The world's spotlight is now on China's wild northwest, where ethnic tensions came to a head last week in a conflict that left nearly 200 dead and thousands injured in the city of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province.
The tragic events have given me some clarity. While backpacking through the region in summer 2006, I was detained and interrogated five different times by police. With another example of the region's volatility, I have a little bit better idea why.
Xinjiang is the ancestral homeland of nearly 10 million Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims who make up about half of the region's population. Although the province is officially known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the minority Uighurs have expressed resentment over increasing Han encroachment on what they see as their territory, known as East Turkestan to those bold enough to promote the region's autonomy.
The Han Chinese have been migrating into Xinjiang over the last several years to seize opportunities in the resource-rich region. The central government has enacted policies and programs encouraging this westward expansion, some say in an effort to dilute Uighur influence and exert more control over the region. The Han are China's largest ethnic group, making up about 90 percent of the country's population. Uighurs have complained that the benefits of economic development in the province - which makes up about a sixth of China's landmass - haven't been fairly shared.
China has had more than a few reminders that Xinjiang is a stick of dynamite waiting to be lit. Last year, two of Uighur assailants ambushed a Chinese police unit in the border town of Kashgar, killing 16 a month before the Beijing Olympic Games. (News reports called into question the validity of the official account)
Last week's spark occurred when a group of Uighurs - some put the number at nearly 1,000 - gathered to express dissatisfaction for Chinese government inaction in the killing of two Uighur workers by Han Chinese during a brawl at a factory in faraway Guangdong province. The Urumqi protests grew violent when Chinese police tried to disperse the crowd.
After the Uighurs ran wild, thousands of Han sought revenge and took to the streets with sticks, knives and other implements. When the dust settled, more than 180 people were dead, most of them Han, according to Chinese government propaganda. Uighur activists claim that hundreds of Uighurs were shot and killed during the police backlash. The Chinese government has not confirmed that, nor will it. The latest figures put the number arrested for their roles in the riots at 1,400, and some are reporting that Uighur men are being rooted from their homes.
The Chinese government would like nothing more than to pin this on "separatist" elements. In fact, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang has already blamed Rebiya Kadeer, the world's foremost Uighur activist, for fomenting the unrest. Last year, during the assault on the Chinese police patrol, the government played the "terrorist" card, saying that those who committed the acts must've been Islamic extremists.
Perhaps because of their Islamic beliefs and relative obscurity, the Uighurs' cause has not been celebrated as heartily as that of Tibetans and other oppressed peoples. The Chinese government says that it gives Uighurs ample opportunities. Uighurs feel disenfranchised. I have to say that if not for my experiences in Xinjiang, I might be tempted to believe the Xinhua (Chinese state media) version of events.
But this conflict runs pretty deep, and it has a political root, as most so-called "ethnic" conflicts do. The Qing dynasty conquered Xinjiang in the 1870s, and since then the Uighurs have mounted a variety of struggles - bombings, shootings, rebellions and demonstrations - to shirk Chinese rule. In the 1940s, they succeeded for five short years, when the East Turkestan Republic blossomed as the Communist and Nationalist forces were battling for control of the mainland. When Mao Ze Dong came to power in 1949, he sent the People's Liberation Army to bring the western provinces back under Chinese control. The Uighurs submitted without a fight.
The Chinese government issued a report in 2002 blaming Uighurs for 200 separate terrorist incidents during the first few years of 21st century. The claim was made the year after 9/11, when President Bush laid down America's "for-us-or-against-us" gauntlet with regard to the fight against terrorism. China quickly sided with the U.S., stating its commitment to quelling terrorist activities within its borders. But some think that China’s claim of allegiance to the U.S.-led war against terror is a façade meant to legitimize the brutal suppression of anti-Chinese sentiments in Xinjiang. When Uighur prisoners got out of the Guantanamo Bay prison facilities last month, the U.S. would not repatriate them to China for fear they would be killed or harassed. Instead, the small Pacific island nation of Palau and the Atlantic island of Bermuda took the Uighurs in, with much backlash from their populations.
The bottom line in all this is that the Chinese government wants economic control of the northwest. The Uighurs want more autonomy, less encroachment. It's sad to say, but despite the best efforts for cultural understanding on both sides, these ideologies clash and will inevitably result in friction in the future, much like the tumultuous 20th century. Let's just hope subsequent struggles won't be as fierce as last week's.