In a few brief hours of ethnic carnage on a summer’s evening in China’s restive Xinjiang region, the political elite’s pet concept of “harmonious society” was shattered, according to analysts.
Hu Jintao, chief of the ruling Communist Party, first launched the concept in 2004 as a rallying cry that could motivate every citizen of the people’s republic to help build a peaceful and prosperous society.
It was meant as a formula that could unite the giant nation of 1.3 billion, narrowing the divides among the 56 ethnic groups and bridging the yawning gaps between rich and poor, city and countryside, east coast and interior.
“He has largely failed at this level. It’s an ideal that appears more distant today,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert at Hong Kong’s Baptist University, following unrest in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.
“We will have to see if this slogan is still invoked in the same manner in future. As things are now, it is triggering sarcasm... (The riots) show that China remains a violent country, with serious tensions in society,” he said.
The unrest on Sunday afternoon in Urumqi saw thousands of Muslim Uighurs take to the streets in protest over an ethnically charged brawl late last month at a factory in southern China that left two Uighurs dead.
However Uighurs say the deeper reasons behind the protests were frustration and anger at decades of repressive rule under the Chinese government, whose leaders are mainly from the dominant Han ethnic group.
In a few hours of mayhem, the protests turned violent with Uighurs attacking Han, and security forces cracking down. Han Chinese have also since sought revenge with mobs roaming the streets of Urumqi armed with makeshift weapons.
The government said 156 people died in Sunday’s unrest and most of those people were victims of the rioters, but exiled Uighur leaders say up to 800 may have been killed and security forces were responsible for many deaths.
President Hu was forced Wednesday to abruptly cut short a visit to Italy, missing out on a meeting of the Group of Eight rich nations, to deal with some of the worst ethnic strife in decades, in an unprecedented move.
Hu was expected to give a signal reassuring the government remained committed to the concept of a “harmonious society.”
But for many, the harmony that the leaders and the media they control constantly talk about is no more than a fiction.
Besides tragic events such as those in Xinjiang, China every month records many thousands of “mass incidents,” defined as crowds of more than 1,000 people assembled over issues such as land disputes or corruption.
And the Xinjiang violence has echoed highly publicised unrest in Buddhist Tibet last year.
“The harmonious society is not something real. It’s merely an ideal, or an objective,” said Hu Xingdou, an influential commentator and economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
“The fact that the government has come up with this objective shows that in reality, there’s quite a deal of disharmony.”
Jean-Louis Rocca, a sociologist at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, agreed.
“The authorities have always said they were facing conflicts and problems that needed to be regulated... and that you have to work hard to achieve it,” he said.
“There is no harmony (among the Han Chinese and China’s other ethnic groups). Everyone knows it, and therefore things proceed with great difficulty.”
In cyberspace the slogan of harmonious society is greeted with ridicule and subtle puns. “If someone writes “my blog has been harmonised,” they really mean “my blog has been censored.”