Death on the Silk Road
Syed Zain Al-mahmood
It is China's Wild West. The vast mineral-rich Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region --one sixth of China's total land area -- has been known for centuries as a land of song and dance, melons and fruits, precious stones, and exquisite silk. But the desert region whose oasis towns were once essential stopping points on the legendary Silk Road made the headlines for the wrong reasons last week when deadly ethnic clashes left at least 180 people dead and thousands injured. The world was shocked by images of brutal street fighting between the Han, China's dominant ethnic group, and the native Uyghurs of Xinjiang.
Details remain sketchy -- and hotly disputed -- but the clashes apparently started when Uyghur protesters took to the streets of the capital Urumqi demanding a government enquiry into the mob killing of several Uyghur workers at a toy factory. Uyghurs say the police forcibly dispersed the protesters. Riots erupted with Uyghurs and Han Chinese fighting running battles. The official media outlets were filled with images of young Uyghur men attacking Hans and vandalizing property. In retaliation Han mobs roamed the streets armed with shovels, iron bars and meat cleavers targeting Uyghur neighbourhoods. Paramilitary forces in riot gear flooded the streets, and the Chinese President Hu Jintao cut short a G8 summit trip.
"The violent situation that occurred in Urumqi under Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, has now been brought under control, and public order has returned to normal", said a news bulletin of the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Dhaka. "Facts have fully shown that these were premeditated crimes of violence instigated by separatists abroad and organised and carried out by separatists inside the country."
The bulletin also said the violent crimes involving beating; smashing, looting and arson had inflicted heavy losses of life and property. "At 220 sites, the rioters set fire to buildings, smashed or burned vehicles and killed people." The news bulletin concluded by saying, “We are unequivocally against ethnic separatism, violence and terrorism. Unity among people of all ethnic groups, social harmony and stability represent the highest interests of the Chinese nation including 21 million people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang."
There has been widespread international concern at the clashes, which some analysts say are the most serious in China since the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon led the calls for restraint, a sentiment echoed by Britain and the US.
There are two contrasting views of what went wrong in Xinjiang. There is the official explanation that forces at home and abroad plotting to split the western region of Xinjiang from China encouraged minority Uyghurs to run amok. Others say that discrimination against the Muslim group has created a deep reservoir of anger that can be ignited with little provocation.
Before US President Barack Obama took steps to free several Uyghur detainees cleared of any wrongdoing -- from Guantanamo Bay, most people had no notion of what a Uyghur was. But the Turkic speaking ethnic group has a long history and a unique cultural heritage. Moderate Sunni Muslims, they were the largest ethnic group of Xinjiang until the massive influx of Han Chinese over the last two decades made them a minority in their homeland.
The Chinese word Xinjiang literally means “New Frontier”. After a chequered history with the Chinese Empire, Xinjiang's present incarnation as an officially "autonomous region" within the People's Republic of China began in 1949. David Brophy a researcher in Central Asian history at Harvard University says a pragmatic set of policies allowed Uyghurs to pursue their cultural and commercial interests in the 1980s. “In the 90s, however, the Uyghur economy was swamped by the influx of east coast commerce. In Xinjiang, formal equality runs up against real inequality and racism.” Although the current governor of Xinjian is Uyghur, real power lies with the Party Secretary, a Han.
Rights groups and sections of the media are accusing China of ignoring the deep-seated social grievances of the Uyghur people. PHOTO: AFP
According to the Asian Development Bank, income inequality in Xinjiang remains the highest in all of China. Young Uyghurs are resentful of the flood of Han Chinese from other provinces, and say they are shut out of the job market. “Han only” job signs are a common sight across the region, say visiting journalists. The government on the other hand says there are few Uyghurs with the qualifications to work in the industries being set up in Urumqi and elsewhere.
Uyghurs are allowed to enter university with lower grades than Han, but that advantage counts for nothing in the job market. “Before, looking for work was easy,” Hislat, a 22-year-old Uyghur woman told journalist Lydia Wilson of Al-Jazeera. “But now they all want Han people, they don't want us.”
Analysts say the hiring discrimination is often fueled by the Chinese Communist Party's attitude toward religion. "You have a party that is primarily Han and officially atheist," explains Gardner Bovingdon, professor of East Asian and Eurasian studies at Indiana University.
"The party doctrine is founded on the notion that religion is a mystification. It requires its members to be atheist; any party member or teacher in Xinjiang must renounce Islam.”
Uyghurs complain government policy amounts to denial of basic human rights and is aimed at destroying their identity. Official regulations often fuel their sense of religious and cultural persecution. A Human Rights Watch report says loudspeakers in mosques are banned in Urumqi; families hosting dinner parties during religious festivals must register with the government; the interiors of even small rural mosques are plastered with government posters and routinely visited by Han inspectors who don't bother to take off their shoes when they enter and check log books. According to the BBC, Imams must be vetted by the government and must voice support for Party policy. The police have been known to detain and fine Uyghurs for praying in mosques outside their home villages. No one below 65 is allowed to go to Hajj.
In an April 2005 report, Human Rights Watch accused Chinese authorities of maintaining a “multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang's Uyghurs.” Rights groups say the authorities' overreach is also clear in the way security policies target children. During religious holidays, anyone under 18 is barred from entering a mosque. In Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang, communal meals are imposed at school during the fast period of Ramadan, and attendance is required at special assemblies timed to coincide with Friday prayers.
The Chinese government's attempts to curb Islamic practices have backfired, say observers, and led the Uyghurs to see the government as an antagonistic force. As one man in Kashgar told a BBC journalist, "Because I am born a Uighur, I am a terrorist -- that is what the government thinks?”
Andrew Nathan, chair of the political science department at Columbia University, explains, "This is the Chinese style toward religion -- the government is very suspicious of religion. In Xinjiang, separatism is the thing they want to avoid. They conceive of the separatists as people who are religious fundamentalists. They're making a logical leap of faith. It produces resistance. It produces deep resentment.”
The Chinese government says it is facing separatists and dangerous terrorists. But outside observers are skeptical. Human Rights Watch noted, “Chinese authorities have not discriminated between peaceful and violent dissent, and their fight against “separatism” and “religious extremism” has been used to justify widespread and systematic human rights violations against Uighurs, including many involved in non-violent political, religious, and cultural activities.”
Since 9/11, when China voiced strong support for the U.S.-led “war on terror” it started a programme of greater surveillance of its own Muslim populations. The Xinjiang public security bureau has increased crackdowns on what it deems, with sweeping brushstrokes, the “three evils” of “separatism, religious extremism and terrorism.” Human rights groups have accused China of using the post-9/11 situation as a pretext to suppress the Uyghurs' self-expression.
The current Chinese policy towards Xinjiang certainly seems to be creating resentment and radicalism rather than peace and passivity. Recent years saw a string of bus bombings and sporadic attacks on police in southwest Xinjiang. Last week's bloody riots in Urumqi were the worst in many years.
“China's attempts to suppress Islam,” a recent Human Rights Watch report concludes, “is a policy that is likely to alienate Uighurs, drive religious expression further underground, and encourage the development of more radicalized and oppositional forms of religious identity.”
Commenting from a different angle, Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, finds broader regional security implications. “A lot of Chinese problems do appear to be a bit of their own making,” he said. "They justify a lot of what they're doing in the name of counterterrorism, but we fear it might also exacerbate a terrorist threat. Of course, the same could be said for some U.S. policies -- look at Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Most Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China, view the Uyghur as rustic thugs and lay the blame for the unrest squarely at their doorstep. They feel the Uyghurs should be grateful for the industrial development taking place in cities like Urumqi. Both sides have horror stories to tell.
The New York Times narrated the story of Zhang Aiying, a Han, who came to Urumqi ten years ago with her family, encouraged by the government, and set up a fruit shop. When the rioting started, Zhang Aiying rushed home and stashed her fruit cart away, safe from the mob. But there was no sign of her 25-year-old son Lu, who had ventured back into the chaos to retrieve another of the family's carts. Hours later, when the fighting stopped, Zhang went out into the street and found her son's body. “We wanted to do business,” said Lu Sifeng, Zhang's husband, his eyes glistening with tears. “There was a call by the government to develop the west.”
Associated Press Writer William Foreman spoke to a 19-year-old Uyghur, a college student who called herself Parizat. She pointed to bloodstains on a white concrete apartment wall, where she said a friend had been fatally stabbed. “I never thought something like this would happen. We're all Chinese citizens.”
Analysts say the Chinese inability to acknowledge the failure of policy and the long-term build-up of discontent among the Uyghur means unrest can be explained by Beijing only in terms of impressionable Uyghurs led astray by outside conspirators. Just as the Dalai Lama was blamed for the recent unrest in Tibet, the government has pointed the finger at Rabiya Kadeer, a Uyghur business woman and human rights activist, for masterminding the Urumqi riots. Kadeer, who lives in the US, has denied any involvement and said the unrest is the result of decades of discrimination.
There has been widespread international concern at the clashes, which some analysts say are the most serious in China since the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. PHOTO: AFP
Uyghurs living outside China are worried about their kith and kin in Urumqi and they accuse the international community of abandoning the Uyghur. “When something happens in Tibet, it makes headlines. But no one cares about us,” said a Uyghur living in Toronto, speaking to the Washington Post.
For their part, rights groups and sections of the media are accusing China of ignoring the deep-seated social grievances of the Uyghur people. "China is doing and promising nothing to remedy the underlying cause of the unrest," wrote the Post, "which is its treatment (of Xinjiang) as if it were a colony, populated by a captive nation."
Meanwhile, an uneasy calm has returned to Urumqi. The fighting has stopped, but many Uyghurs are fearful that their acts of defiance will result in a brutal government crackdown, and reprisals by Han vigilante groups. Many are fleeing the city. Racial tensions continue to simmer just beneath the surface.
Although the Chinese government frequently blames “separatists” for the unrest in Xinjiang, the Uyghurs who demonstrated in the streets last week were not rallying for independence but for law and order and demanding justice. The People's Republic of China is a signatory to the universal declaration of human rights. A great nation like China could only enhance its standing in the world by heeding the Uyghur's heartfelt cry for social justice and equal opportunity.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009