Cultural rifts, repression fueling violence in China’s far west

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Originally published by Nikkei Asian Review on July 9, 2015

URUMQI, China — Political risk is increasing in China as tensions there continue to mount between the dominant Han and minority groups.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in the country’s northwest, has been plagued by continued violence between the predominantly Muslim Uighur people and Han Chinese. In the Tibet Autonomous Region and surrounding areas, meanwhile, there has been a wave of self-immolation protests against the central government.

The common thread is resentment among ethnic minorities of Beijing’s increasing suppression of cultural and religious traditions since President Xi Jinping took power.

The Xi leadership has set a goal of bringing about a “great renaissance of the Chinese race.” But achieving racial harmony to end the cycle of violence may be a tall order while pursuing such a hard-line policy.

Day of bloodshed

In People’s Square in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, a female police officer stationed at the main entrance approached this reporter. “Today is July 5,” said the stern-faced officer. “Stay away.”

Six years ago, the square was the scene of a massive demonstration by Uighur citizens. The event triggered bloody riots that Chinese authorities say resulted in 197 deaths.

On most days, the square is a place for families and friends to gather. But on July 5, it was off-limits, surrounded by helmeted paramilitary police.

The 2009 violence grew out of a protest against the perceived failure of the authorities to seriously investigate an earlier incident in which a false rumor triggered an attack by Han Chinese against Uighurs at a factory in Shaoguan, in the southern province of Guangdong. Two Uighurs were killed in the brawl.

On the day of the People’s Square rally, thousands of Uighurs marched in protest. Things turned ugly when protesters began clashing with police.

Of the 197 people officially killed, most were Uighurs. They had been felled by bullets. But some claim the figures are vastly underreported. A Uighur man who runs a local travel agency said: “It was like war. Several hundred, probably more than 1,000, Uighurs were killed.”

Many people lost family members that day, and rancor toward the government among the Uighur community runs high. Which explains why the security authorities are so nervous when July 5 approaches every year.

In an office district of downtown Urumqi, this reporter saw armed police interrogate a young Uighur man on the anniversary of the riots. “What are you doing here?” asked one imperiously. “We’re going to check your belongings.” The officers forced the man to take off his top.

Armored patrol vehicles carrying anti-terrorist troops in camouflage fatigues cruise the streets. They are on the lookout for suspicious-looking individuals. Security cameras have been installed across the city for “around-the-clock monitoring by law-enforcement authorities,” according to a Han Chinese resident.  “The security situation here has improved considerably,” he said.

But it is clear that only members of the Han majority are the true beneficiaries of this superficial peace. For the Uighurs, now a minority in the city, “peace” means ever-increasing cultural and religious suppression.

Although it was Ramadan — a traditional season of fasting for Muslims — half of the Uighur restaurants in the Erdaoqiao area, home to the city’s largest Uighur community, remained open. Outside one eatery, a tout shouted: “Our restaurant has the best food around here. Why don’t you come in?” When asked why his restaurant was open during Ramadan, he merely said, “Ramadan?” and then went silent.

“The authorities are forcing them to stay open,” said a Uighur man familiar with the situation.

Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on Muslim cultural and religious customs. That includes banning men from growing beards and women from wearing scarves.

The Uighur man said that although the state media has never reported that clashes between Uighurs and police are a common occurrence, “In parts of southern Xinjiang, showdowns occur almost every other day.”

 Uighurs are still waiting for a full account of what happened six years ago. The Uyghur American Association has urged the Chinese government to “respect the principle of transparency and provide comprehensive details on the fates of [Uighurs] killed and forcibly disappeared during the July 5, 2009, unrest and the days following.”

The group’s president, Alim Seytoff, said: “To this day, many families do not know the fates of their loved ones. … While [Uighurs] call on China to reveal the full extent of the crackdown, we are aware that under the presidency of Xi Jinping, conditions in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) are unlikely to improve.”

Fleeing south

The tensions in Xinjiang have had repercussions in some unexpected places.

In the central Chinese province of Henan, the security authorities in the city of Nanyang have launched a roundup of “illegal Uighur residents.” The city has one of the country’s largest Uighur communities. Police armed with automatic rifles regularly patrol Uighur residential areas, questioning locals about whether they have seen anyone acting suspiciously.

Xi’s “New Silk Road” initiative has seen railway and road networks expand into remote corners of China, making it easier to transport people and goods across the vast country. This has also made it easier for “terrorist elements” to move about, raising concerns that the Uighur problem could spread.

A large number of the Uighurs in Nanyang hail from Xinjiang. After brief stays in the Henan city, many of them move on to other parts of the country, including the northern province of Heilongjiang, which borders Russia. Most of those who are caught in the police sweeps beg not to be sent back to Xinjiang, sources say.

In southern China, police in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Yunnan Province have been arresting Uighurs trying to make their way to such countries as Thailand and Vietnam.

In the Guangxi city of Pingxiang, near the Vietnamese border, a 28-year-old security official makes it sound as though he is fighting terrorism. “The Islamic State is providing guidance to Uighurs fleeing their homeland,” he said. The extremist group is “enticing young Uighurs to join it and sending them to Syria and Iraq.”

Outrage in Tibet

Beijing’s tight grip can also be felt in Tibet.

On May 20, a Tibetan man died after setting himself on fire near a police station in Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. The man had told friends he opposed China’s Tibet policy.

In the same prefecture in April, a Tibetan nun and a Tibetan man also immolated themselves in separate incidents.

Beijing has denounced the Dalai Lama, the supreme leader of Tibetan Buddhism, as a “separatist.” Tibetans are continually staging protests against what they see as Beijing’s repressive policies. Since 2009, 140 cases of self-immolation among Tibetans have been reported.

To make people think twice about resorting to such drastic action, the authorities have adopted a policy of collective punishment. If, for example, a man sets himself on fire, the government will suspend welfare benefits, such as financial support for students, for his entire village for up to one year. “There lack of understanding of our religion is just appalling,” said one Tibetan.

On June 21, in Dharamsala, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, a ceremony was held to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday according to the Tibetan calendar. Some 8,000 people gathered for the event, which featured traditional dances, speeches and prayers for the holy leader’s longevity.

The U.S. State Department said in its June report on human rights practices that there was “severe official repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and assembly of Uighurs in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and of Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas.”

Human rights activists are increasingly wary of the deteriorating situation of the Uighurs and the Tibetans. And they warn that the continued repression is making things worse for Beijing.

Renee Xia, international director for the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said, “[China’s] policy of violent suppression has clearly failed, and such violence and harsh measures can only turn the situation in the region more volatile and dangerous.”

Xi says he is trying to revive the glory of the Silk Road, which in ancient times flourished with trade and human exchanges across ethnic borders. But given the growing rifts within China’s own frontiers, that is a lofty goal indeed.

Nikkei staff writer Yuji Kuronuma in New Delhi and deputy editor Kenji Kawase in Bangkok contributed to this story.

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