Reaping what you sow
There was undoubtedly an ethnic and religious component to the seething fury that sent mobs of Turkic Uighurs hunting down Han Chinese in China’s far northwestern Xinjiang province on July 5.
Since China occupied and began exerting stern colonial rule over this gateway to Central Asia after the Communists came to power in Beijing in 1949, the Uighurs have experienced ever-increasing repression and inequities.
Their Muslim religious observances are strictly circumscribed. They don’t get the good jobs, or often any work at all.
With increasing passion, Beijing is promoting — as it does in its other main colonial outpost, Tibet — the immigration of Han Chinese settlers. The 10 million Uighurs are now a minority in their own homeland.
But to label, as Beijing has done, the violence that killed at least 184 people, 137 of them Han Chinese slaughtered by Uighur mobs, a separatist uprising inspired and managed by exiles of the World Uighur Congress is to obscure the broader causes of the riots.
To a substantial degree, this outbreak of violence is a response to the frustrations of life in modern China that are common to the vast majority of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
The particular inequities felt by the Uighurs and the long-simmering ethnic tensions with the Han settlers may give a particular edge to what happened in Xinjiang, just as it did to similar anti-Han riots in Tibet in March last year.
But at the root, the riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi are part of the pattern of the hundreds of violent outbursts of unrest that happen in China every day.
Until 2006, the Chinese authorities used to publish each year an account of these “mass incidents” — that is, violent riots involving more than 1,000 people.
In 2005, there were 87,000, that is, 234 a day on average. The lack of new annual reports suggests this number continues to climb because one could expect Beijing to boast about it if the number were declining.
The causes are all very similar. They stem from pandemic corruption in the Communist party and among local government officials whose predations on ordinary people are clearly visible in the explosive disparity between the well-connected rich and the mass of struggling poor.
Beijing is well aware of the dangers this inequality poses to social and political stability. But the party is psychologically incapable of pursuing the political and legal reforms that could stop the pressure cooker continuing to boil.
Despite the increasing clamour, even from within the Communist party, for change, the leaders continue to believe that as long as the Chinese economy grows by least eight per cent a year, they can stay in control.
When it is Uighur or Tibetan frustration that boils over, it is easy for Beijing to blame foreign-based separatists or otherwise appeal to Han chauvinism.
And Han Chinese are inclined to see the country’s ethnic minorities as privileged groups. They are not required to conform to the hated one-child policy and there are affirmative-action policies that give minorities easier access to universities and government jobs.
But most ethnic minorities see these policies as an illusion that do not change the reality that they get a worse education and less access to good jobs than Han Chinese. Any expression of their culture beyond singing and dancing in ethnic theme parks is actively discouraged. They are poorer than Han Chinese and discriminated against at every turn.
The Urumqi riots started when some students gathered in the centre of the city to protest the June 25 death of two Uighur workers at the Xuri Toy Factory in Shaoguan, far away in China’s southern Guangdong province.
The two men died in a brawl between Uighur and Han workers, though many Uighurs believe the death toll was much higher, about 50.
In Urumqi on July 5, text messaging and cellphones meant the gathering of a few hundred students quickly swelled into a mob of many thousands that went on a rampage of destruction against Han Chinese, their homes and businesses.
Two days later Han mobs retaliated, also wielding what may be the single greatest threat to Communist party security in power: the cellphone.
Jonathan Manthorpe writes for the Vancouver Sun.