'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
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
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.
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
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
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
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).