GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - A senior Chinese official made a rare admission on Thursday that the country had to change its policies toward ethnic minorities in light of deadly riots in far western Xinjiang this month.
In Xinjiang’s worst violence in decades, mainly Muslim Uighurs on July 5 attacked majority Han Chinese in Urumqi after taking to the streets to protest against attacks on Uighurs workers at a factory in the southern province of Guangdong in June which left two Uighurs dead.
Han Chinese sought revenge days later.
Wang Yang, Guangdong’s powerful Communist Party boss who has close ties to President Hu Jintao, said it was time for a rethink on ethnic policies, though he did not say specifically what was wrong or offer solutions.
Xinjiang has long been a tightly controlled hotbed of ethnic tension, fostered by an economic gap between many Uighurs and Han, government controls on religion and culture and an influx of Han migrants who now are the majority in most big cities.
“The policies themselves will definitely need adjustments,” Wang told foreign reporters in Guangdong’s capital, Guangzhou. “We have to adjust to the actual situation. China is a multi-ethnic society... If adjustments are not made promptly, there will be some problems.”
Officials have to date either deflected questions about whether policies need changing, or denied there were any problems, blaming exiled groups for stirring up the violence.
As discontent played out in Xinjiang this month, analysts say there was almost certainly a parallel round of debate taking place within the secretive Communist Party about where policy on ethnic minorities went wrong.
Conservatives have been in the ascendant in recent years, presiding over a tightening of controls on religion and language and pushing a harsh response to the Tibetan violence that flared ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But two explosions of deadly rioting barely over a year apart are an embarrassing public challenge to the rule of a government that has brooked little dissent since taking power in 1949.
Wang played down the ethnic dimension of the clash between Uighurs and Han in his own province, though.
“This case is a conflict between workers and should be regarded as a criminal act. Overall, this will be handed in accordance with judicial procedures,” he added.
The Urumqi Public Security Bureau has made public a list of names and photographs of 15 Uighurs wanted for their roles in the unrest, state news agency Xinhua said.
The bureau issued a notice urging fugitives “not to hope that they would be lucky enough to get away with it,” offering leniency for those who turned themselves in within 10 days.
“Those refusing to surrender will be dealt with severely in accordance with the law,” the notice said. The government also offered rewards to the public who report on rioters.
In recent days, 253 more people have been detained after being turned in by local residents of different ethnic groups, the China Daily said.
Beijing cannot afford to lose its grip on the vast territory, which borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, has abundant oil reserves and is China’s largest natural gas-producing region.
The Uighurs are a Turkic people who are largely Muslim and share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia.
Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim