As the government raises the official death toll in last week’s violence in Urumqi to 192, the Washington Post reports that the origins of the unrest lie in labor policies that pressure young Uighurs to work on factories in distant parts of the country:
The origins of last week’s ethnically charged riots in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, can be traced to a labor export program that led to the sudden integration of the Xuri Toy Factory and other companies in cities throughout China.
Uighur protesters who marched into Urumqi’s main bazaar on July 5 were demanding a full investigation into a brawl at the toy factory between Han and Uighur workers that left two Uighurs dead. The protest, for reasons that still aren’t clear, spun out of control…
Both Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 percent of the country’s population and dominate China’s politics and economy, and Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority living primarily in China’s far west, say anger has been simmering for decades.
By moving Uighur workers to factories outside Xinjiang and placing Han-run factories in Xinjiang, Chinese officials say, authorities are trying to elevate the economic status of Uighurs, whose wages have lagged behind the national average. But some Han Chinese have come to resent these policies, which they call favoritism, and some Uighurs complain that the assimilation efforts go too far. Uighurs say that their language is being phased out of schools, that in some circumstances they cannot sport beards, wear head scarves or fast as dictated by Islamic tradition, and that they are discriminated against for private and government jobs.
See also a New York Times report, “At a Factory, the Spark for China’s Violence.”
Meanwhile, observers are questioning whether the violence, Beijing’s reaction to it, and ethnic policies in general will destabilize the regime. In the Atlantic, Robert Kaplan compares the violence in Xinjiang to recent protests in Iran:
I don’t believe for a minute that China will be seriously destabilized by these riots. I assume that the state will move in with a fierce and adroit hand, arrest culprits, punish them severely, and channel more aid to the region in its continuing, decades-old struggle to tame the province. Expect Chinese officialdom to react to these riots with much more wisdom and efficiency than the Iranian government has reacted to its own. There will be fewer—and less profoundly outlandish—statements originating from Chinese policymakers than have originated from the Iranian president and supreme leader.
For there is little prospect of China’s leadership losing legitimacy, whereas one could convincingly argue that legitimacy is something Iran’s rulers no longer have. China’s regime may have its troubles in Xinjiang, but it still delivers efficient management of a complex society that spans nearly a continent. Iran’s regime simply cannot lay claim to that kind of stability. And the Chinese communist party is not split like the Iranian clergy.
While Foreign Policy presents a different perspective:
One line of argumentation indeed holds that China’s uncompromising stance toward its ethnic populations may be unsavory to Westerners, but is in fact the surest way to keep the peace.
If only Beijing’s iron fist were so dexterous. China’s government is indeed effective at disbanding protests, building skyscrapers, and staging high-profile spectacles like the Olympics. It’s also proved relatively adept, to its credit, at managing the financial crisis and keeping factories churning.
But you don’t have to look far for signs of breakdown or miscoordination. Take the embarrassing wavering over Green Dam, the much-maligned Internet nanny program; or last year’s scandals over tainted milk, an economic and international public relations disaster for Beijing. China routinely looks more vulnerable from the inside than the outside, and its volatile minority affairs are just another example.
Radio stations broadcast public announcements telling residents to carry identification at all times, and to be prepared to have their vehicles searched for weapons or other suspicious items.
State media started running stories saying life had returned to normal. The official Xinhua News Agency reported the latest Harry Potter movie, “Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince,” opened Wednesday in Urumqi.
The chorus of smiling Muslims and Han Chinese wore matching yellow polo shirts and appeared on television Wednesday, singing: “We are all part of the same family.”
The TV spot was the latest effort in a relentless propaganda campaign by the Chinese government to end the worst ethnic rioting in the far western Xinjiang region in decades.
But the message was falling flat on the streets of the dusty jade-trading oasis city of Hotan, where many Muslims are still seething with resentment over the Han, the dominant ethnic group in China. The residents spoke about the long-standing tensions in hushed voices in the Silk Road town’s bustling bazaar, where donkeys pulled carts piled high with melons, and women in colorful head scarves sold wheels of flat bread that looked like pizza crust.
One Muslim shopkeeper picked up a hatchet, raised it over his head and lowered it with one quick stroke before saying, “That’s the best way to deal with the Han Chinese.”