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Jul 8, 2009 | 16:40 GMT

6 mins read

China: The Potential Complications Arising From Xinjiang

Chinese President Hu Jintao left Italy to return to China on July 8, missing the G-8 summit and a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, to deal with ongoing violence between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang province. The unrest and the subsequent crackdown present Beijing with several problems. The central government wants to prevent anti-Uighur violence within China, and is concerned that the crackdown could damage relations with other nations or lead Islamist militants to consider targeting Chinese interests abroad, or both.
Chinese President Hu Jintao returned to China from Italy on July 8, cutting short his international travel and skipping the G-8 summit and a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama to deal with the ongoing unrest in Xinjiang. The Chinese leadership has shifted into crisis mode, and the government and security forces are struggling to balance the crackdown in Xinjiang with the potential for retaliatory Han violence against Uighurs elsewhere in the country. At the same time, on the international front, Beijing is contending with the possibility that relations with other nations could be damaged and that Islamist militants could begin targeting Chinese interests overseas. The violence in Xinjiang, which erupted in response to clashes between Uighur and Han Chinese workers in Guangdong province, has once again exposed the deep underlying tensions between the majority Chinese and the ethnic Uighur minority. In the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), government migration policies have shifted the ethnic balance. By the end of 2007, the ratio of Han to Uighurs was 46:54, though the ratio of Han to all ethnic minorities (including Kazakhs) was 39:61. But in Urumqi, capital of the XUAR and the flash point for the current unrest, Han outnumber other minorities 73:27. Uighurs complain they are being ethnically diluted by the massive influx of Han Chinese, with the settlers getting economic privileges and access to resources not available to the locals. The Han, however, feel minorities outside Xinjiang are getting too many benefits as ethnic minorities, including lower college entrance exam requirements and permission to exceed the one-child policy, and that security forces often turn a blind eye to Uighur misbehavior. These tensions are long-standing. Protests, demonstrations and violence have broken out numerous times over the past several decades, with a major reconstitution of Uighur ethnic identity and nationalism surging after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of independent Central Asian Republics. Interestingly, the clash in Guangdong that sparked the Urumqi protests happened in part due to the government policies to try to integrate the Uighurs and give them economic opportunities outside Xinjiang. The workers involved had been sent to Guangdong for jobs, but this created tensions as the ethnic Han felt they were losing jobs amid the economic downturn for the sake of Uighur employment. This latest violence has the Chinese government extremely worried — not because it is unable to ultimately contain Xinjiang (the army is being deployed, stronger tactics are being approved and Chinese officials are warning that the death penalty will apply to anyone who is responsible for instigating violence). Beijing is concerned because the Xinjiang situation could significantly complicate its drive toward a "harmonious society" and may strain China's relations with other nations or place China more firmly in the sights of regional and international Islamist militants. Inside China, one of the government's most immediate fears is the potential for vigilante attacks against Uighurs by Han in other provinces. While Beijing is controlling the media in China to portray the violence in Xinjiang as solely the responsibility of Uighurs, they are saying it was instigated abroad. At the same time, they are warning against anti-Uighur violence elsewhere in China and reporting that the Guangdong clash that triggered the current unrest was not due to the rape of a Han Chinese girl by Uighurs, as was rumored. Instead the clash was due to a misunderstanding after the Han girl entered the wrong dormitory at her workplace, and let out an "unintentional scream" when she saw the Uighur men. In short, Beijing is trying to blame foreigners for Uighur violence out west and portraying Uighurs elsewhere as regular Chinese who were caught up in a misunderstanding. But as China deals with the domestic security implications, there are broader international concerns. Although the 2008 Tibet uprising exposed China to continued international criticism, it was tempered by national leaders seeking to maintain a relatively peaceful situation ahead of the Beijing Olympics. The Xinjiang clashes have no such mitigating event to shape the response. Instead, Beijing is trying to use relative openness, quickly inviting foreign media to the area to show transparency — this has worked somewhat, as some foreign media have shifted from viewing the deaths as likely the result of the crackdown to reporting that most deaths were Han killed by Uighurs. Beijing is also doing everything it can to blame foreign instigators for the riots, particularly targeting Uighur leaders in the United States, to try to undermine any potential sympathy or voice they may gain from the attention. While this may be somewhat effective, there has already been a change in the attitude (or at least public statements) of one key country: Turkey. Turkey has said it wants to bring the issue up in the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), where it currently holds one of the rotating non-permanent member seats, in support of its Uighur "brethren." Turkish officials have gone from calling for the perpetrators of the violence to be swiftly apprehended and dealt with to calling for an end to the violence and a discussion in the UNSC. This comes just after Turkish President Abdullah Gul paid a state visit to China, including a tour of Xinjiang. Ankara is using the idea of pan-Turkic unity as its reason for standing behind the Uighurs. This presents a fairly substantial opportunity for the international Uighur political movement, as in the past it has struggled to find support from Turkic or Muslim nations. This, then, is a troubling omen for Beijing, even if it ultimately does not amount to much more than domestic politicking for the Turkish ruling Justice and Development Party. But China's crackdown could also bring the Uighur issue back up on the radar screen of the international Islamist militant movements. Despite many attempts to draw attention to their cause, the Uighurs have seldom gained much support from Muslim communities abroad, either from social and political movements or militant movements. Some Uighurs have joined up with Central Asian, Afghan and Pakistan-based militants, but rarely do these groups target Chinese interests. Over the past several years, there have been a few instances that appear to show this trend shifting, particularly as China becomes more aggressive in its economic and political operations in Central and South Asia and North Africa. The current crackdown in Xinjiang may provide the catalyst for China to be placed on par with countries like the United States and other western nations in targeting by militants.
China: The Potential Complications Arising From Xinjiang

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