A former Silk Route stopover that is so remote and landlocked that it’s known as the world’s most inland city, has posed the deadliest challenge to China’s domestic rule since decades.
The streets of Urumqi over 3,200 km from Beijing erupted in mass ethnic riots on Sunday night. The riots left 156 dead, over 1,000 injured, 1,434 arrested and 20,000 police on patrol in this capital of China’s Alaska-sized northwest Xinjiang province.
“It’s the largest riot (in China) that we know of,’’ Dru Gladney, anthropology professor and Xinjiang expert at the Pomona College in California, told the Hindustan Times. “There’s serious social and ethnic tension in Xinjiang. Nobody expected it to explode so violently.’’
The violence was rooted in historic resentment between oil-rich Xinjiang’s ethnic Uighurs against the more prosperous Han Chinese, the migrants who are reportedly taking over the best government jobs, education and trade opportunities in the former agricultural province transformed into a multibillion-dollar economy.
The riot could also have links with the current recession. “The Uighurs feel they didn’t benefit during the good times,’’ said Gladney, and pointed out that during China’s economic downturn, they are even more ‘frustrated’.
China has blamed exiled members of the separatist World Uighur Congress for instigating rioters through the Internet, a charge they denied. “It’s clearly a popular uprising, not something orchestrated abroad,’’ said Gladney. “There were underlying issues related to Xinjiang’s economy and China’s economy in general.’’
On Sunday night, the mob fought each other --- Uighurs and Han Chinese --- and the armed police with bricks, clubs, rocks and knives. The videos of blood and blazing vehicles aired on Chinese television don’t explain how the rage began. The masses had gathered to demand an inquiry into a toy factory brawl between Uighurs and Han Chinese in south China in June, that left two Uighur workers dead.
Xinjiang sweeps one-sixth of China’s strategic territory rich in oil and natural gas. Xinjiang’s 21-million population includes a largest ethnic population of about eight million Uighur Muslims who speak Turkic and have a unique culture linked to the region’s Central Asian neighbours.
The Uighurs briefly had an East Turkestan Republic that the Chinese ‘liberated’ in 1949, also the year of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Xinjiang officially became autonomous in 1955.
“It’s no secret that Xinjiang, like Tibet, is an area of simmering tension and deep resentment of locals to policies of the Chinese government,’’ Phelime Kine, Asia researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told HT. “There is no real autonomy.’’
An HRW report, blocked online in China, claimed there are several curbs on the Uighurs of Xinjiang. “The government prohibited employees and students from fasting during Ramadan, tightened control over religious personnel and mosques, reinforced civil militias, and deployed army and police patrols to prevent protests,’’ it said.
The Internet is restricted in Xinjiang since Sunday, officially to prevent riots spreading.
Since 2008, Xinjiang witnessed a sharp increase in bombings and attacks on policemen and government sites in Xinjiang. Beijing attributed some of the attacks to terrorism and the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The Chinese officials alleged that the Movement had Al-Qaeda links.This time there have been no claims about Turkestan or liberation from radical Islamic groups, pointed out Gladney. “These are basically ethnic riots related to domestic events.’’
On Tuesday, Urumqi simmered amid reports of sporadic protests while an official promised ‘severe punishment’ for the rioters.