Before last summer, few people outside China had heard of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Few knew it was the country’s largest province (about the size of Western Europe), and home to a people culturally and linguistically distinct from the Han Chinese, who constitute an ethnic majority in China. Uighurs are Sunni Muslims, speak a Turkic language closely related to Uzbek, and generally look Central Asian.
On July 5, 2009, the region gained sudden notoriety when reports began to come through of violence in the city of Urumqui. Television footage showed Uighur rioters beating and kicking people. Cars and buses were set on fire. Next day, long lines of soldiers patrolled the streets, which were marked with broken glass and blood. The government reported 200 deaths and many more injuries, and argued that the violence had been “instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws in the country.” They claimed the unrest had been orchestrated by the World Uighur Congress, led by Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman who was jailed in China, then later released into exile in the US.
Unsurprisingly, the World Uighur Congress denied these allegations. They claimed the protests were a response to recent events in Guangdong province, in the southeast of the country, where a man had posted a message on a local website claiming six young Uighur migrant workers had raped two Han girls. This led to violence between Han and Uighur at the workers’ factory, during which two Uighurs were killed and many more injured. Rebiya Kadeer said that the “authorities’ failure to take any meaningful action to punish the Chinese mob for the brutal murder of Uighurs” was the real cause of the protest. The WUC claimed that the violence was the result of police brutality against a peaceful student demonstration. They alleged that during the crackdown many were shot or beaten to death by Chinese police, while others were crushed by armoured vehicles.
The truth appears to lie somewhere between these extremes. The initial protest was a peaceful demonstration against the killings in Guangdong. At the outset, it consisted of 300 to 400 young Uighur males, most of them university students, but by late afternoon they had been joined by thousands of Uighurs from a range of professions, who marched through the streets chanting slogans. It is still unclear how the protest turned violent, but it has been suggested that the police attempted to provoke the demonstrators by arresting and beating some of their number (though there was undoubtedly some police brutality, there is no evidence that it went as far as the extremes claimed by the WUC). By evening, protestors had begun throwing stones at the police, which led to the army being deployed in the city.
Though some of the initial protestors were involved in the killings that followed, the anger that fueled the riots came from many sources; Uighurs have several reasons to resent the government. Under the banner of ‘developing the west,’ there has been a massive influx of people from inner China into Xinjiang, so that the Han population, which made up only 5 percent of the region in 1949, now constitutes a majority. Many of these Han settlers work on state farms (bingtuans), while there are high levels of unemployment among Uighurs. Uighurs are also distressed by government attempts to control religious practice. Imams are subject to political re-education or imprisonment; anyone who works in a state institution (e.g., a school, hospital, or government office) is prevented from observing religious festivals such as Ramadan.
Resentment of these policies has led to a series of incidents over the past two decades, some violent, some peaceful, ranging from a large protest in Baren in 1990, and another in Yining in 1997, to grenade attacks on a police station in Kashgar in the runup to the 2008 Olympics. What these different forms of protest have in common is that they were directed at government officials or the police. The violence in Urumqi appeared to be a worrying departure, in that many of the attacks seem to have been racially motivated—i.e., directed against the Han, who suffered by far the most casualties. This interpretation was disputed by the World Uighur Congress, which claims that the Uighur death toll was underreported by the government so as to make the Uighurs appear the aggressors. A third possibility is that the figures are accurate, but reflect demographics rather than ethnic targeting: Urumqi is about 75 percent Han and 15 percent Uighur (the rest are Hui, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz).
Whether or not the violence was racially motivated, it was perceived as such by the Han in Urumqi. On July 7, 2009, a crowd of Han Chinese armed with iron bars, meat cleavers, and shovels attacked Uighur neighborhoods in the city. One man, clutching a metal bar, told the AFP news agency: “The Uighurs came to our area to smash things, now we are going to their area to beat them.” Police eventually dispersed the mob with tear gas, after considerable property damage and a number of casualties. The fact that this incident occurred despite the presence of thousands of police and soldiers in the city (in contrast to the protest on July 5, which seemed to take the local government by surprise) led some to propose a degree of collusion between the mob and some elements of the security forces; there is as yet no definitive proof of this.
After July 7, more troops were brought into the city, but the enlarged police presence failed to prevent further conflict. In mid-August there were reports that people in Urumqi had been attacked with hypodermic syringes. Although there were no casualties, and no one seemed to have been injected with any dangerous substance, these “needle attacks” caused such hysteria that many people falsely reported injuries, which increased public fears. As the stabbings continued, Han residents began to claim they were being targeted. On September 3, large groups of Han Chinese assembled at junctions throughout the city, calling on the government to protect them. The police maintained order, but the crowds returned the next day. The police then used tear gas to disperse the crowds, which led to five deaths and fourteen people injured. The authorities announced that they had charged four suspects, all Uighur, three of whom were said to be drug users. Officials warned that anyone convicted of further needle attacks could receive the death penalty.
Seven months later, police and soldiers are still patrolling the streets of Urumqi. While standing outside the White Mosque on Er Dao Qiao (an area in the south of the city with a predominantly Uighur population), I counted forty-five soldiers and policemen in a ten-minute period, as well as three police vans and two army trucks. The most intimidating of these are the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, who wear lightweight black body armour, carry compact automatic weapons, and march up and down the streets, clearing a path through the crowd. The majority of these soldiers are Han; until a few months ago this was also true of the police, but a recent recruitment drive has added many Uighurs to the force, presumably to try to reduce the ethnic dimension of the police presence—or, according to some Uighurs, “to try to divide them as a people.” For the most part, the police stand in twos or threes outside schools, hospitals, banks, and mosques—any place where people congregate. Few carry guns, but most are armed with batons. By contrast, there are few police or troops in the northern, predominantly Han areas of Urumqi.
In addition to the regular forces, there are also large numbers of people wearing green camouflage outfits emblazoned with red armbands. These were recruited via advertisements promising a salary of 1,000 RMB a month (which is more than the average factory worker or high school teacher gets) in return for an ill-defined role in keeping order: most have received little or no training, and in general seem aimless. While wandering round the city’s derelict zoo, I found three of them next to what had been the peacock enclosure. One was lying on a stone bench, a newspaper over his face, while his companions stood and smoked. Both were middle-aged, heavy-set, and lacked a military demeanour. When I asked them if they liked their jobs, one of them said, “Yes, because it’s very important.” “That’s right,” said his friend, and stood up straighter. “We will stop any trouble.” They looked as if even the slightest trouble would send them lumbering in the opposite direction.
However ineffectual these figures appear, they nonetheless add to the pervasive police presence in Urumqi. At night, police cars and army vans patrol the streets, especially outside Xinjiang University (where many of the protestors on July 5 came from). The increase in police and soldiers on the streets is not confined to Urumqi: in Yining City, 700 kilometers to the west, there are also soldiers and police patrolling the streets, as well as numerous police checkpoints throughout the city, at which both drivers and pedestrians are stopped and questioned. Anyone entering the bus station is checked for weapons; the college at which I used to teach now has riot shields and batons ready for use at its gates.
Despite government claims to the contrary, internet access remains virtually nonexistent throughout Xinjiang. The nearest town with normal service (i.e., the usual, restricted access present in other parts of China) is in Dunhuang, a day’s train ride away. Unsurprisingly, Dunhuang has recently become a very popular destination. Though there is speculation that the restrictions to the internet will be lifted during the summer, it is unclear whether this is founded on anything other than hope. Given that the restrictions are designed to prevent the expression of dissent—the July 5 protest was organized using chat rooms and message boards—it could be a long time before access is restored.
One might imagine that such restrictions, and so great a show of force, would only increase tensions between Han and Uighur. Yet in both Urumqi and Yining I saw little visible rancour between Han and Uighur. Perhaps relations have stabilized; more likely, the groups are wary of each other after the violence of the past year. In private, many Uighurs I spoke to in Urumqi said they had changed their mind about the Han. Whereas they had previously drawn a distinction between ordinary Chinese people and the government—before last July, Han and Uighur in Urumqi had been more integrated than in most other cities in Xinjiang—now they argue that there is essentially no difference. In their eyes, both are equally bad.
The huge security presence renders a large-scale protest unlikely in the foreseeable future, but if the government does not make some effort to address the Uighurs’ grievances, it seems almost certain that their anger will find expression. Whether this means further attacks on ordinary Han Chinese remains to be seen. After all, there is no evidence that the violence of July 5 was premeditated; it appears to have been a spontaneous outpouring of anger, albeit one with horrific consequences. The problem for Uighurs is that they are caught between two equally untenable positions when it comes to expressing discontent. The authorities have seldom looked kindly on peaceful demonstrations (whether by Han or Uighur), which are usually quickly and brutally suppressed. However, if they reject peaceful protest as useless, and instead opt for violence, they are likely to face further retaliation, whether it be from the police or ordinary Han Chinese. As Albert Hourani once wrote, “Even in the best circumstances, the position of a minority is uneasy.” It is fair to say that the situation of Uighurs is very much that.