The protests spiralled quickly out of control, but the ethnic tensions in the west China region of Xinjiang are not new, and this unrest has been brewing for years. Unlike the Tibetans, the Uighurs – a Muslim, Turkic people – have no global spokesperson capable of bringing their cause to the attention of the West. But like Tibet, Xinjiang once laid claim to being its own nation, and Uighurs have harboured separatist ambitions since the founding of the People’s Republic.
As I found during a number of visits to the region over the past decade, Uighurs and Chinese in Xinjiang have almost no interaction with each other. In private, Uighurs complained to me about the Chinese government policing the local mosque, preventing them from going on pilgrimage, and encouraging Chinese migration into the province.
In eastern China, the central government has effectively co-opted large parts of the population by promoting economic growth, rewarding business and allowing some degree of social freedom. But in Xinjiang, as in Tibet, Beijing sticks to older strategies. Even before the recent unrest, the government tolerated virtually no dissent in Xinjiang, rounding up hundreds if not thousands of peaceful Uighur activists, and sometimes still holding public executions.
And rather than promoting private enterprise, the state still dominates large parts of Xinjiang’s resource-based economy, making it hard for Uighurs, many of whom do not speak Chinese well, to get good jobs. Beijing also holds back young Uighur entrepreneurs – the kind of people who, in eastern China, support the government, since it has helped them get rich. One young Uighur woman, who’d studied in eastern China and spoke English as well as Chinese, told me that there was no opportunity for her back in Xinjiang; she wound up working in a low-level job at an export-import company.
In the light of the historical grievances, the Cultural Revolution-style repression and the lack of real economic opportunity, the riots this week hardly seem like the surprise they’ve been portrayed as in the Western media.