China's far-west strife reveals a country in flux

URUMQI, China (Reuters) - The potential dark side of China’s future was on show last week when crowds of Han Chinese, clutching clubs, axes and mobile phones, sought revenge after a rampage by minority Uighur Muslims.

Chinese soldiers in riot gear disembark a truck outside a mosque in the city of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region July 13, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray

The ethnic violence in Urumqi, capital of the far-west Xinjiang region, was also a product of the new China, with its increasingly mobile and sometimes assertive population.

Enmity between Uighurs and Han Chinese mixed with high-tech communications and sometimes fumbling state security to stoke the strife in Urumqi, which the government says killed 184 people.

There are many unanswered questions about the tumult that began with a student protest over Uighurs killed at a factory in far southern China. Not least, how many died in the subsequent violence by Uighurs and then rioting by Han Chinese residents.

But the mayhem has also highlighted how China’s market economic transformation is changing society in ways the ruling Communist Party and its security forces may struggle to master.

“There are deep faultlines behind the veneer of stability in China,” said Nicholas Bequelin, an Asia expert with Human Rights Watch who has long studied Xinjiang.

“The Party is trying to hold things together, but social change has set in motion powerful undercurrents that prove uncontrollable with the old tools.”

Uighur discontent over the factory deaths spread on the Internet, and both sides used mobile phones to record images of protest, before authorities severed such communications.

Recent smaller and less deadly outbreaks of protest in China have also reflected the potential for the tensions of a society in flux to sometimes overwhelm the Party’s traditional controls, with news from local clashes rippling nationwide and globally.

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That certainly does not mean more deadly riots will engulf China. The one-party state is still a potent force, as the thousands of troops now guarding Urumqi show. But last week’s events highlighted the social strains that may some day seriously challenge the Party’s grip on a country home to 1.3 billion people and the world’s third biggest economy.


The spiral of protests, riots and violence started around the People’s Square in central Urumqi on July 5, when the students gathered to protest the factory killings.

According to many Uighurs, that conflict began with Internet, text messages and street rumors beyond the grasp of Party censors, helping spread claims that dozens, if not hundreds, of Uighurs were slain in the factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong.

All Uighurs interviewed in Urumqi were convinced the official count of two dead in the factory strife was fiction. Few in China trust central state-run media these days, and that applies especially to the discontented Uighurs.

“If you’re told something on television, you assume the opposite is true,” said Alim, a Uighur official, who added that he believed 50 or more Uighurs were killed at the factory.

Economic discontent also drove the students to protest, said Alim. In the past, the Chinese government could ensure Uighur workers were allotted a percentage of jobs in state-owned firms, he said.

“But now private companies just want Han workers, and even the state-owned companies ignore the quotas,” he said. “So even our best graduates have difficulty finding good jobs.”

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After police began to arrest the demonstrators, word of the confrontation spread quickly among Uighurs, over mobile phones and by word of mouth, said residents.

Some Uighur residents of Urumqi have blamed the killings solely on recent, ill-educated migrants from southern Xinjiang. But others said the killers were a mix of migrants and poor locals, unhappy over the Chinese wealth and job opportunities they believe too often go to Han Chinese migrants.

“There are many Uighurs moving to cities who don’t have the skills to make money, and even people who have studied hard and have skills can’t find work,” said Mamatali, a Uighur businessman and Urumqi native.

Yimaja, an unemployed metal worker from southern Xinjiang, said many of his fellow migrants felt betrayed after coming to the big city and finding their hopes for steady work frustrated.

“Now we feel we have no hope ... Looking at all the tall buildings, we feel we can never live in them,” he said, sitting near a mosque on the edge of downtown Urumqi, with its office towers.

“Now if my stomach is full, I just sleep,” he said.

That despair found such a deadly outlet because many poor Han Chinese migrants have moved into neighborhoods close to Uighurs.

“I think that the worst of the violence came from poor rural migrant Uighurs against poor rural migrant Hans,” said Bequelin. “It is the increased contacts between the haves and the have-nots that is leading to a spike in social frictions.”

But now more than ever images from these localized clashes can spread swiftly, making it more difficult to contain.

When Han Chinese massed on the streets of Urumqi last Tuesday to protest the killings of July 5, word spread quickly through mobile phones. As the protest escalated into rioting, many protesters used phones to take pictures of friends wielding axes or machetes and smashing Uighur restaurants.

When the government lifts its block on text messages and the Internet from Xinjiang, those images are likely to spread.

“The viral dissemination of this conflict suggests that global communications not only foster greater awareness of this region, but may even exacerbate its underlying problems,” Dru Gladney, an expert on China’s Uighurs at Pomona College in California, wrote in a recent commentary.

Editing by Dean Yates