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Xinjiang, China’s remote western province, exploded onto the world’s headlines last week. Riots in the provincial capital Urumqi, that have left over 180 people dead, are being served up as the latest evidence of a stand-off between an oppressive dictatorship, and freedom-loving innocents. Although, framing the ‘story’ in this manner fits in neatly with the West’s evangelical prescriptions for political change in China, reading the Xinjiang riots as primarily a showdown between the State and citizens is misleading.
For any one familiar with India’s recent political history, there is more than a casual resemblance between the stories emerging from violence-wracked Xinjiang and the bloody-accounts from Godhra, Ayodhya and elsewhere in the country.
In Xinjiang, members of the indigenous Uighur minority complain of discrimination and racism from the majority Han ethnicity. The Han, in turn, say the Uighurs are a pampered, ungrateful lot. A relatively small incident, in this case the death of two Uighur workers in a far-away factory in China’s south, lights a match to the tinderbox of communal tensions. Rioting by Uighurs leads to retaliatory rampages by Han. Han and Uighur neighbours, who have lived for years in peace, suddenly look at each other with suspicion. Friends turn murderers; colleagues become one with faceless blood-baying mobs.
Echoes of India’s own minority-majority clashes are loud and clear.
That Uighurs, as Muslims of Turkic descent, face daily doses of racism from the majority Han ethnicity who have, over the decades, migrated into Xinjiang in large numbers is undeniable. Encouraged by Beijing’s ‘develop the west’ programme, which seeks to duplicate the economic success of the wealthier coastal areas, Xinjiang’s Han population has jumped from 6 per cent in 1949 to more than 40 per cent in 2000.
Recent years have seen incomes in the province boosted for Han and Uighur alike, yet it is also a fact that the Han have benefited disproportionately. Many of the new bosses are Han, while the workers are from minority groups since Han migrants tend to be better educated and have access to lines of credit that Uighurs don’t. Moreover, it is also true that Uighurs face restrictions over the practice of their religion, as do all citizens of China. Proselytising is forbidden, government servants are not allowed to practice their faith and children are barred from receiving religious instruction.
But at the same time, many Han, who comprise over 90 per cent of the Chinese population, believe that it is the Uighurs who are a coddled lot. Government policy towards minorities includes sops like exempting them from the one-child policy as well as allocating special quotas for them in universities.
It is a fact that Chinese-ness and Han-ness are conflated in China despite all of Beijing’s claims to the contrary. As a result, the Uighurs looking different puts them in the strange position of not being Chinese and yet part of China at the same time.
Nonetheless, it remains inaccurate to portray last week’s riots in the political framework of an oppressive Beijing against its own people. Rather it was about the resentments and tensions between two communities: The Han and the Uighurs. These are tensions that may have been exacerbated by government policy but in the end, Beijing has stepped in to quell the riots and violence on both sides rather than side with the majority Han against the minority Uighurs.
Unlike what happened in Gujarat in 2002, for example, the State did not stand by idly or actively encourage the Han as they marched through the streets with bricks and iron rods looking for Uighur victims. Instead, the government flooded the region with troops and clamped down on the mob regardless of ethnicity.
This is how the Economist magazine’s reporter who was on the ground described the State’s response: “Paramilitary security forces, rushed through city streets to keep ahead of the surging crowds, barring them from mosques and Uighur neighbourhoods....Although the police failed to prevent individual attacks on Uighur-owned homes and shops, they did prevent widespread violence.”
There are Uighur allegations that during times of unrest the government focuses disproportionately on alleged Uighur perpetrators while Han rioters are treated with relative leniency. Even if true, and it is quite likely to be so, this injustice pales when compared to the manner in which rampaging Hindu mobs, defending their ‘religion’, are regularly let off scot-free in India.
But while the western media might be partially to blame for the manner in which they misleadingly frame the Xinjiang story, the government in Beijing does little to clarify the situation. For the Communist Party’s tone-deaf rhetoric of ‘harmony’ between all ‘Chinese’ peoples, it does not leave any room for the admission of the existence of ethnic tensions and rivalries.
Rather than acknowledging the problem and moving to address it, Beijing seeks, as usual, to blame the riots on so called ‘outside instigators’ like Rebiya Kadeer. As with the Dalai Lama, Kadeer is deemed a separatist and terrorist and what are, in fact, communal clashes are portrayed as acts of terrorism.
The insistence on ‘harmony’ as the only reality and the inability to admit genuine differences in interests and opinions between the peoples of a country of its size and complexity is ultimately China’s greatest weakness.