|Inside China's unquiet west
By Sreeram Chaulia
The outbreak of unprecedented street violence in the capital
of China's far western Uyghur-populated region of Xinjiang,
with more than 150 persons officially reported dead and 828
injured, has caught both the central government in Beijing
and outside observers by surprise. To put these events in
perspective, Beijing only admitted to the loss of 18 lives
and around 600 injured during the last major uprising by
Tibetans against Chinese rule in areas adjoining Xinjiang in
How could a volcano of this scale erupt in Xinjiang's
tightly-policed capital city, which has a demographic
break-up of 75.3% Han and only 12.8% Muslim - mostly Sunni -
Uyghurs? Is it believable that protesters belonging to a
regimented and closely-monitored minority community can
organize into mobs and kill so many people of the dominant
ethnic group with just "knives, bricks and stones", as is
being announced by Xinhua, the Chinese government news
agency? Of the 150-and-rising casualties, how many are
actually victims of agents of state?
The state's version of what transpired is almost a
facsimile of its rendering of the Tibetan revolt of last
year: foreign-based diaspora provocateurs plotting to
disrupt China's social harmony, violent rioting by
minorities against innocent Han businesses and civilians and
restoration of law and order through rapid deployment of
army and police reinforcements. What is glaringly missing in
this pro forma version is any mention of the role of the
Chinese security forces in the violence.
Even more disingenuous is the Chinese state's
bureaucratic attribution of upheavals in its mineral-rich
and turbulent western fringes to the "three evils -
terrorism, separatism and religious extremism". By denying
mass-level socio-political grievances of minorities against
majoritarian-cum-authoritarian rule and overwriting them
with the script of "evils", Beijing is aggravating the
The specific matchstick to the current conflagration in
Urumqi comes from an ethnically motivated "transfer policy"
the Chinese government initiated in 2006, wherein state
recruiters aggressively hired young Uyghur women to work as
factory laborers at the other end of the country in
provinces like Guangdong.
Parts of Xinjiang, where Uyghurs make up the majority of the
population, are especially targeted for these controversial
transfers, which are carried out via threats and
intimidation. Once the jobless Uyghur women are physically
removed and sent to do low-paying and hazardous work far
from home, the state fills the emptied spaces in Xinjiang
with subsidized Han economic migrants.
It is notable that the apparent trigger for the latest burst
of violence in Urumqi was an attack in late June by an
incensed Han gang on “transferred” Uyghur workers in a toy
factory in the southeast of the country. This incident in
Guangdong left two Uyghur workers dead and some 81 of them
injured. Local security agencies in the city of Shaoguan
have been accused by rights groups of standing by inactively
as the Uyghurs were singled out for harm.
Once news of this injustice reached Urumqi, protesters came
out to express their disgust at the government's forced
depopulation of Uyghurs and their ensuing ill-treatment in
China's manufacturing heartlands. To reiterate, what
happened next and who killed whom is unfortunately never
going to be impartially investigated.
Like the other inhumane demographic experiment in Tibet,
Chinese officials justify the transfer policy from Xinjiang
as being beneficial to Uyghurs as it generates employment
opportunities. The extremely depressed and persecuted form
of employment that internal migrant workers of minority
nationalities face in the industrial citadels makes a
mockery of this alleged modernizing benefit being imposed on
the unwilling Uyghurs.
Forced population transfers have been a standard technique
with which China managed to extend its sovereignty over
lands and peoples in its western frontier with Central Asia.
But the same incendiary method leads minorities to rise up
in rebellion from time to time because of its implied
endgame of extinction of a whole community possessing
demarcating cultural characteristics. The poignancy of
slowly becoming a minority in one's own territory (Han
Chinese have grown from 5% of Xinjiang's population in the
1940s to more than 40% today) is fertile ground for people
banding together and waging a struggle through violent or
China, in sticking to the blanket formulation of "evils" and
attempting to hide the ugly underbelly of its vulnerable
western flank, has not prevented the reality from leaking
out. Tibetan and Uyghur activists in exile have been raising
awareness about the intricacies of Chinese state policies
and their disastrous effects on minorities in particular.
The turmoil in Urumqi is proof, if any were needed, that
China's weaknesses are internal and unwilling to go away
despite its iron-fist. As China has been carving out greater
influence abroad through smart economic and military
diplomacy, there has been a gradual shift in international
attention to its seemingly inevitable march to superpower
status. This focus has somewhat obfuscated the country's
continuing domestic human costs and tragedies which refuse
to die down.
Aside from being obvious cases of long-term injustice, the
rumbles and occasional roars from Tibet and Xinjiang send
out a clear message: one must keep a constant eye on the
ball of China's core domestic contradictions.
Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world
politics at the Jindal Global Law School in Sonipat, India.
(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights
reserved. Please contact us about
sales, syndication and