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Spotlight: China’s Ethnic Riots

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

Xinjiang is China’s most exotic province. With a population of 20 million, it is three times the size of Texas and studded with mountains and deserts.

Uighurs, who are Muslim and of Turkic origin, are the single largest ethnic group in Xinjiang. But over the years, their culture has been threatened by a steady influx of Han Chinese. The result: resentment and unrest. The past decade has seen bombings by suspected Uighur separatists and crackdowns by the Chinese authorities. At the time of last year’s Beijing Olympics, an attack in the Xinjiang town of Kashgar killed 17 Chinese police officers. But the region’s most serious outbreak of violence took place in its capital, Urumqi, over three days beginning July 5, when rioting left at least 156 people dead and more than 1,000 wounded.

Many Uighurs complain that they have become second-class citizens in their own homeland. Government authorities limit the number allowed to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. Teaching of the Uighur language, written in the Arabic script, has been curbed, and Uighurs face restrictions on their travel. “The Uighurs are the very bottom of the heap economically in China,” says Dru Gladney, an expert on Xinjiang at Pomona College in California.

Other parts of China are witnessing similar disaffection among angry young men. But Xinjiang is like Tibet in that it has a sizable non-Han population. Unrest in these two regions conjures up one of the Chinese leadership’s worst nightmares: the rise of a separatist movement that would break up the country. Given the enormous economic and social challenges China faces, Beijing values stability above all and will do practically anything to maintain it.

Just as Beijing blamed the exiled Dalai Lama for masterminding protests in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, last year (a charge he has strongly denied), China’s official media said the violence in Urumqi was fomented by members of the World Uyghur Congress, a group based in Washington. Its head, Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur entrepreneur who moved to the U.S. in 2005 after being jailed for five years by the Chinese, tells TIME, “I have nothing to do with the demonstrations.”

The Chinese government seems determined to exert even tighter control over the lives of Uighurs. Yet this strategy has left them feeling trapped and desperate. If China doesn’t rethink its policies, regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet might prove inhospitable for all–Uighur, Tibetan and Han Chinese alike.

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