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.
The Chinese government put the number of dead at 184, with hundreds more injured. The majority of the victims, it claimed, were Han Chinese, who are the largest ethnic group in China (91 per cent of the population), but a minority in this region. The largest ethnic group here are the Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and are Sunni Muslims. The region’s economy has for centuries revolved around agriculture and trade; towns such as Kashgar were staging posts on the Silk Road. If you walk through a Uighur market, packed with stalls selling carpets, brightly coloured scarves, packs of henna, crystal sugar, apricots, dried grapes, rubber-bunged medicine bottles of pomegranate juice, you could easily imagine you were in Afghanistan.
A week before the riots, there had been an outbreak of ethnic violence in Guangdong province, thousands of miles away to the east, after a Han Chinese man posted a message on a local website claiming that six young Uighur migrant workers had raped two local girls. Two Uighur factory workers were killed and 118 others injured, but the police made few arrests. The Chinese government denied that the riots in Ürümqi were a response to these killings, insisting instead that they had been ‘instigated and directed from abroad’, that they were ‘premeditated’ and ‘carried out by outlaws in the country’. The violence, they claimed, had been ‘masterminded by the World Uighur Congress’ led by Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman jailed in China before she was released into exile in the US.
A spokesperson for the exiled World Uighur Congress denied any involvement in the protests and said that the real cause was the authorities’ ‘failure to take any meaningful action to punish the Chinese mob for the brutal murder of Uighurs’. According to the WUC, several thousand Uighurs, mostly university students, had gathered peacefully at several locations in Ürümqi to protest against the handling of the Guangdong killings, and the increase in racial discrimination against Uighurs across China. The Chinese authorities responded with tear gas, automatic rifles and armoured vehicles. The WUC alleges that many were shot or beaten to death by the police, and that some were crushed by armoured vehicles.
The WUC’s account follows the narrative line which took shape during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989: a crowd protests against an authoritarian Chinese regime, making what seem (to Western ears) entirely reasonable demands for democracy, independence or political reform, and is then brutally silenced. The best example is the conflict in Tibet, where the movement for independence is portrayed as a model of peaceful resistance (despite the violence in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics last year). A parallel could be drawn between the Tibetans and the Uighurs, many of whom have also expressed a desire for independence. As East Turkestan, the area was briefly a republic between 1933 and 1934, and again between 1944 and 1949. Yet the idea that it is a single unified area dates back only to the mid-18th century. Historically, it consisted of several disparate kingdoms; it has rarely been united under a single authority.
Ironically, the policies of the Chinese state have done most to promote Uighur unity. There are still important differences between parts of the region (religious observance tends to be more orthodox in south Xinjiang than in the north, for example), but these are minor compared to the general opposition to Chinese rule. While there was considerable resentment against the government in the 1960s it was not until the 1980s, with the rise of the student movement, that the population of Xinjiang began to protest against government policies, culminating in a large demonstration in the town of Baren in 1990.
Hundreds of villagers gathered in front of the local government offices there to protest against birth-control laws: although the government allows members of minorities to have two children, Uighurs traditionally had much larger families and resent the imposition of penalties – fines or confiscation of land – for exceeding their quota. The official version of events is that 22 people died during a ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion’, but according to Amnesty International more than 50 protesters may have been killed when the police and army opened fire on the crowd. The government blamed the riot on ethnic separatists ‘cloaked in religion’ who deceived people into taking part ‘in their plot to destroy national unity and overthrow the government’.
Restrictions have been placed on how and where Uighurs can worship. Mosques must be registered with the state; imams require government approval and have to attend political meetings; Uighurs who work in state-run institutions (a school, hospital or post office) are not supposed to display any signs of faith – fasting and praying during Ramadan are specially discouraged. At school Uighur children are taught that religion is mere superstition. These measures are resented, and economic recession, which began in the 1990s, when many state-owned factories and businesses were closed as part of nationwide economic reforms, has of course made things worse. High unemployment led to rising levels of drug and alcohol abuse, and in an attempt to counteract this, Uighur men began holding a kind of meeting known as a mäshräp.
A mäshräp is many things. It is a place for telling riddles and jokes as well as making music. And though it has no legal status, it is also a place where behaviour is regulated and cultural and religious practices are transmitted from one generation to the next. One account of a mäshräp describes a participant accusing his neighbour Abdul of drinking vodka at a birthday party. The judge explains that this is bad for one’s health, a waste of money and contrary to a Muslim’s submission to God. As punishment Abdul had
to ‘go fishing in the lake’ … the saqchi [guard] left the room and returned with a basin of water, a towel and three pieces of hard candy. The candies were placed in the water and Abdul was forced to get the candy out of the basin with his mouth. Several times, he fell face first into the water, and all the men in the room erupted into laughter. Each time, the saqchi would wipe his face off with the towel and taunt Abdul, asking him if he would like a drink of vodka now.
The first of the mäshräps were held in Yining – a small town on the Kazak border – in 1994. Initially, they met with the permission of the municipal authorities. By spring 1995, as they became more and more popular, the government grew suspicious. In April that year the authorities denounced the mäshräps as havens for dissidents and banned them. This again led to considerable resentment among the Uighurs; many felt the government was preventing them from dealing with drug abuse in their own way, while doing nothing itself. After several attempts to continue the mäshräps in secret, the police began making arrests. Some of those they arrested were later released, others were never seen again. There was talk of abductions at night, of dead bodies being found in the countryside.
In January 1997, a small group of men gathered in Yining town square demanding to know the whereabouts of their sons. They too were arrested and the police refused to let anyone see them. The crowd outside the police station swelled until a soldier panicked and began shooting. The government claimed there were few casualties; others put the death toll as high as 400. During the next few weeks a full-scale curfew was imposed in the city and in Ürümqi. There were extensive house-to-house searches and more than 3000 people were arrested, many of them held without charge. In April 1999, Amnesty International reported that there had been 190 executions in the region in the two years since the demonstration in Yining. Eventually, things began to settle down. On 1 September 2001, Wang Lequan – the secretary of the Xinjiang Communist Party Committee – made the confident assertion that Xinjiang was not ‘a place where violence and terrorist accidents take place very often’.
All this changed after the 9/11 attacks. By October 2001 Chinese officials were claiming there were close ties between Xinjiang separatists and al-Qaida, in effect suggesting that separatism was a form of terrorism. On 14 November 2001, a Foreign Ministry spokesman called Zhu Bangzao listed ten organisations that he said were fighting to end Chinese rule. Some Xinjiang separatists, he said, had received training in Afghanistan before being sent to China, adding that an organisation called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was supported and directed by Osama bin Laden. The government insisted that Hasan Mahsum, the leader of ETIM, had met bin Laden in 1999 and 2001, and had been promised ‘an enormous sum of money’ to help launch a ‘holy war’ with the ultimate goal of setting up a theocratic Islamic state in Xinjiang. In fact, there is little direct evidence of any links between al-Qaida and Uighur separatist groups; separatist sentiment among ordinary people is motivated by local grievances, from unemployment to birth-control policy to restrictions on worship. In many ways, then, the history of Uighur protest conforms to the narrative established after the Tiananmen protests: they are a beleaguered minority with legitimate grievances against a repressive state.
What this account leaves out, however, is the increasing use of violence by Uighur insurgents. There were bombings in Ürümqi in 1992, and in Kashgar in 1993. After the executions in Yining in 1997, three bombs exploded on buses in Ürümqi, killing seven and injuring 67; when a bomb exploded on a bus in Beijing, dissidents based in Turkey claimed responsibility, describing the attack as retaliation for China’s ‘suppression of pro-independence activism in Xinjiang’. In the run-up to the Olympics, homemade bombs were thrown at a dozen government sites in Kuqa city in southern Xinjiang. It is difficult to know how much support these actions enjoy among the Uighurs, who are understandably wary of discussing it.
If one accepts that most of the victims in Ürümqi were Han Chinese (which the World Uighur Congress does not, arguing that there were at least as many Uighur deaths), then it is hard not to conclude that the attacks were racially motivated. Until recently, despite mutual mistrust and an abundance of prejudice, Uighur anger has mostly been directed at state officials or the police. For the most part Han and Uighurs have managed to coexist peacefully, though they live in separate neighbourhoods, eat in different restaurants, and send their children to different schools. During the two years I lived in Yining, the only time I saw these barriers removed was at a cockfight.
The violence of 5 July has led Uighurs and Han to view each other with increased hostility. On 7 July a mob of Han Chinese armed with iron bars, meat cleavers and shovels attacked Uighur neighbourhoods in Ürümqi. ‘The Uighurs came to our area to smash things,’ a man clutching a metal bar told Agence France-Presse, ‘now we are going to their area to beat them.’ At the time, the WUC posted a hysterical list of atrocities on its website: ‘a Uighur woman who was carrying a baby in her arms was mutilated along with her infant baby … two Uighur female students were beheaded … their heads were placed on a stake in the middle of the street’; none of these crimes was confirmed, and the post has since been removed. Since then, both Han and Uighur neighbourhoods have been patrolled by troops; 20,000, it’s said, have been brought into the city, and there is talk of ‘martial law in all but name’.