‘King of Xinjiang’ faces blame for riots
By Shi-ren Hou
The Urumqi violence on July 5, in which members of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority rioted against Han men and women in the capital of Xinjiang, was the largest and most violent incident of public unrest in China since the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown in 1989.
In addition to causing appalling loss of life and damage to property, the incident has attracted a huge amount of international attention. This is especially upsetting for the Chinese government because this year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
In the aftermath of the incident, a spate of strong accusations and counter-accusations has ensued. The Chinese government has blamed Uyghur separatist groups outside of the country for
plotting and organizing the violence, while overseas Uyghur groups, and many members of the Western media, have claimed that it is repression or discrimination aimed at ethnic Uyghurs in China which is the true cause of the disturbance.
What has not been covered, however, is that many residents of Urumqi are now blaming Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan for his failure to adequately anticipate the occurrence of the violence and take proper precautions against it.
Wang, referred to by the New York Times as a “strongman in controlling Uyghurs”, holds the title of party chief of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and thus occupies the position of supreme authority within this vast administrative unit. The 64-year-old Shandong native, who is also one of the 25 politburo members, is considered a figure of considerable promise and distinction within the Chinese political elite.
The central government only confers leadership positions for turbulent areas like Xinjiang upon individuals whom they consider truly capable and deserving. Significant of their confidence in Wang is the fact that they have allowed him to hold this position for 15 years (in addition to another three years as deputy Xinjiang governor), when the maximum tenure for regional party and government leaders is usually limited to a decade (two terms), to prevent the formation of local power bases.
A major reason for Wang to remain as Xinjiang leader for such a long time is because of the central leadership’s confidence that he can maintain stability in the region. And indeed, Xinjiang has remained largely stable except for sporadic minor skirmishes and terror attacks, until the July 5 violence. As such, Wang is nicknamed “King of Xinjiang” in China, partially because his surname means “king” in Chinese.
Additionally, Wang used to be a senior official of the Chinese Communist Youth League, and is regarded as a protege of President Hu Jintao, who himself was promoted to the most senior position in government after Deng Xiaoping noticed his aptitude in dealing with disturbances in early 1989 in Tibet – another region that shares Xinjiang’s potential for violent ethnic unrest.
Wang was elevated to the politburo, the supreme ruling body within China, in 2002, a move generally considered a requisite stage in ascent to the very highest echelon of leadership, and a portent of greater things to come.
Despite all these signs of great promise as a political figure, and the confidence the central leadership has invested in him, many people in Urumqi have begun to blame the July 5 incident on Wang personally, accusing him of failing in his duties as the region’s chief administrator.
A contact of the author, a Han Chinese who grew up in Xinjiang and who still has family members in Urumqi, says that Wang should have known that an event like the July 5 violence was certain to occur after brawls between Uyghur and Han Chinese workers at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, made national news at the end of June. And he should have taken greater measures to severely restrict the ensuing protest, or even prevented it.
According to this source, sporadic ethnic violence has always been a part of life in Xinjiang. As in other areas where ethnic tensions are widespread, violent flare-ups are invariably triggered by individual events involving members of different ethnic groups – for example, something as probable and commonplace as a car accident in which the victim is a Uyghur, and the party at fault is Han Chinese.
In the past, however, the government had done a consistently successful job of limiting the scope of such disturbances. The source stated that prior to the July 5 incident, he had even said to friends that although the Shaoguan brawl would definitely lead to riots in Xinjiang, the government would be capable of keeping them under control, as it had done so on numerous occasions in the past.
Consequently, many people in Urumqi now believe that the July 5 incident should have never occurred – that local government, which has extensive experience in dealing with such disturbances, should have anticipated and prevented it. Consequently, they also feel that it is Wang who must bear a great deal of the blame for the violence, which has left nearly 200 people dead at the time of writing, and further heightened ethnic resentment in the region.
Some Chinese bloggers also questioned, without naming anyone specifically, how violence of such large scale could even occur, since vigilance against ethnic conflicts has been heightened after riots in Tibet in March 2008. Beijing has also made maintaining stability its top priority this year due to celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic.
In the aftermath of the incident, the Xinjiang government has blamed overseas Uyghur separatists for instigating the riots, saying they have as evidence intercepted telephone conversations. “That means the government had information about what was going to happen. Why did it not take actions to stop it?” some bloggers have asked.
They also blamed the Xinjiang government for inaction. Dai Qing, a former journalist with the national Guangming Daily, wrote in her blog on a Hong Kong website that the violence began to take place five and half hours after Uyghur protesters gathered. During such a long time, “Where was Urumqi municipal party secretary Li Zhi, where was Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan, who have the power to mobilize tens of thousands of members of the police force?”
So strong are these sentiments, claims the source, that there have been sizeable demonstrations in front of the Xinjiang government office in Urumqi, calling for Wang’s resignation. None of these rallies have been reported by either the Chinese or Western media.
If these allegations of professional negligence and incompetence against Wang are justified, then the “King of Xinjiang” has great cause for anxiety, and his future career is imperiled.
The July 5 incident is the most recent in a large number of “mass incidents” (the official euphemism for a large-scale public protest) which have occurred during the past 12 months and have been a source of increasing concern for the central government. These mass incidents include riots in Wengan, Guizhou province, last year; taxi strikes in Chengdu and Xining this year, and the recent Shishou mass incident, which occurred in Hubei in June, and saw tens of thousands of protestors take to the streets.
Any outbreak of mass unrest is especially sensitive this year, because 2009 marks 50 years since the 1959 Tibetan uprising, 20 years since the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown, and most important of all in the eyes of the central government, the PRC 60th anniversary.
So concerned is the central leadership about the frequency of recent mass incidents throughout China that on July 12 it released a new set of regulations requiring that senior members of the party or government be held accountable for “inappropriate handling” or “negligence” when dealing with public unrest. The release of these regulations received high-profile coverage on all of the major Chinese-language news media, including Xinhua News Agency and the People’s Daily.
If Wang is to be held in any way accountable for the worst mass incident in China’s recent history, during one of its most sensitive periods, one would expect him to the first target of these new regulations on official culpability. It seems unlikely, however, that Wang’s career will be toppled in the short term by either the Urumqi July 5 incident, or these new regulations, which Chinese journalists have already complained are too weak and provide too little involvement by the public to be truly effective in dealing with official mishandling of mass incidents.
Neither Xinhua nor People’s Daily, both official news outlets, have mentioned governmental neglect contributing to the riots, instead laying exclusive blame upon Uyghur agitators outside of China, with Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress serving as the chief focus of their ire. Wang has had a positive, high-media profile since the incident, making repeated speeches, all of a somewhat perfunctory nature, stressing the importance of ethnic unity and harmony and calling for the preservation of social stability in Xinjiang.
It is probably the fact that Wang is Hu’s protege that has shielded him from any immediate, negative repercussions as a result of the July 5 incident.
Political figures of Wang’s seniority are usually only subject to harsh and public censure if they are on the losing side in a power struggle within the party – a good example being the disgraced Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu, who many believe was charged with corruption because of increasing friction between President Hu Jintao and the Shanghai clique of which Chen Liangyu was a significant member.
Yet even if Wang is spared immediate dismissal or explicit recrimination for his mishandling of the incident, his failure to effectively deal with this problem will undoubtedly have negative long-term ramifications for himself, and perhaps even his mentor Hu.
In the intensely competitive sphere of elite Chinese politics, a mishap as egregious as the July 5 incident will not be forgiven by other members of the party’s senior leadership, and Wang’s future political prospects should be extremely limited. Wang is already a member of the politburo, but is unlikely to be given any positions of increased importance at the party’s 18th National Congress in 2012, when appointments and personnel reshuffling in the highest levels of government are officially announced. But one thing which is certain is that Wang’s mishandling of the incident will have an impact on the political jockeying in the run-up to the 18th party congress.
And Hu has the greatest reason to expunge Wang from the sphere of influence in Chinese politics. Wang has not only damaged China’s international image, by allowing the riots in Urumqi to explode in the lead-up to nation’s 60th anniversary, he has also caused Hu himself immense embarrassment by compelling him to make an abrupt departure from the Group of Eight summit in Italy.
Shi-ren Hou is a freelance writer and translator, and the owner of the online news site China News Wrap (www.chinanewswrap.com).
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