Xinjiang

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China Beat has run several pieces recently on the Xinjiang riots. On October 2, we featured Rian Thum’s “The Ethnicization of Discontent in Xinjiang,” which argued that the riots had raised ethnic tensions in the region. A few days later, we published  “Islamic Fundamentalism: An Ignored Specter in the Xinjiang Riot,” written by Liang Zheng. Zheng argued that the foreign media had ignored indications that the riots were instigated by fundamentalists from southern Xinjiang, an argument that preserves the notion of ethnic harmony in Urumqi itself.

Today we run a response to Zheng’s argument from Mark Elliott, Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History at Harvard University. Further responses may be sent to thechinabeat <AT> gmail.com.

By Mark Elliott

With great interest and no little concern I read the recent post by Liang Zheng (“Islamic Fundamentalism: An Ignored Specter in the Xinjiang Riot,” 6 October), arguing that Islamic fundamentalism is behind the violent protests that took place in Urumqi this past July. If Mr. Zheng’s claims were true, that would indeed be cause for alarm on more than one level. Yet, because this is such a contentious point – dovetailing as it does rather neatly with the government’s line on discontent generally in Xinjiang and the justification given for “striking hard” against Uyghur dissent – the evidence should be examined extremely carefully. As far as I can tell, the evidence presented by Mr. Zheng seems to be little more than hearsay.

Disregarding the argument that Xinjiang’s shared border with Afghanistan and Pakistan is prima facie evidence of fundamentalist influence, the assertions in the post regarding the spread of Islamic extremism to Xinjiang and the July violence are based mainly on the comments of the journalist and blogger Gheyret Niyaz, quoted in an interview in the August 2 issue of Yazhou zhoukan (English translation here). Gheyret says first that during one street protest in Urumqi he heard slogans being shouted for the imposition of Shari’a law and the establishment of an Islamic state. One would like to have independent verification of these claims, and to know whether similar calls were made at other locations. I myself am unaware of any confirmed accounts that this was the case, but perhaps other readers of China Beat have information they can provide? Gheyret goes on to say that since these goals coincide with those of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party, or ILP), that organization must have helped to organize the protests. This seems to be mere inference. As further evidence of this involvement, he points to the fact that the people in the crowd of one hundred he observed that day were all wearing tennis shoes; that “they came together and dispersed in unison, in a highly organized way”; and that they spoke with accents identifying them as coming from Kashgar and Khotan. On this last point he is tentative, since, as he says, “I could not see if they had knives” (!). None of this seems convincing to me as evidence of a link to outside fundamentalist organizations. (A perusal of ILP’s UK website turns up no indication of any special interest in events in Xinjiang or support for the Uyghur cause. Quite the contrary: it approvingly reports the Pakistani president’s praise of the Chinese government’s handling of the unrest.)

It is well known that people often resort to conspiracy as a way of explaining how otherwise inexplicable and terrible events come to pass. That earlier in the same interview Gheyret alleges that Rebiya Kadeer was also involved in helping to organize the protests (this, of course, being another claim made by the government, which so far also lacks independent confirmation) demonstrates, I think, his susceptibility to this very tendency. I will say that I have heard, but cannot confirm, that a broadcast on Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur language service shortly before the violence included remarks by Rebiya that might be characterized as provocative. Even if this were so, it is hardly proof that she or those around her helped organize the protests; indeed, had she been so directly involved, it seems unlikely that she would have taken the trouble to advertise the fact on the radio.

Mr. Zheng also cites local witnesses among his friends and acquaintances to the effect that there were a lot of people from Kashgar (or elsewhere in Altishahr) in Urumqi at the time. I suspect that others may also have heard these rumors. But as Mr. Zheng must know, there are always many people from the southern part of Xinjiang in Urumqi at any given time. Who is to say if the number was higher than usual? Assuming it were, how are we to know whether these people were there in response to a call from fundamentalist imams to take to the streets, protest the treatment of Uyghur workers in Guangzhou, and exact a bloody retribution? If many of Urumqi’s Uyghurs deny involvement in the violence, this is to be expected. For one thing, doubtless relatively few indeed were involved; for another, it would make sense for them to shift the blame to people from outside (“It wasn’t us!”). All these considerations encourage skepticism of reports that Urumqi was secretly infiltrated by organized columns of extremist Kashgarliks in early July.

While Mr. Zheng is doubtless well-informed as to the situation generally in Xinjiang, his observations on the July unrest as reported in China Beat appear to be based on unconfirmed reports and second-hand information. He does not seem to have been in Urumqi when the events occurred or to have witnessed anything firsthand. While the post is largely sympathetic to the plight of Uyghurs, it seems to me that it serves also as a Trojan horse for a more sinister interpretation of the situation in Xinjiang and the “danger” there of Islamic fundamentalist influence and terrorism, an interpretation that ultimately only facilitates government policies of repression.

No one approves the violence, obviously. One can concede the likelihood that there has been some increase of fundamentalist beliefs in segments of Xinjiang society. But spreading unsubstantiated stories about the ties of fundamentalist organizations to the July demonstrations adds nothing to our understanding of events. On the contrary, for the reasons stated here, I see it as quite harmful. In my view, this post falls short of the usual high standards maintained by China Beat.

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By Rian Thum

One of many disturbing long-term effects of the recent violence in Urumqi is an increased ethnicization of anger on all sides.  Ethnic tensions are of course nothing new in Xinjiang, and ethnically targeted state policies have long made it difficult to distinguish between anti-government and ethnic discontent, but until now Uyghur resistance has been aimed at the state.  The recent Urumqi uprisings represent a significant redirection of anger along more clearly ethnic lines.

The interactions between Uyghur and Han citizens vary with the uneven demography of Xinjiang.  In the provincial capital, Urumqi, Uyghurs are a minority.  This means that Urumqi Uyghurs frequently encounter intense racism, but also that they deal with the Han in a wide variety of contexts, many quite friendly.  Uyghurs in Urumqi often draw clear distinctions between grievances against the Han and the government.  However, it is important to remember that most Uyghurs do not lead the daily lives of minorities.  In Southwestern Xinjiang, where most Uyghurs live, Uyghurs constitute the majority.  In rural Uyghur areas, the sight of a Han person is rare, outside of interactions with officials and police who have been sent from elsewhere to implement state policies.  It is not surprising then, that in the traditionally Uyghur areas of Southern Xinjiang, the line between anti-government and anti-Han discontent is thoroughly blurred.  When expressing grievances, it is not uncommon for Uyghurs in the South to name the Han (khӑnzulӑr), the government (hökümӑt), or even the Communists (komunistlӑr) interchangeably as the targets of their anger.

Xinjiang parade

Parade of Han soldiers in Kashgar, with banners promoting ethnic unity

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Earlier this week, the Chinese government announced it had arrested six people allegedly involved in a bomb-making operation in Xinjiang. Tensions in the region continue to run high in the wake of July’s riots and recent arrests of people accused of syringe attacks. China Beat recently ran an interview with a Han Chinese student, Leong, who reflected on the summer’s violence; we also featured this essay by James Millward back in July. Here are five more articles on Xinjiang and the continuing unrest there:

1. Lucy Hornby at Reuters posted a blog entry earlier this month describing the panicked atmosphere in Urumqi, and how the government-instituted controls on information contribute to the city’s unease:

Urumqi is a city cut off from the outside world. There has been no Internet access for two months. Phone links in or out of the region are sporadic. Text messaging is limited.

And so people gather in the streets to listen to rumors.

Walking through the streets of Urumqi these past days, the main sounds I heard were of human voices. The snatches of conversation carried rumors of syringe attacks, and outbreaks of rebellious outrage. The words floated from open shop doors, from knots of people gathered at a bus station, and from people talking on cell phones as they passed me on the sidewalk.

2. Hat tip to Danwei for pointing us to John Kennedy’s article, “Considering Han Chauvinism.” Kennedy’s post was sparked by an essay at Radio Free Asia by Beijing Spring editor Hu Ping (essay in Chinese only) and the comments it generated, both at RFA and UigurBiz, where it was reposted. In turn, Kennedy’s writing on the subject has led to even more discussion of the topic in the comment section below his post.

3. At the Wall Street Journal China blog, Sky Canaves discusses the conditions foreign reporters in Xinjiang encounter as they attempt to report on the situation in the region. Canaves profiles this case of three reporters from Hong Kong:

Last week, the foreign correspondents clubs in Hong Kong and China separately condemned the treatment of three Hong Kong journalists by paramilitary police in Urumqi. According to the statements . . . on Sept. 4 the journalists were tackled by armed police while running to escape tear gas fired into the crowd, were beaten and held face down on the ground for 15 to 20 minutes. (One of them reportedly had a gun pointed at him at one point.) Afterwards, the reporters were taken to a police station where they were detained for several hours. In the following days, several other Hong Kong reporters were reported to have been detained briefly by police in Urumqi, leading to a protest by about 40 journalists in front of the mainland government’s liaison office in Hong Kong on Monday.

4. More on the story of the Hong Kong journalists can be found at Zona Europa (hat tip to CDT). Cantonese-speakers can watch news clips at the site; below the videos are several articles about the incident and a subsequent press conference held by the Xinjiang Government Information Office:

“We have press passes.  You must not tell lies!”  At the press conference, Xinjiang Government Information Office director Hou Hanmin accused the Hong Kong reporters of instigating disturbances and not having press passes.  However, she did not produce any evidence.  The reporters at the scene got excited and cried aloud, “The government is shameless.”  Reporters point out that “instigating disturbances” is a serious charge which requires hard evidence.  They were also unhappy that the authorities chose to selectively inform media organizations to attend this press conference.  TVB and Now TV whose reporters were involved in the incident last Friday were not notified to attend this press conference.  Neither were RTHK and Commercial Radio who reporters were also temporarily detained.

5. “What Should China Do About the Uighurs?” was the question posed at the New York Times “Room for Debate” blog back in July as protests raged in Xinjiang. Four responses, from political scientists Chien-peng Chung and Yan Sun, anthropologist Stevan Harrell, and terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, can be read at the NYT page. Here, an excerpt from Chung’s short essay:

. . . other grievances broadly held by Uighurs should be addressed. The perception that economic development in Xinjiang aids Han Chinese at the expense of Uighurs cannot be allowed to continue. The government must look into effectively enforcing existing, and devising more, affirmative action policies to ensure that Uighurs do not feel marginalized. Muslim religious activities in Xinjiang could still be closely monitored for separatist or violent tendencies, but left to operate with minimum overt interference by the authorities.

Communist Party cadres should demonstrate respect for Muslim and other religious customs whenever possible in public. Travel restrictions to overseas destinations for Uighurs should be no different from those for other Chinese nationals.

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1. Hu Jintao has made a trip to Xinjiang, his first since riots there in July. Xinjiang was in the news earlier this week as well, when international news organizations picked up a story, first reported in Monday’s China Daily, which announced that trials would begin shortly for more than 200 people arrested in connection with the riots. The regional government, however, quickly denied that any trials have been scheduled, and stated that only 83 people have been officially arrested to date. Over at the Wall Street Journal’s China blog, Sky Canaves writes on this story and what it reveals about the media landscape in China today:

Regardless of which account is accurate, the episode appears to be yet another reminder of the unofficialness of much of what is still often called China’s “official” media. Once upon a time, China Daily (and much of the rest of the country’s state-run media), could be relied on to dutifully relay the government’s pronouncements – especially on sensitive issues – and to do little else. But in today’s increasingly competitive media landscape, China Daily and other publications often doing their own reporting – with all the potential that brings for publishing things that don’t accord with the official line. It can be confusing for readers to discern the difference.

2. Another post by Sky Canaves at the WSJ blog discusses the release of Xu Zhiyong from custody on Sunday morning. Xu was granted qubao houshen, or “obtain a guarantor while pending trial”–not exactly bail, but closer to non-custodial detention or probation. Although Xu’s supporters are calling this a victory, Canaves reports that Chinese authorities can use qubao houshen to their advantage as well:

Unlike in the United States, where bail is routinely granted in cases where the suspect doesn’t pose a major flight risk or a danger to society, qubao houshen is rarely granted to Chinese suspects, who are generally held in custody until trial. China’s legal activists have long called for authorities to increase the availability of bail to suspects in criminal cases, especially when relatively minor crimes are involved.

The fact that bail is granted only in extraordinary cases in China has led many to proclaim Mr. Xu’s release as a sort of victory, even if only temporary. As Mr. Xu himself noted, police are still investigating his tax evasion case and he may still be subject to prosecution . . .

However, in certain respects, Mr. Xu’s release puts police in a better position to continue investigating him. Under qubao houshen, police can monitor his activities for a full year, investigating not only the tax charges for which Mr. was arrested, but any other leads that could be used to make a case against him. Had Mr. Xu been kept in custody, the police investigation would have typically had a much shorter period of a few months in which to conclude their investigation.

3. Malcolm Moore at the Telegraph examines the current “beat and compress,” or da ya, mode of the Chinese government. The da ya mode is most prominently characterized by the recent detentions of many leading activists as the government tightens its control. Although many observers are linking this da ya period to a desire for stability in the lead-up to the quickly approaching 60th anniversary of the PRC, Moore writes, “The question is whether the current round of da ya will relent after the anniversary passes in October, or whether it is the beginning of a longer period of repressive measures by the Communist Party.”

4. Alec Ash, who blogs at Six, has a piece at the Huffington Post on today’s Chinese university students and their attitudes toward the 1989 Tiananmen protests. While Beijing University (“Beida”) students led several major protest movements during the twentieth century, Ash’s conversations with members of the campus community show that times have changed:

In 2009 — a new generation of students, a fresh capitalist incarnation of ‘new China’ — there is no indication in Beida of such a rebellious past. The 90th anniversary of May 4th and 20th of Tiananmen passed on campus not so much without incident as without notice.

Ash takes up the question of why current Chinese students are less active in protest movements than their predecessors were, and disagrees with some answers, such as disinterest and lack of knowledge about the past, that are frequently offered by the foreign press when contemplating this issue:

If a Beida student doesn’t talk to Western journalists about their personal views on May 4th, Tiananmen or any other taboo, it doesn’t mean they are ignorant or don’t have any. There are plenty of students reading banned books and discussing forbidden topics – they do it in their dorms (if cautiously, in case of informers), or more quietly in canteens. Just not anywhere where they might seem to be taking a public stand.

But, these dorm discussions are (I hazard a generalisation) more in agreement with the general status quo in China than they are against it. While democracy is an appealing model for most, they are not convinced it is an appealing model for China at this point in its development. Western ideas no longer hold sway for them purely by virtue of being Western. They would all go study in America in a heartbeat, but none fawn over the US: many are disillusioned by Western press coverage of China, and Timothy Geithner’s June visit to campus barely raised a head from its study. They consider themselves less naive than their predecessors, and most think of protest as simply not the way to fix China’s domestic problems – rather, they believe central government is doing a good job in difficult circumstances. A surprising number of those I talked to volunteered that their futures are brighter for the failure of Tiananmen and the economic miracle which followed it.

5. The myths and realities of China’s firewall are the topic of a post at the China Solved blog. While the blocks against social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube might appear inconsequential to those working in the business world, the post’s author argues otherwise:

The 20th century benchmarks for international trade were how many containers or freighters one nation sent across the water to another. In the 21st century, it will be about data, viewers and users. The few big sites that have been blocked and hobbled in China are powering thousands of small businesses and driving the future of online commerce. China has become a dead-zone for any business planning on building an international online presence.

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The violence in Xinjiang took place almost a month ago, but it continues to generate interesting commentary (see, for example, this thoughtful essay by Pallavi Aiyar). The early July events have also recently had two reverberations in Australia, as Jia Zhangke and two other Chinese filmmakers pulled out of a Melbourne film festival where a documentary expected to present a sympathetic view of one of the people Beijing blames for the unrest was to be shown, and then hackers attacked the festival’s website to protest that film’s inclusion in the line-up. In light of this, we asked James Millward, a leading specialist in the history of Xinjiang who has written about related issues for us before, to share with the readers of China Beat his take on what happened in early July and how it should be understood.

By James Millward

The ugly mob violence that roiled the western Chinese city of Urumchi in Xinjiang on July 5th was rather quickly suppressed, and Urumchi is now quiet. Thanks to an unprecedented degree of openness to the international press, moreover, we have a better idea specifically what happened than we have for other such incidents in China.

Students who are members of the Uyghur minority—a largely Muslim, Turkic-language speaking group who are natives of the Xinjiang region in far northwestern China—demonstrated on Sunday, July 5 to call for a more thorough investigation into a deadly brawl among Uyghur and Han workers that had occurred at a factory in Guangdong province the previous week. The demonstration turned violent, possibly while it was being repressed by security forces, and thousands of Uyghurs went on a rampage, attacking Hans and destroying property. By Monday, July 6, mobs of Han—the majority ethnic group in China—took to the streets armed with clubs, meat-cleavers and other makeshift weapons, seeking revenge. Police eventually calmed the situation with batons, tear-gas, firearms with live ammunition, curfews and mass arrests. At least 192 people died, and some 1000 were injured.

Though we know the broad outlines of what happened, why it happened remains in dispute. The official story from the Xinjiang regional and Chinese authorities is that the riot was instigated by Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress, an umbrella group made up of overseas Uyghur organizations in Europe, America and Central Asia that claims to represent Uyghur interests internationally. (A Uyghur economist and outspoken blogger, Ilham Tohti, has also been blamed by Xinjiang authorities for inciting the riot, and has apparently been detained.) The PRC routinely claims that the WUC and Kadeer—a charismatic spokeswoman for the Uyghur cause who enjoys sympathy in the US Congress and EU parliament—is surreptitiously engaged in separatist and even terrorist activity. Some of the commentary in Western media has harkened back to the issue of alleged Uyghur jihadism, involvement with Al Qaeda, and terrorist plots—issues much discussed with regard to the Uyghurs who wound up in Guantanamo.

When it comes to the recent Urumchi riots, however, terrorism and even separatism are red herrings. China’s control over Xinjiang is not threatened by these demonstrators or even the handful of jihadi Uyghurs outside of China who espouse terrorism or militancy. No government internationally has ever challenged the PRC’s sovereignty in Xinjiang or officially sympathized with calls for an independent Eastern Turkestan state. The mainstream Uyghur exile groups—World Uyghur Congress and Rabiya Kadeer’s Uyghur American Association among them—do not call for an independent Uyghur or East Turkestan state; rather, these groups lobby for cultural autonomy, legal rights, equal employment opportunity and similar issues—they could not lobby for an independent state without losing their access to members of Western governments or, in the case of Rabiya Kadeer’s Uyghur American Association, jeopardizing funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. But most telling of all is the fact that the Uyghur students in their initial demonstration marched under the flag of the People’s Republic of China, explicitly sending a non-separatist message of loyal dissent.

What Urumchi experienced was what Americans, recalling our own troubled history, might call a race riot. The reasons underlying it were likewise familiar: mundane prejudice including easy use of racial slurs by both Han and Uyghur about the other; a widespread perception by the minority Uyghurs, with some justification, that the political, legal and economic system, especially job opportunities, are stacked in favor of the majority Hans; and a simple lack of understanding or empathy for the different cultures of fellow citizens.

Diversity in the US is the result of the colonization of North America by northern Europeans, our proximity to parts of the Americas first colonized by Spain, subsequent migration from other parts of the world, and of course the African slave trade. Though China is of continental dimensions and has long been diverse, the most pressing ethnic issues today largely stem from the 17th and 18th century expansion of the Qing empire which brought Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Taiwan under Beijing’s rule. Regardless of the different historical background, however, China shares with the US, and, for that matter, with India, Great Britain, France, Canada, Australia, Russia and other large nations, the strengths and challenges of an ethnically diverse population. Economic growth, urban development, political evolution, globalization and other processes can exacerbate tensions among ethnic communities in any country.

The proximate cause of the Urumchi troubles was labor migration, both of Uyghurs from Xinjiang to Guangdong, and of Han from other parts of China to Xinjiang, all associated with China’s super-charged market economy and state program to develop western parts of the country. But the deeper problem is essentially the same as that in any large, modern state: how to incorporate ethno-cultural diversity into the national vision. Chinese official rhetoric and policies in the past—especially in the early 1950s and late 1980s—were directed at this goal, but more recent approaches have too often depicted Uyghurs and Tibetans as ungrateful “others,” and even as threats to security. Both Uyghurs and Han have absorbed this message from state media. It has fueled Uyghur frustration and violence, and instilled in Hans a sense of grievance against minorities, their fellow Chinese.

China faces problems of interethnic tension and civil rights all too familiar to other countries in the world. Chinese leaders could enjoy international sympathy and support should they address these issues directly. But claiming that all ethnic problems at home arise from the conspiracies of exiles or machinations of foreigners will only elicit more international sympathy for Chinese minorities and criticism of China’s human rights record.

James Millward is professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is the author of Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang and an expert on China and Central Asian history.

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