[lg policy] CHINA: EXAMINING THE ROOT CAUSES OF XINJIANG ’S ETHNIC DISCONTENT
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Fri Jul 10 14:09:47 UTC 2009
CHINA: EXAMINING THE ROOT CAUSES OF XINJIANG’S ETHNIC DISCONTENT
A EurasiaNet commentary by Stephen Blank 7/09/09
The early July inter-ethnic violence that hit China’s western Xinjiang
Province may have been shocking, but it shouldn’t have been
surprising. Tension between the Uighur and Han Chinese communities had
been steadily building over the past three decades, and Communist
authorities in Beijing hadn’t been doing much to defuse simmering
On July 9, Beijing began forcefully reasserting its authority after
four days of Uighur rioting in Xinjiang’s provincial capital, Urumqi,
and other population centers. "Preserving and maintaining the overall
stability of Xinjiang is currently the most urgent task," said a
statement issued by China’s Politburo Standing Committee on July 9, as
reported by the official Xinhua News Agency. Authorities were flooding
Urumqi with security forces, some of whom rode into the city center in
trucks emblazoned with slogans such as "We must defeat the
terrorists." Meanwhile, handbills posted throughout the city called on
local residents to "keep calm and maintain public order."
Overall, at least 156 people died and 1,100 were injured in the
rioting, which began on July 5. Some reports suggest as many as 800
people may have been killed. Many of the victims were Han Chinese who
fell at the hands of rampaging Uighurs. As of July 7, authorities had
taken over 1,400 people into custody in connection with the unrest.
Officials have vowed to execute those responsible for fomenting
mayhem. The spark for the social explosion in Xinjiang reportedly was
a deadly factory brawl in far-away, coastal Guangdong Province. The
brawl broke out amid suspicion that a Uighur worker had sexually
assaulted a Han Chinese woman.
In an interesting twist, it seems that Uighur protesters mimicked
tactics used by anti-government demonstrators in Iran in June --
utilizing internet-based social networking platforms to disseminate
information and to organize. Chinese leaders have long sought to
contain the internet’s power to inform. The Xinjiang events suggest
that Beijing’s efforts to keep a lid on the internet haven’t worked.
One gets the sense that the large-scale violence and loss of life in
Xinjiang could have been avoided, given that the problems which fueled
the rioting have long been evident. Uighurs not too long ago
constituted a healthy majority in Xinjiang. But two decades of
programs designed to bolster Beijing’s grip over remote Western
regions prompted a massive influx of Han Chinese. As a result, the
indigenous population now feels that its cultural survival is
threatened. On top of ethnic-identity anxiety, there is economic
disparity to contend with. Beijing, it is true, has poured a
considerable amount of resources into the region to improve its
infrastructure, due in large part to the fact that Xinjiang is a hub
for trade with Central Asian states, as well as China’s largest
oil-producing region. But changes seem to have benefited the local Han
population more than Uighurs.
Signs that frustration was reaching the boiling point were evident in
June. On June 16, for example, inter-ethnic tension spiked when a
Uighur member of local security forces in Urumqi shot and killed a Han
Chinese individual during a protest over a local construction project.
Xinhua characterized the incident as an accidental shooting. Earlier
news reports indicated that small-scale protests and property damage
were fairly common in the region. In one such June incident, a crowd
angered by a proposed tax hike wrecked police cars and temporarily
blocked a highway.
Such spontaneous outbursts offered clear indicators that the
indigenous population is feeling oppressed. But rather than address
the root cultural and political causes of rising discontent, Chinese
authorities have consistently attributed Uighur restlessness to
economic stratification brought on by backwardness. Once order is
fully restored, Beijing will likely keep on throwing money at the
problem. Yet, experience has shown this approach tends to exacerbate
ethnic tension, rather than ease it.
Uighurs see their land disappearing and their Muslim religion being
persecuted, or co-opted by state agencies. Economic improvements so
far haven’t offset these perceived disadvantages. Thus, it is
reasonable to expect that discontent within the Uighur community will
continue to spread.
Ultimately, Xinjiang’s problem is political. The official reaction to
the July events so far suggests that China’s leaders have no ready
answers on how to ease frustration before it spills over into
violence. The tired response of blaming outside agitators and branding
troublemakers as terrorists hints that officials are unwilling to
substantively grapple with the root causes of discontent.
Economic development tends to intensify ethnic and national
consciousness, instead of dissipating such feelings. Within this
context, the Uighur unrest of early July serves as another indicator
that Chinese leaders should recalibrate their governing style. China
has achieved remarkable progress over the last quarter-century. But
the socio-economic forces unleashed by rapid development are powerful,
and they require the country’s leadership to constantly adapt in order
to ensure continuing stability.
Editor's Note: Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War
College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent
the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.
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