University of Southern California

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Uighur vs. Han:
China’s Ethnic Violence

July 17, 2009

china uighur conflict edited.jpg
In early July, Uighurs and Han Chinese clashed in China’s Xinjiang region, and the violence and crackdown that followed left more than 180 dead.

Two USC experts examine the simmering tensions that led to the unrest, the strategic importance of the region, and the Chinese government’s efforts to quell the riots with measures that included suspending cell phone and Internet access.

Migration and Suspicion

Population changes and geographic factors set the stage for this outburst. According to the USC U.S.-China Institute, Muslim Uighurs made up 75 percent of Xinjiang’s population in 1953, but they have dwindled to 45 percent as an influx of Han Chinese moved to the area. The capital, Urumqi, is now 70 percent Han.

“There is a lot of resentment among the leaders of Xinjiang, about migration of Han Chinese into the province, which has been quite extensive, particularly in the capital city,” says Stanley Rosen of the USC College, director of USC’s East Asian Studies Center. “There are a lot of religious issues, because the Uighurs feel their culture is being destroyed.” Chinese is now the main language taught in area schools, restrictions have been placed on mosques, and the Chinese government has razed old buildings in its zeal to economically improve Xinjiang, Rosen notes.

“This region has long been a source of immense worry for the government,” adds Clayton Dube, associate director of the USC U.S.-China Institute. “The region is enormous and borders Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries. The government’s decades-long effort to establish firm control over the area ... has required the movement of large numbers of soldiers and civilians into the region from other places in China.” He explains: “The effort has been undertaken for strategic and economic reasons. China’s nuclear weapons program, its space program and military have important installations in the area.”

But many Uighurs haven’t benefited as much as the Han from the region’s economic advances, Dube says. “There’s not much informal interaction across ethnic lines, and as a result suspicion and prejudice flourish.”

The Power of Internet Rumors

The spark that ignited all this tinder came from elsewhere in China, Rosen notes. Uighurs from Xinjiang had been sent south in large numbers to do factory jobs, and a Han worker in Guangdong spread a rumor that an Uighur had raped Han women, triggering an attack that claimed the lives of some Uighur workers.

“One thing that exacerbates things now is the Internet, where rumors can spread,” Rosen says. Because the Chinese government clamps down on information, and the information it does release tends to be distrusted, rumors are particularly potent, he explains.

The Guangdong government didn’t act quickly enough, in the opinion of Uighurs in Xinjiang. “It’s easy for the Uighurs thousands of miles away to think it’s a case of discrimination, the government is doing nothing to protect us,” Rosen says. This set off rioting in the north, which prompted the Chinese government to send in paramilitary police.

“The government has put forward an explanation of what started the trouble, putting the blame on [expat Uighur activist] Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress. Chinese authorities say the WUC is a separatist body, seeking to dismember and weaken China,” Dube notes. “Kadeer and other expatriate Uighurs have put forward a quite different account, accusing the police of killing unarmed Uighurs who were peacefully protesting the government’s failure to protect Uighurs working in other regions of China.”

A Measured Response?

Dube and Rosen place the Chinese government’s response to the riots — employing both law enforcement action and a suspension of cell phone and Internet access — in the context of past events.

“This essentially follows the pattern seen in Tibet in March and April of last year,” Dube says. “Knowing how the regime sees text messaging and other communication from the U.S. and other areas as the source of its problems or at least aggravating its problems, it’s no surprise those links were cut. Even if it doesn’t actually improve security, it fits the image of a government in command and taking care of the crisis.”

However, Rosen notes that this time the Chinese government brought in some reporters, something it didn’t do with Tibet. The government led the journalists on guided field trips, Dube adds, but those trips were interrupted by protesters who were decidedly “off message.”

This was an effort on the government’s part to publicize its restraint in handling protesters, according to Rosen. By opting for tear gas and moving in decisively, the government may have prevented mass retaliation against the Uighurs. “The paramilitary police have done a good job, because it could have been a complete massacre, considering the number of Uighurs and how they are outnumbered by the Han Chinese,” Rosen concludes.

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