July 6, 2009 / 11:59 AM / in 10 years

Q+A: Deadly ethnic riots in China's northwest

BEIJING (Reuters) - At least 140 people have been killed in rioting in the capital of China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, with the government blaming exiled separatists for the Muslim area’s worst case of ethnic unrest in years.

Hundreds of rioters have been arrested, the official Xinhua news agency reported, after Uighurs took to the streets of the regional capital on Sunday, some burning and smashing vehicles and throwing rocks at ranks of anti-riot police.


The riots followed a protest about government handling of a June clash between Han Chinese and Uighur factory workers in southern China, where two Uighurs died.

But the underlying cause of the unrest was probably long-standing economic, cultural and religious grievances, which have built up over decades of tight central rule and periodically erupt into violence, though never before on such a deadly scale.

“In Xinjiang one of the major sources of discontent is that there is still a major gap economically between Han and Uighurs,” said Barry Sautman, a specialist in China’s ethnic politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“There are also people who object to the amount of control exercised by the state with regard to religion and there are people who resent that the Han population is substantial.”


It is extremely unlikely that there will be further rioting in Urumqi itself. Security forces moved swiftly to crush the unrest as soon as it erupted, and have established a heavy presence on the streets.

Analysts say there could be isolated incidents in other towns, particularly ones with a Uighur majority population, but China has a strong grip on Xinjiang and its geography is less of a challenge than neighboring Tibet, so the chances of sustained unrest over a long period are low.

“Although the scale of the security-force response makes a serious deterioration in public order unlikely, more limited, isolated security incidents are very possible in the current climate,” Control Risks’ China analyst Andrew Gilholm said in a note on the Xinjiang situation.


There has been no evidence or claims of links between rioters in Urumqi and unrest in Lhasa in March last year. But Beijing’s handling of the two events is similar, and the official Xinhua news agency made an explicit comparison in a commentary.

“There are big parallels with what happened in Tibet ... the government has started applying the same reading to this event,” said Nicholas Bequelin, of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.

“That is (they are saying) that the causes of this event are a plot by foreign forces with an exile at their head, and that the blame is entirely apportioned on the demonstrators.”


It seems impossible that Beijing could ignore two major eruptions of ethnic violence in its two most sensitive regions over less than 18 months apart.

But the rioting, which comes three months before the 60th founding anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, will provide as much fuel to hardliners keen to tighten security screws as it will to officials who favor policies of reconciliation and accommodation.

“Every time there has been major ethnic incidents two (government) approaches go on parallel tracks,” said Sautman.

“There are people who say ‘we have to think about changing policy’ and there are people who say ‘we have to be more effective in hunting down separatists’, and I think both things will probably occur.”

However any soul-searching is likely to happen in private as China’s secretive government has long fostered nationalism as a unifying ideology and favors presenting a strong, unified face to its citizens and the world.


Xinjiang’s remote location and sensitive national security role have meant that foreign investment so far is small-scale and the interest of major international firms largely confined to the oil and gas sector.

Any would-be investors are unlikely to be put off by fears of further violence given the size and strength of the army.

If reporting on the unrest raises awareness in the West of ethnic discontent in northwest China, Uighur activists in exile might be able to leverage uneasiness about Chinese government policy into some pressure on would-be investors.

However it is extremely unlikely that they would be able to generate anything even approaching the momentum behind Tibetan exile groups and their supporters.

Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Sanjeev Miglani

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