September 30, 2009 3:44 pm

Xinjiang: Separatist violence shakes unity

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As the Communist party celebrates the 60th anniversary of its rule, it has put up 56 “columns of ethnic unity” in Tiananmen Square in the centre of Beijing.

The red-and-gold objects, 13.6 metres high and bathed in coloured lights at night, can withstand lightning and gusts of up to gale force 11, the government says, highlighting the importance of peace and harmony among the country’s 56 officially recognised ethnic groups are for its overarching concern of stability.

But the party’s claim that the People’s Republic of China is a home where the many minorities prosper happily side by side with their Han majority compatriots has been shaken badly by riots in Xinjiang, in the country’s worst ethnic strife in decades.

On July 5, thousands of Uighurs rioted in Urumqi, the capital of China’s westernmost region. Uighurs, a Turkic group, were once Xinjiang’s predominant ethnic group, but have become a minority after decades of Han immigration.

After police dissolved an initially peaceful demonstration over conflict between Han and Uighurs in a factory in southern China, protesters torched shops and killed 197 people, most of them Han Chinese, according to the government. Two days later, Han vigilantes marched on Uighur neighbourhoods armed with clubs and knives seeking revenge.

In a white paper on Xinjiang policy, the State Council, China’s cabinet, said last month that the per capita income of Xinjiang farmers had grown 28 times in 2008 compared with 1978, while urban disposable incomes in the region had multiplied 35 times in the same period.

However, separatist violence was putting this progress at risk, it said: “The ‘East Turkistan’ forces have … seriously interrupted the region’s economic development.”

The government responded with a sweeping crackdown, arresting hundreds of Uighurs suspected of involvement in the riot and with accusations that the unrest was the result of a terrorist plot organised by separatist groups outside China.

Beijing has blamed Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman-turned-activist who lives in exile in the US, for allegedly instigating the violence. But for residents of Xinjiang, it is clear that the root causes lie inside the region. Uighurs complain about social and economic policies they say have made them second-class citizens in their own homeland.

Over the past decade, China has started rapidly exploring oil and gas reserves in the Taklamakan, the world’s second-largest sand desert, claiming that this would catapult Xinjiang ahead in terms of economic development. But rural residents complain that they see nothing of the new-found wealth.

“We don’t get jobs at the oil wells and we don’t get jobs in construction. They all bring Han workers with them,” says a Uighur farmer of the state-owned companies involved in the exploration and infrastructure projects under way.

“China is bent on eradicating our cultural heritage,” says Mehmet, a father of two in the northern Xinjiang city of Karamay, whose teenage son has just seen his school switching to instruction in Mandarin only, a language he barely understands. This is part of education reforms started seven years ago which aim at speeding up assimilation of young Uighurs.

Another policy in this direction is the attempt to send large numbers of young Uighurs to work in factories in richer provinces.

In other parts of China, millions of rural residents have been trekking to the industrial centres in search of a better future. But for Uighurs with their remote location, their distinctly non-Chinese features and the language barrier, this option has not been easily available.

Therefore local governments, eager to raise incomes for rural residents, have started organising such labour migration. In Shufu county, a rural district close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, huge hoardings praising factory work in coastal China dot the melon fields. “Have one member of your family go and make all your family happy!” they say.

These initiatives are meant to help reduce the growing wealth gap between Xinjiang and other parts of China and between Xinjiang’s rural south and the more affluent areas where oil and gas exploration is creating new wealth. But they are also creating social problems.

The trigger for the July 5 riot was a mass brawl between Han and Uighur workers in a Guangdong toy factory which killed two Uighur workers. One of them was from Shufu county, and all of the Uighur workers there had been introduced to the factory by the government.

Apart from discontent among Uighurs, Han residents of Xinjiang are unhappy as well.

Last month, the regional government watched in shock as tens of thousands of Han Chinese took to the streets demanding the resignation of Wang Lequan, the regional party chief, over what they called his botched handling of the July riots and general incompetence in running Xinjiang.

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