Four Years After Xinjiang Riots, Grievances Unanswered

Choi Chi-yuk reports from Urumqi ahead of the anniversary on Friday of riots in 2009, in which at least 197 people were killed. With Mandy Zuo at South China Morning Post:

A bus stop has been built on the Jiefang South Road where several thousand Han people marched with knives and sticks, seeking revenge on the Uygurs, but were stopped by officers of the People’s Armed Police with tear gas. Elderly women wearing red armbands sat on chairs at the bus stop yesterday, watching passers-by, while squads of armed police patrolled the area.

A Uygur who owns a grocery shop on the Xinhua South Road said his business was affected for several months after the riot in 2009, as the road was the worst-hit part of the city.

“Uygurs would be regarded as terrorists after the July 5 incident, if men wore a beard or women wore a kerchief, a veil or a gown,” he said. “Schools are teaching children not to believe in religion.

“We’re so depressed and feel unable to breathe,” he said. [Source]

The 2009 riots erupted from protests over the deaths of two Uyghur migrant workers in southern China, which ignited a cocktail of existing grievances. At Dissent Magazine, Nick Holdstock examines the triggers of this and earlier incidents, from which he argues authorities have learned the wrong lessons:

Four years later, what are the prospects for further unrest in Xinjiang? In as much as anything in China (or elsewhere) can be said to follow a pattern, there have arguably been broad similarities between the causes of, and responses to, the Urumqi protests and previous ones in Xinjiang.

Both the Baren uprising in 1990 and the protests in Ghulja in 1997 took place against a background of general resentment against government policies in Xinjiang, but they were sparked by specific concerns: Baren was a response to family planning policies in the region; the Ghulja protests were driven by the arrests (and in many cases, deaths) of young Uyghur men who opposed the banning of meshreps (a traditional cultural event that features poetry and music). Both were met with mass arrests, executions, and increased surveillance of Uyghurs. In neither case was there any official acknowledgement that Uyghurs might have valid grievances that needed to be addressed. Instead, both incidents were attributed to foreign-sponsored separatists (which after 9/11 fell under the category of “terrorism”). [Source]

The latter pattern has held true with more recent clashes: the latest, in which dozens have been killed in recent weeks, have been linked in state media to terrorist groups active in Syria. Much discussion abroad, on the other hand, has focused on identifying domestic factors fueling the ongoing violence. Authorities have tried to keep the peace with a blend of cultural, security, and economic policies, each of which critics claim has been in some respect counterproductive. While The Wall Street Journal highlighted the erosion of traditional nomadic ways of life as a major source of resentment, The Economist points to policies against Islamic religious practices:

Spontaneous anger triggered by heavy-handed controls on religious expression is probably a bigger factor than officials are prepared to admit. In Turpan, the prefecture to which Shanshan belongs, the authorities have been waging a campaign to persuade Uighur men not to grow long beards and women not to wear the veil or other Islamic clothing. Those living in neighbourhoods where all residents comply are given preferential access to loans and government-sponsored job-training schemes. They can also obtain government subsidies for funerals and weddings. Even the sale and manufacture of the jilbab, a full-length outer garment worn by Muslim women, has been banned.

Such measures are often ignored. In Khotan women can often be seen with their heads or faces covered. Long beards are the norm for older men. But a Uighur taxi driver says the authorities have been getting tougher in recent weeks. He says employees at his company were told in May that they could be fined 5,000 yuan ($815) for picking up passengers wearing face-coverings that reveal only the eyes. If they do so a second time, they could lose their jobs. He says his company does not employ men with long beards. Khotan residents say a deadly eruption of violence in the city in July 2011 was prompted by anger over restrictions on Islamic dress. [Source]

Beijing-based economist Ilham Tohti told the Associated Press that security forces’ heavy-handed responses to each incident have helped fuel later ones:

Tohti said tensions will continue to boil over into violence as long as the government maintains its tight controls over the region and fails to address the Uighur minority group’s complaints of discrimination and marginalization.

“Every time something happens, the government responds with one word: pressure. High pressure, high pressure, and even greater pressure. This leads to greater resistance and more conflict,” Tohti said by phone. “The government should reflect and take responsibility for what is happening in Xinjiang now and in the future.”

[…] On his website, Tohti posted a letter Friday addressed to China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, and China’s Cabinet, the State Council, in which he compiled a list of 34 Uighurs who remain missing after authorities launched an expansive crackdown in response to the 2009 riots. He said the authorities’ persistent lack of accountability over the crackdown has fueled hatred toward the government. [Source]

At South China Morning Post, Oxford University’s Reza Hasmath identified economic disparities as a key stressor:

Perhaps the most culpable factor behind current ethnic tensions is socio-economic, such as segmented labour shares and unequal sectoral distribution in occupational categories. This is coupled with growing migration to Xinjiang (most notably, Hans to Urumqi) intensifying economic inequalities between Uygurs and Hans. Hans earn more than Uygurs in Xinjiang. They are over-represented in high-status and high-paying occupations (for example, professional and managerial jobs), in which more than 35 per cent of the Han working population works in comparison to 13 per cent of Uygurs.

Disproportionate access to the labour market creates and reinforces existing, spatial divisions, with wages determining residential location. Uygurs and Hans reside in relatively closed ethnic communities and seldom interact meaningfully with each other. This does not bode well for economic, social and political integration in the short- and long-term, and will only intensify perceived (or real) differences between Hans and Uygurs, thus reinforcing ethno-religious consciousness and tensions.

In the short term, the violence will be suppressed, as it has been in the past, with the use of hard policies. Soft policies will eventually be re-employed. In the long term, the current soft and hard policies do little to address the main reasons for a rise of ethno-religious consciousness among Uygurs. Left unattended, this will lead to increases in flash inter-ethnic violence as the one witnessed the past few days, and four years ago. [Source]

See also Fei Chang Dao’s overview of Internet disruptions following the 2009 riots and more on Xinjiang and unrest there via CDT.