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A sign of things to come? Ethnic tensions spark new challenges for Chinese government

Commentary, 27 July 2009
The recent riots in the capital of Xinjiang province in China involving the Muslim Uighurs have focused attentions once more on ethnic divisions inside China. In the sixtieth year of the People’s Republic, is this is a worrying sign of things to come or a wake up call for the government? By assessing the actions taken by the CCP leadership, one can get a better picture of China’s ethnic policies and how prepared they are for what the future might hold.

Uighur manThe recent riots in the capital of Xinjiang province in China involving the Muslim Uighurs have focused attentions once more on ethnic divisions inside China. In the sixtieth year of the People’s Republic, is this is a worrying sign of things to come or a wake up call for the government? By assessing the actions taken by the CCP leadership, one can get a better picture of China’s ethnic policies and how prepared they are for what the future might hold.

By Gary Li, Asia Programme, RUSI

China’s Ethnic Minority Policy

China’s ethnic minorities really are true to their name, with fifty-five groups making up a mere eight per cent of the total population of China: the rest - all 1.2 billion of them - are Han. This is a key point when analysing China’s ethnic issues: namely that the average Han Chinese is totally inexperienced in dealing with other ethnic groups. This, of course, can lead to cultural and religious insensitivity, as has frequently happened in the past, but only recently has this been more than just a localised issue.

From Chinese propaganda over the past sixty years, ethnic minorities have repeatedly been portrayed as picturesque and heavily romanticised ‘noble savages’, often in need of ‘guidance’ from the Party. This lies behind the fundamental lack of understanding between the Han and the other ethnic groups, in particular the larger Muslim and Tibetan communities. 

New Millennium, New Worries

The Urumqi protests were a perfect demonstration of the increasingly interconnected nature of Chinese domestic issues. The spark occurred not in Xinjiang, but in Guangdong province, thousands of miles away. The attack on the Uighur workers at the toy factory on 26 June triggered the violent reactions in Urumqi itself. Ironically, while the Guangdong incident was probably due to the antagonistic attitudes of Han workers towards the Uighurs at the factory, the Urumqi protests were also inflamed by what the Uighurs feel as a dangerous influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang.

The situation in Xinjiang is reminiscent of the problems faced by Britain’s inclusion policies in the 1960s, when the government simply threw more cash at the race problem, while all the time ethnic tensions simmered. In the case of Xinjiang, cash was the problem, or rather the distribution of cash. The Chinese government has been relatively open in regards to the riots in Xinjiang, stressing the importance for ethnic harmony for China’s development as well as being careful to portray the victims as both Uighur and Han.

The Tibetan riots of early 2008 provide the most obvious parallel. Despite the eagerness of the Western media to portray the disturbances as a pro independence movement, the Lhasa riots were in fact racially motivated and based on a perceived sense of economic injustice. As in Tibet, the Uighurs killed dozens of Han Chinese in the back alleys and streets of Urumqi. Official figures from Xinhua as of 15 July put the death toll at 192, with at least 137 of the victims being Han. However, at no point did the Uighurs call for an independent state, and the second round of protests on 6 and 7 July were more focused on calling for the release of the 1,400 Uighur suspects arrested after the earlier protests.

Government Response

The Chinese government surprised many by its limited response. Initial media reports from both China and the West showed a mere handful of People’s Armed Police (PAP) troops and civilian police SWAT teams in the streets. Of course, hundreds flooded in during the days that followed, but there is as yet no regular army troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed[1]. This demonstrates that the Chinese government post Tiananmen, has learnt that having the army seen putting down protestors is even more harmful than the civil unrest itself. The total absence of armoured vehicles on the streets of Urumqi, as opposed to Tibet, further demonstrates that the government was extra careful in making sure that its response was seen to be proportional.

Currently there are some 20,000 PAP personnel and police on the streets of Urumqi. Some 14,000 of the PAP troops are from the 2nd, 181st, 128th, and the 93rd Mobile Divisions, flown in from Jiangsu, Henan, and Fujian province on requisitioned civilian airliners, along with nearly 500 tons of supplies and equipment. They are mostly armed with wooden batons and riot shields, with only small contingents of police armed with small calibre submachine guns, though at the time of press small detachments of armed PAP are also patrolling the streets.

The most dangerous moment occurred when hundreds of ethnic Han Chinese, wielding clubs and metal pipes, began to roam the streets of Urumqi on 7 July, apparently seeking revenge for the earlier killings. These were dispersed by PAP and police water canons. The timely intervention by the security forces prevented this from escalating into a bloodbath, as any apparent lack of reaction could have been easily interpreted by the Han vigilantes as tacit approval from the government for retribution.

The importance of this unrest should not be underestimated merely by the lack of troops on the streets, for it made President Hu Jintao cut short his meeting with the G8 nations in Italy in order to deal with this issue, signifying a very high level response to the riots.

Despite the mistaken portrayal of the riots as anti-Muslim oppression by the Chinese government by many Western media sources, as opposed to what essentially amounted to an anti-Han pogrom, responses from Muslim countries have been conspicuously lacking. The only one of note was delivered by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused China of ‘genocide’ in Xinjiang. China has called for Erdogan to retract this surprisingly inaccurate remark, but can breathe a sigh of relief that its main trade partners in the Middle East have remained silent.

Incomprehension and Shock

The Chinese government’s reaction to the Uighur riots has been two fold. Firstly, it deployed more restrained tactics than during previous civil unrest - doubly surprising as Xinjiang is such a sensitive region - and also displayed new tactics in controlling media output by shutting down social networking sites such as Twitter[2]. Secondly, the Chinese state and the majority Han populace seemed genuinely shocked that the Uighurs, who in their eyes are fellow beneficiaries of China’s reforms and economic progress, could turn on their Han neighbours with such anger and savagery, which again harks back to the lack of understanding of Uighur culture due to a Han dominated ethnic narrative.

Both of these could be seen in the reaction of China’s ‘netizens’, many of which were baying for blood in response to what they see as a racist massacre. One blogger urged the PAP to fire on the Uighurs, while another bemoaned the lack of ‘gratitude’  shown by Uighursfor government policies. This is very dangerous ground as a lot of the Han majority already feel that ethnic minorities in China enjoy preferential treatment in the eyes of the state[3]. All of this further stirs up deeper historical prejudices regarding the minority peoples who, as stated above, are often regarded as uncivilised and requiring ‘guidance’.

Barbarians at the Borders

Many commentators in the West have remarked on the wider Uighur issue of the region, but The Uighur World Congress (WUC) and its current President Rebiya Kadeer, was also singled out immediately for an all out media attack by the Chinese government. Kadeer, formerly a darling of the CCP, has been living in exile since she became disillusioned with China’s policy in Xinjiang. However, it is doubtful if anyone really believes the Chinese line that somehow the Urumqi riots were planned and directed by Kadeer from the US.

China has valid fears surrounding the strategically important Xinjiang region. It borders several resource-rich Central Asian states, which has encouraged central government in Beijing to make infrastructural development of Xinjiang a top priority, even offering financial incentives for people from the interior to move there - the resultant influx of Han migrant workers being arguably one of the reasons for the disgruntlement of the Uighurs.

The Uighur independence movement in the region, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is relatively small in number and its capabilities are extremely limited. The attacks thought to be perpetrated by ETIM members in 2008 were mostly small in scale and betrayed a lack of organisation and general know-how[4]. However, Xinjiang borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, both hotbeds for Islamic militants. The fear is that ETIM would seek to acquire technical and financial support from militant groups inside those two countries. With a mountainous and porous border, it would be terrible news for the Chinese government if ETIM was to unleash a well co-ordinated terrorist campaign in the major Chinese cities.

At the time of writing, the terrorist organisation Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have already issued a statement in which they vowed to avenge the deaths of Uighurs by attacking Chinese interests in Algeria and the Yemen[5]. There are currently thousands of Chinese workers in the region, including 50,000 in Algeria alone[6].

Future Trend?

Despite the high death toll and the sensitivity of the Xinjiang Uighur region, it is important to view the riots in the larger context of China’s development. Firstly, as China’s economy grows, the flow of labour will continue to increase, both from or to ethnic minority regions. It is inevitable that tensions will arise out of perceived injustices which, as the Guangdong episode demonstrated, can go both ways. Secondly, the rioting in Urumqi was nowhere near as large as the Tibetan riots of 2008, and did not see the unrest spread to many outlying areas. The total number of protestors was in the thousands, out of a city population of 2.3 million. Finally, the government managed to contain the protests and secure the city within a matter of days, and did not descend into a bloodbath.

All in all, the Urumqi riots were a wakeup call for the Chinese government. It must now assess its ethnic minority policy and find a way to increase dialogue between the Han who are moving into Xinjiang, and the local Uighurs. It must realise that ethnic Uighur party apparatchiks are not representative of the majority of the Uighur populace, and that for true integration to take place an effort must be made to alleviate the fears of the Uighur people towards their cultural identity and freedoms. The Chinese government’s reaction to the riots was overall proportional, and its relatively lax control on the foreign media increased the perceived level of transparency. China might have the PR war under control, but it will still need to address the underlying issues in Xinjiang- in Chinese literally ‘the New Frontier’.


[1] Many Western reporters have mistakenly described the PAP as army troops, and even suggested that tanks were on the streets of Urumqi. This is puzzling and simply not the case.
[2] Clearly not wanting to repeat the mistake of Iran during the election crisis
[3] They are not subject to the one child birth control policy, and they have preference in being accepted to high education as ethnic minority high school students have lower grade point requirements for entrance into University
[4] See ‘Violence Returns to China’s New Frontier’, Alex Neill, RUSI
[5] BBC China coverage
[6] Indeed AQIM had already attacked a convoy carrying Chinese engineers in Algeria three weeks ago, killing twenty four police officers, and could make their attacks in future even more focused on Chinese personnel.


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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