Ten Years Later: The Urumqi Riots Marked a Turning Point

Ten Years Later: The Urumqi Riots Marked a Turning Point

Ten years ago on July 5, 2009, riots broke out in Urumqi, Xinjiang, in response to a conflict between Uyghur and Han workers in Guangdong. Two Uyghur workers were killed by an angry mob at a factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong following false rumors that the Uyghurs had sexually assaulted Han women. When images of the fight spread online, protests erupted in Urumqi, the regional capital, against the treatment of the Uyghurs at the factory and more broadly in Chinese society. As the protests turned violent, an estimated 200 people were killed. Dake Kang at AP sums up the events of 2009 and examines their impact on Xinjiang in the decade since in interviews with participants and observers:

Abudushalamu and tens of thousands of other Uighurs now live in Turkey, cut off from friends and family back home. Analysts say the Urumqi riots set in motion the harsh security measures now in place across Xinjiang, where about 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims are estimated to be held in heavily guarded internment camps. Former detainees have told The Associated Press that within, they are subject to indoctrination and psychological torture.

Abudushalamu was just 9 years old when the riots took place. At the time, he knew he was witnessing something terrible, but he never imagined where the following years would lead.

“I thought Han and Uighur people could be at peace,” he said. “The camps? I never thought that would happen.”

[…] In the days after the violence on July 5, 2009, Beijing had sent in thousands of troops to restore order. For weeks, they fired tear gas, raided businesses and swept through Uighur neighborhoods to arrest hundreds, many of whom were punished with decades in prison. The entire region of 20 million people was cut off from the Internet for nearly a year in an attempt to curtail use of social media.

Normality had returned, but Xinjiang was never quite the same. Ethnic divisions hardened. Han Chinese avoided Uighur neighborhoods, and vice versa. Many Han Chinese steered clear of the whole of the region’s south, home to most of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, because they believed it was too dangerous. [Source]

After 2009, Xinjiang experienced sporadic outbreaks of violence amid deepening tensions between Uyghurs and the government. In 2014, the government launched a crackdown on terrorism, which has been maintained ever since and has incorporated intrusive surveillance, tight restrictions on religious and linguistic expression, and, most recently, internment camps holding between one to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims who are forced to undergo ideological, religious, and cultural brainwashing in an effort to eradicate Uyghur culture. A recent report from BBC, based on research by Adrian Zenz, revealed that thousands of Uyghur children are being sent to boarding schools while their parents are in the camps. From John Sudworth:

Based on publicly available documents, and backed up by dozens of interviews with family members overseas, the BBC has gathered some of the most comprehensive evidence to date about what is happening to children in the region.

Records show that in one township alone more than 400 children have lost not just one but both parents to some form of internment, either in the camps or in prison.

[…] Government propaganda extols the virtues of boarding schools as helping to “maintain social stability and peace” with the “school taking the place of the parents.” And Mr Zenz suggests there is a deeper purpose.

“Boarding schools provide the ideal context for a sustained cultural re-engineering of minority societies,” he argues. [Source]

The government recently lauded their efforts for preventing terrorist attacks in the region in the past three years. But, as Eva Xiao at AFP reports, those government policies have also exacerbated tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese:

But experts say the absence of visible violence belies the continuing repression of minority culture and inequality between the Han Chinese majority and the Muslim Uighurs.

“There’s a lack of trust,” said Reza Hasmath, a professor at the University of Alberta who has studied ethnic relations in Xinjiang.

Tough policies such as the re-education camps “are going to suppress any potential violence,” he told AFP.

“But it still creates a generation of distrust with Han people among Uighurs” Xinjiang, home to most of China’s Uighurs, has suffered repeated episodes of inter-ethnic violence. [Source]

Uyghurs fled Urumqi in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 riots, and a continued exodus, along with the ongoing detentions of Uyghurs and the influx of Han migrants have fundamentally changed the demographics of Urumqi in the last ten years. The heightened surveillance and security presence has also had a dramatic impact on the daily lives of residents, Asahi Shimbun reports:

The main street of Urumqi is now dotted with new buildings and tourism facilities. But all the back streets remain under heavy surveillance.

The contrast between the city’s bright and dark sides is startling.

The residential areas that were inhabited by Uighurs were resettled by Han Chinese, and the process is accelerating.

Northern Urumqi used to host many migrant Uighur workers. After the riots, the authorities forced the Uighurs to move out and constructed high-rise apartments. Most of the residents are Han Chinese.

Old and low-rise residential complexes still exist close by where Uighurs live. But residents cannot get in or out without passing the safety inspection barrier. The entire area is surrounded by wire fences. [Source]

Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, and Peter Irwin, programmes manager for the World Uyghur Congress, in an op-ed for The Guardian, both call on the global community to speak out and pressure Beijing to end the repression in Xinjiang.

Read more about the events of 2009 in Urumqi, via CDT, including extensive internet censorship of the violence and an almost complete shutdown of internet access throughout the region in the months following. See also “Requiem For The ‘Living Dead’: Ten Years After 7-5” by Darren Byler on SupChina.


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