A Look Back at the 2009 Xinjiang Riots

By Nick Holdstock

I first went to Xinjiang in August 2001, ostensibly to teach English in a college in Yining, a small town near the Kazakh border. While I was interested in the region as a whole, what led me to choose Yining were the protests that had taken place in the town in February 1997. Though this had been clearly been a massive outpouring of dissent which led to many casualties, arrests and subsequent executions, the specifics of what had happened, and why, remained frustratingly obscure. I hoped that by living in the town, I could find an explanation that went beyond the polarised narratives offered by the Chinese government— that it was the work of Islamic terrorists—and by Uighur expatriate groups, many of whom portrayed the event as a Tiananmen Square-style massacre.

My immediate, and most enduring, impression was how divided the Han and Uighur communities were in Yining. They lived in different areas, never mixed socially, and had mostly negative stereotypes about one another. The protests were still a politically sensitive topic, and it took time before people were willing to speak about them. By the time I left in late 2002, I felt I had some understanding of the disparate social, economic, and cultural factors that had led to the protests, many of which were still a source of resentment amongst Uighur. My forthcoming book, The Tree That Bleeds, is an attempt to explain some of these issues, and in particular how they affected the lives of ordinary people in the town. My hope is that it will introduce the region and its culture to a non-specialist audience.

The July 5th 2009 riots in Urumqi were an eruption of the same kinds of resentment that led to the Yining riots. Around 200 people were killed, and for the first time it appeared that the protesters (mostly Uighur, young, and male) were targeting people on the basis of their ethnicity, since most of the victims were Han Chinese. On July 7th there were revenge attacks on Uighur neighborhoods in Urumqi, and further protests in September.

When I visited the city in April 2010, I interviewed several of the organisers of the protests (see my piece at n+1), and was shown the following video, which has recently been posted on YouTube (there has since been an effort to prevent the video being seen by parties unknown. This has taken the form of uploading lots of unrelated content with a similar title and keywords, so that it’s now hard to find this video by searching). The clip seems to show soldiers handing out metal poles to Han Chinese civilians, which resemble those used by the mobs that later attacked Uighur districts.

The people in the clip seem bored, and are perhaps waiting—it appears that there are lots of police and soldiers in the area. The most significant moment is around 3:10, where the crowd cheers and then several metal poles are handed out by a soldier in the back of a lorry. There’s no way to know whether this was an isolated incident or not, but if nothing else, it is a small act of collusion between the military and the citizens, one which raises questions about the impartiality of some sections of the state.

Nick Holdstock’s writing on China has appeared at the London Review of Books and n+1.

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