Beijing fails Xinjiang test

In late June, a wave of ethnic violence left 35 people dead in the Lukqun township some 200 km from Urumqi, the capital of China's largest administrative region, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). A battle for distinct identity

world Updated: Sep 15, 2013 02:10 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times

In late June, a wave of ethnic violence left 35 people dead in the Lukqun township some 200 km from Urumqi, the capital of China's largest administrative region, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Two months later, last week, automatic-gun wielding security personnel still stopped outsiders from entering Lukqun. Only those with resident identification were allowed in or out. At the checkpoint, cameras were being snatched away, photos deleted. The wary guards, standing under a makeshift tent flapping in the hot, dusty winds blowing in from the stunning Flaming Mountains, barked orders at taxi drivers to leave.

In Urumqi, presence of security personnel dramatically increased in the older parts of the city with Muslim Uyghur community clusters.

Around the meandering lanes of the old market - near the touristy International Grand Bazaar -- fully geared security personnel stood guard at corners. Their armoured black vehicles were parked close at hand as Uyghur shop owners kept their gaze away while selling meat, dry fruits, naan and clothes after the sacred Friday prayers.

At airports, security was extra tight for Xinjiang-bound flights. Women in burqa were asked to remove their covers in full public glare, leaving them visibly uncomfortable as men frisked them with hand-held metal detectors. The men were shouted at if found to be moving slowly during the security check.

In the region, there is an unsaid fear about the distinct Uyghur character being subsumed within the larger Han-Chinese identity.

To begin with, the language policy to use Mandarin as the instruction medium since 2004 has led Uyghurs to complain that it was a deliberate assimilation policy and that their language could die out, David Tobin, lecturer on politics, University of Glasgow, who has extensively researched on Uyghur identity and politics, told HT over email.

Religious controls are very strict in Xinjiang. No one under 18 or in state employment is permitted to visit mosques. Recently, increasing controls on religious dress and even beards in public spaces, shopping malls, and offices have further alienated locals, Tobin said.

Uyghurs make up about 45% of Xinjiang's population but protest that an influx of Han Chinese has marginalised their traditional culture.

Beijing blames violent incidents in Xinjiang on Uyghur extremists seeking independence. In turn, Uyghur activists accuse Beijing of over-exaggerating the threat to justify heavy-handed rule.

"It's difficult to be a Uyghur in Xinjiang," said a Uyghur woman who for fear of state reprisal asked not to be identified. "You are watched and tracked. Restrictions now are even tighter than they were after the 2009 riots," she said.

The riots of July, 2009 in Urumqi left nearly 200 people dead from both the Uyghur and Han communities.

But it was not the first time that the Uyghurs had clashed with the authorities.

"While China had successfully colonised and incorporated the northern part of Xinjiang, control of the southern part was much more problematic, and it was difficult to enforce order there," said a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.

"This unrest came to a head in an insurrection at Baren, a small township near Kashgar in April 1990...The uprising took three days to quell and resulted in more than 30 deaths and numerous casualties. It constituted a turning point in Beijing's suspicions that it faced an ethno-nationalist separatist threat, as reflected in Party documents on separatist movements," the report added.

"The famous social anthropologist, Fei Xiaotong's ethnocentric idea of a 'Han nucleus' which will attract other groups and modernise them remains hugely influential in official circles. So integration is based on hierarchy where Uyghurs are expected to learn how to be part of China (i.e. learn Mandarin and give up Islam) but there is less need for Han Chinese to adapt to local customs, which causes daily frictions and leads to bigger problems," Tobin said.

He added: "To complicate matters, ethnic relations have worsened through the reform period as the benefits of China's opening have not trickled down to Uyghurs who still face discrimination in the job market."

The Uyghurs have no ownership in the development and unlikely that they will benefit even though the government is pouring billions of yuan into Xinjiang, Nicholas Bequelin of HRW told HT.

"Premier Wen Jiabao told Xinjiang National Work Conference (2010) that the fixed asset investment for the region in the next five-year plan beginning in 2011 would be more than double the amount in the current plan, which means investment from 2011 through 2015 could run to two trillion yuan," Bequelin wrote in a report.

But if there was no trickle down impact, it would naturally give rise to resentment. And if that hatred crystallised in violence, the reprisal from the Chinese state is invariably swift. Several Uyghur men have been handed death sentences recently for their involvement in rioting in swift trials.

"No country is perfect. If there are problems…if people try solve these problems with terrorist attacks…we should not find excuses," Li Wei, director, Institute for Security and Arms Control Studies recently told journalists.

He said in Xinjiang when the government fights against "terrorism", it acts in accordance with laws to protect individuals.

Bequelin did not agree. "The government's threshold for tackling political dissent and demonstration is too low," he said, indicating that normal protest gathering on the streets could be interpreted as an offensive against the government and dealt with severely.

Despite a sense of simmering tension, life goes on in Urumqi. Chaotic traffic hurtles through its narrow roads, restaurants echo with family chatter over "polo" (a staple rice dish with lamb and vegetables) and casually dressed young Uyghur girls celebrate birthdays with coke and soda at bars.

"I want to fly freely and unrestrainedly," was the tagline of T -shirt a Uyghur girl was wearing on an Urumqi street. That will take some time before it happens.

First Published: Sep 15, 2013 01:01 IST