalization while steadfastly refusing to implement any political reforms, such as allowing freedom of expression.

The Han have embraced this trade-off of rights for jobs, but this formula has not worked in Xinjiang because the Uighurs enjoy neither rights nor jobs. They been excluded from the prosperity that economic growth has brought for the rest of China, and their identity as a people are being degraded.

The Uighurs are acutely vulnerable to the Chinese government’s general denial of human rights through the systematic targeting of their cultural and religious practices. According to Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, Uighur students are not allowed to learn their own language in schools, and Uighur worshipers cannot pray in public gatherings or fast during Ramadan.

“The very expression of your religion is conflated with separatist activity,” Richardson said with a hint of incredulity in her voice during an interview with The Indypendent.

Both economic and political demands are bitterly aggravated by racism from Han settlers, who are about 40 percent of Xinjiang’s residents. The routine refusal of Han employers to hire Uighur workers is a major contributing factor in the obscene unemployment rates that Uighur communities suffer.

China likes to publicly proclaim its faith in ethnic harmony, but what this “harmony” actually means is a status quo in which Uighurs are expected to keep quiet about their de facto position as second-class citizens.

“[Xinjiang] is a very strategic area. The number one concern is not ethnic harmony. [China’s] number one concern is to maintain control,” said Andrew J. Nathan, a professor of political science and China expert at Columbia University.

One-sixth of China’s territory lies in Xinjiang, which contains plentiful reserves of oil and natural gas. Even from a solely strategic mentality, though, China’s single-minded inclination to impose its will upon the Uighurs, in the name of public security and national unity, is not only undemocratic but also fundamentally self-defeating and acts instead as a source of destabilization.

The widespread, sympathetic and unprecedented international media coverage of the riots has propelled the cause of the Uighurs onto the front pages of influential newspapers like The New York Times and The Guardian. Western news outlets have contributed a steady stream of reports in the following weeks, though the intensity of coverage has lessened. These developments are obviously not in China’s interests.

State-run media and party propaganda have perpetuated a false narrative that lays the blame for the violence on Uighur separatists, although most experts say that the vast majority of Uighurs are seeking greater autonomy, not independence.

While the tightly censored media landscape within China is likely to negatively impact already unfavorable perceptions that the Han harbor toward the Uighurs, and deepen ethnic tensions in a predictable and unfortunate fashion, international attention has damningly reaffirmed China’s reputation as a state that pays little deference to human rights norms.

The plight of the Uighurs and international criticism of government policies will not disappear anytime soon until China wises up.

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