This is what we know for sure: on 5 July violence broke out in the northwestern Chinese city of Ürümqi, the provincial capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Cars and buses were set on fire. News reports showed footage of rioters beating and kicking people. We saw a four-year-old boy, his head bandaged, on a hospital trolley. He had been clinging to his pregnant mother’s hand when she was shot. By the next morning thousands of riot officers and paramilitary police, armed with batons, bamboo poles and slingshots, patrolled the streets, where cars and shops still smouldered.
Vol. 31 No. 17 · 10 September 2009
Nick Holdstock in his article ‘In Urümqi’ might have made the following additional points (LRB, 6 August). First, the Han Chinese living alongside the Uighurs are not indigenous to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. They have been settled there by the Chinese Government in order to colonise an area regarded as dangerously unreliable because of its Turkic, Muslim identity. Together with the massive military force policing the region, the Han settlers now approximately equal the Uighur and other ethnic groups. Second, the inducements for Han settlement have been guarantees of housing and jobs. In these respects they have been given priority over the indigenous population, hence the large-scale unemployment and deep resentment among the Uighurs. Given the scale of repression it seems surprising that Holdstock refers to reports of atrocities as ‘hysterical’. It seems much more probable that the reports are true.
Vol. 31 No. 18 · 24 September 2009
I am in complete agreement with Keith Sellars about government-sponsored Han Chinese settlement in Xinjiang and should have been more explicit about it in my article (Letters, 10 September). Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, there has been a concerted effort by the government to ‘develop the west’. The main entity in this process has been the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), formed from soldiers forced to retire from the People’s Liberation Army. Between 1952 and 1954, 170,000 were sent to Xinjiang to set up state-owned farms (bingtuans) and industries, in many cases on land confiscated from Uighurs. The XPCC is a unique institution in China, in that it is administered independently of the Xinjiang provincial government. It has its own police force and courts, as well as its own network of forced-labour camps and prisons. In one of its marching songs it describes itself as ‘an army with no uniforms’. Many towns in Xinjiang are encircled by bingtuans, which makes it easy for the government to quell any form of unrest. After the 5 July riots in ürümqi, soldiers from the XPCC played a central role in keeping the city under martial law.
Unsurprisingly, the XPCC, in both its economic and military capacity, has been a source of considerable resentment for Uighurs. While unemployment is high among Uighurs, the XPCC has been conspicuously successful: for instance, most petrol stations in Xinjiang are run by the XPCC.
But despite the many grievances of the Uighurs, the most recent unrest in Ürümqi has come from the Han Chinese. On 17 August there were reports of people being attacked with hypodermic needles. As the stabbings continued, the perception grew among the Han that they were being targeted. Although the government stressed that Uighurs and other minorities were also among the victims (of whom only 20 per cent showed any physical injuries, suggesting that many of the claims were due to fear or scaremongering), Han residents demanded that more be done to protect them, culminating in demonstrations in Ürümqi on 3 September. These grew in size until on 5 September, Xinhua, the official news agency, reported that tens of thousands had taken to the streets. Tear gas was used to disperse the crowds, which led to five deaths and many injuries. Afterwards the regional police chief was removed from his post, along with the city’s Communist Party secretary. The police announced that they had charged four suspects, all Uighur, three of whom were said to be drug users.
Though these measures seem to have appeased the Han residents’ anger for now, it remains unclear whether the Han were actually being targeted (given that they account for 75 per cent of the population of Ürümqi, they are most likely to be the main victims). What seems more certain is that the authorities, who are usually politically cautious, will make even greater efforts to be seen to be combating ‘separatism’ – the attacks are already being described by the government as ‘violent, terrorist crimes’. This is likely to lead to continued repression of the Uighurs, which will only provoke greater resentment, and increase the likelihood of further violence.
As regards my original description of reports of alleged atrocities as ‘hysterical’, with which Keith Sellars takes issue, this does seem to me an appropriate way to describe the World Uighur Congress’s claims that people have had their heads placed ‘on a stake in the middle of the street’, not because I doubt the possibility of such things occurring but because of the partisan nature of the source, and more important, the continued lack of any corroborating witnesses or evidence that such events took place.