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 March 2008.
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 festering discontent.
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
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 non-violent means.
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.