Xinjiang ethnic groups united in hostility
By Kathrin Hille
Published: September 4 2009 17:17 | Last updated: September 4 2009 17:17
The government in Xinjiang has been caught off guard by the anger it faces from its own people.
For decades its rulers brought in millions of people from China’s Han ethnic majority to colonise the ethnically diverse region in the country’s far west. They kept a wary eye on the Uighurs, the biggest local ethnic group, as the main security risk.
But since Wednesday it has been Han marching in the streets of Urumqi, the regional capital, calling for Wang Lequan, Xinjiang’s Communist party secretary, to step down.
The protesters’ wrath was triggered by fear over reported syringe stabbing attacks which most attributed to the Uighurs . But the unfolding complaints about the government reflect much broader dissatisfaction across ethnic boundaries.
“The central government may have put the economy first for the past 30 years but, in Xinjiang, stability has always been first and the economy is a distant second,” says a Han resident of Korla, a city in the region’s south. The 35-year-old resident asked not to be identified for fear of government retribution.
“We shouldn’t be surprised that the Uighurs are making trouble. Even many Han are dissatisfied.”
Many such complaints across all ethnic groups centre on Mr Wang.
Five die in Urumqi protests
The government in Xinjiang struggled to contain escalating unrest on Friday as thousands of people confronted police in Urumqi, the regional capital, accusing the government of incompetence in maintaining public safety.
Five people have been confirmed dead and 14 others injured and admitted to hospital after protests the day before, Zhang Hong, the city’s deputy mayor, said.
The protests, which grew in number and intensity for a third consecutive day, come at a sensitive time for Beijing as the Communist party seeks to reaffirm the legitimacy of its rule, with celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1.
Xinhua, the official news agency, reported from Urumqi that more than 1,000 demonstrators had confronted police near Communist party headquarters and that security forces had dispersed the crowds with teargas. According to AFP reports, protesters threw plastic bottles at police.
Witnesses said crowds were trying to break through police lines to storm districts where many ethnic Uighurs live.
An Urumqi-based businessman said police had closed all roads into the city.
Xinjiang is different from other Chinese provinces where local leaders rotate every few years. Mr Wang has held senior positions there since 1991 and headed the regional party committee for 15 years.
One of the most popular jokes among Xinjiang people is that while highway railings elsewhere need poles every three metres, Xinjiang needs one every metre “because Wang Lequan’s family produces them”.
While Mr Wang’s administration is determined to force rapid economic development, its approach has created a yawning income gap.
Until the mid-1990s, oil and gas exploration in Xinjiang was concentrated in the northern half of the region. But over the past decade PetroChina and other state-owned companies have begun to explore finds in the Taklamakan desert of southern Xinjiang.
In official propaganda, this benefits everyone. “Our strategy is to develop Xinjiang with large state-owned enterprises to make sure the development happens fast and on a large scale,” explains a documentary broadcast on Xinjiang television. “Thus we are creating new job opportunities, and we are raising incomes fast.”
But in reality most Uighurs are missing out because state-owned oil companies in Xinjiang prefer employing Han who speak Mandarin and are often more likely to bring technical skills than local Uighur farmers.
The wider public in Xinjiang shows discontent with rapid development as well. “They take our gas but they are giving nothing back,” is the most frequently heard complaint.
In general, tax revenues paid by a local branch of a central government-owned state enterprise should be split between the local and central governments.
But for the natural gas PetroChina sends through its pipelines, tax is paid at the other end, where it emerges in Shanghai.
That is where the subsidiary running the pipe-line is registered, according to a 2005 notice from the State Administration of Taxation.
Queries about PetroChina’s local tax payments were not answered by the Xinjiang government or the company.
In Xinjiang, natural gas is in short supply. In Aksu, midway between Urumqi and Kashgar, buses, taxis and private cars queue for half a kilometre in front of a natural gas station almost every day. Petrol and gas prices in the region are among the highest in all of China. And homes in most parts of Xinjiang, except for the biggest cities, burn coal or wood for heating because most of the region’s natural gas is sold to other provinces.
Xinjiang’s economy has been growing fast despite such bottlenecks. The region’s gross domestic product has been increasing at annual rates of 11-15 per cent over the past five years.
In Korla, where most oil companies set up their regional headquarters for Taklamakan exploration, gleaming black Porsche Cayennes and BMWs congregate on the sidewalks every night as oil engineers and other affluent migrants from other provinces enjoy the fruits of this boom.
Many feel left behind. A 35-year-old man complains that the rent he pays for the shop floor where he sells cheap accessories is more than 10 times the rent charged in a similar commercial area in Yiwu, a bustling coastal trading hub. “If this doesn’t get better soon, I’ll leave Xinjiang,” he says.
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