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China’s War in the West

7 minute read
Simon Elegant / Beijing and Austin Ramzy / Urumqi

Xinjiang is China’s most exotic region. A vast, remote landmass three times the size of Texas and studded with mountains and deserts, the province once stood at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road. Its capital, Urumqi, is far closer to Kabul than it is to Beijing. Xinjiang’s population of 20 million is one of China’s most diverse, with Uighurs, Kazakhs, Mongols, Tajiks and ever growing numbers of Han Chinese. Beneath the desert sands, reserves of oil, minerals and natural gas abound.

Xinjiang is also China’s most troubled region. The Uighurs, who are Muslim and of Turkic origin, are the single largest ethnic group. But over the years, their culture has undergone a whittling away, amid a steady influx of Han Chinese, who now dominate the local economy. Today, about 70% of Urumqi is Han. The result: resentment and unrest. The past decade has seen a string of bombings by suspected Uighur separatists — the U.S. has classified one organization, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, as a terrorist one — and stern crackdowns by the Chinese authorities. Around last year’s Beijing Olympics, an attack in the historic Xinjiang town of Kashgar killed 17 Chinese police. But the region’s most serious outbreak of violence took place in Urumqi over three days beginning July 5, when rioting left at least 156 people dead and over 1,000 wounded.

(See pictures of race riots continue in China’s far west.)

The protests were peaceful enough at first. A crowd of some 1,000 Uighurs marched toward Urumqi’s central People’s Square chanting slogans about alleged police inaction after a Chinese mob recently beat to death two Uighur factory workers in the southern coastal province of Guangdong. What happened next at People’s Square is unclear. Some reports have the police baton-charging or using more forceful means against the demonstrators. But the upshot was that hundreds of young Uighur men spilled onto Urumqi’s streets, smashing vehicles, ransacking shops and attacking Han residents. One witness said that of more than a dozen bodies he saw, all appeared to be Han. Hospitals said some two-thirds of the wounded were Han.

(Read “After Deadly Riots, Ethnic Tensions Heat Up in Urumqi.”)

The government flooded the city with thousands of police, who detained at least 1,400 people, mostly Uighurs. During an official tour for Chinese and foreign journalists, the fear and anger of both the city’s Han majority and Uighur minority were palpable. A 65-year-old Han man originally from China’s central Henan province said he retreated to his second-floor apartment as a mob of about 50 Uighur youths attacked a Chinese car dealership nearby. “We spent more than a day inside our house,” said the retired farmer, who declined to give his name. “We were too terrified to come out.” As the journalists toured the burned-out car dealership, a large group of Uighur women assembled. They demanded the return of their arrested husbands, sons and brothers. “Grandparents, children, they’ve all been arrested,” said one Uighur woman. “I have a younger brother. He’s 14, and I don’t know where he is.”

Things nearly turned even worse. Shortly after noon on July 7, groups of Han in their hundreds, then thousands, began mobilizing in the northern parts of the city. Armed with knives, hammers and staves, they marched toward Uighur districts in the south of Urumqi, apparently intent on retaliation. Security forces massed to prevent the Han entering the Uighur areas. The mobs would congregate and sprint to one area, then retreat and run in another direction. Tear-gas canisters exploded through the alleyways. Though there were rumors of Uighur deaths, the huge security presence managed to restore a semblance of order by the end of the day. Still, the possibility of fresh violence remained real — to the point that President Hu Jintao canceled his attendance at the G-8 summit in Italy and rushed home.

Fear and Loathing
Many Uighurs complain that they have become second-class citizens in their own homeland. Government authorities limit the numbers of Muslim Uighurs allowed to go on pilgrimage to Mecca and handpick clerics to deliver politically approved sermons at Friday prayers. Teaching of the Uighur language, which is written in the Arabic script, has been curbed so that Uighurs can more easily assimilate into the wider Chinese society. Yet Uighurs say that they are discriminated against by Chinese companies that operate in Xinjiang. They face restrictions on their travel abroad and even within China itself; repeated stories in the media over the past year, describing attacks and plots by “terrorist” Uighur separatists, have deepened Han Chinese suspicion to the point where many hotels in coastal cities will refuse Uighur custom. “The Uighurs are the very bottom of the heap economically in China,” says Dru Gladney, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College in California and an author of numerous articles and books on Xinjiang. “There’s a very deep sense of frustration, especially among the young, unemployed men.”

Other parts of China are witnessing similar disaffection among angry, unemployed youth. But Xinjiang, like Tibet, is crucially different. With their sizable non-Han populations, unrest in those two regions conjures up one of the Chinese leadership’s worst nightmares: the rise of a separatist movement that would presage the breaking up of the whole country. Given the enormous economic and social challenges China faces, Beijing values stability above all, and will do practically anything to maintain it.

(Read “Tensions Remain As Chinese Troops Take Control in Urumqi.”)

For their part, however, both Uighurs and Tibetans resent the same large-scale Han immigration, the same economic discrimination, the same decades of suffocating control, the same steady erosion of their cultures. In Tibet, that simmering anger erupted in March 2008 when initially peaceful protests degenerated into attacks on Han Chinese shopkeepers and passersby in Tibet’s capital Lhasa. The violence left some 20 dead, mostly Han according to the authorities; the Tibetan government in exile said scores of Tibetans were gunned down.

(Read “A Brief History of the Uighurs.”)

Beijing blamed the exiled Dalai Lama for masterminding the Lhasa protests, a charge he has strongly denied. This time, official media said the unrest in Urumqi was fomented through Internet social-media sites and online forums by members of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a group based in Washington, D.C., and particularly by its head, Rebiya Kadeer. A controversial Uighur entrepreneur who moved to the U.S. in 2005 after being jailed for five years by the Chinese, Kadeer told TIME: “I have nothing to do with the demonstrations. I reject the Chinese accusations. They are doing it to cover their own actions. The demonstrations started peacefully, and some [Uighurs] were even carrying Chinese flags. The Chinese government has already branded me as a separatist; they want to connect the demonstrators to me so they can punish them severely.”

Dead End
Severe punishment. Even tighter control over the lives of Uighurs. Those seem to be the only policies Beijing is willing to contemplate. Yet this strategy has left Uighurs feeling trapped and desperate, says Alim Seytoff, a WUC spokesman: “If we speak up, we get killed. If we don’t speak up, we will be wiped out.” Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher for New York City – based Human Rights Watch, says that a sense of helplessness — and hopelessness — drives the Uighurs to demonstrate: “They knew the terrible consequences of protesting for themselves and their families and yet they went out anyway.”

Given the level of desperation, says Bequelin, “the government needs to ask itself why it faces such opposition in ethnic areas and consider very seriously changing those policies.” Otherwise, Xinjiang and similar regions like Tibet might prove inhospitable for all. The retired Han farmer in Urumqi says his faith in Xinjiang’s future has diminished. “It’s been developing really fast,” he says. “But now I don’t know. We’ve never had this before.”

with reporting by Bobby Ghosh / Washington

See pictures of the March 2008 riots in Tibet.

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