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Why China has clenched its fist in Xinjiang

Beijing's severe treatment of Uighurs – and Tibetans, too – may be an attempt to prevent a breakup similar to that of the Soviet Union.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 2009

Chinese paramilitary police patrol in Urumqi, western China's Xinjiang province on Wednesday.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP



This week's ethnic violence in Urumqi, the capital of China's far western Xinjiang region, rang a second warning bell for Beijing's policy toward minorities just 18 months after a similar outburst by Tibetans in March 2008.

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There is little sign yet, though, that the Chinese government is prepared to loosen its iron grip either on Tibet or the restive Muslim Uighur people in Xinjiang, say experts on the two regions. That augurs further unrest, they warn. On Wednesday, President Hu Jintao cut short his visit to the Group of 8 summit to return home to tackle the crisis.

Chinese officials have blamed Sunday's riot in Urumqi, which left 156 people dead – apparently mostly ethnic Han Chinese – on Uighur exile leader Rabiya Kadeer. Last year they blamed the Dalai Lama for the violence in Lhasa.

"They are missing the main problem, which is the real concern among Uighurs about how they are treated by Chinese society," says James Millward, a Xinjiang expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "They are missing an opportunity to relieve the stresses that have arisen."

Both Uighurs and Tibetans formerly enjoyed autonomy, and resent an influx in Chinese migrants and influence over the last half century. Apparently to prevent a breakup similar to that of the multiethnic Soviet Union, some analysts say, Beijing clenched its fist in the early 1990s after years of relatively relaxed rule over ethnic minority areas in western China.

"The root cause of the trouble is the departure from China being a multiethnic empire to being a unitary nation state," argues Nicholas Bequelin, a Xinjiang scholar who works for Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. "That began the endgame for minorities."

Uighur anger over this clampdown has long been simmering, making Sunday's violence surprising only for its scale, says Mr. Bequelin.

"The writing was on the wall and human rights groups have been warning about it," he says. "When a central state assimilates an indigenous territory very rapidly it creates tensions that lead to periodic blowback."

Han population now 40 percent of Xinjiang

Workers belonging to the Han Chinese majority (who make up 90 percent of China's population) have been pouring into the mostly Muslim Uighur region of Xinjiang, rich in oil and gas, for 60 years.

Pushed to move under Mao Zedong (China's ruler from 1949-76), and more recently pulled by economic incentives, the Han have gone from 6 percent to more than 40 percent of the autonomous region's population.

Tibet has experienced similar, if much-smaller-scale migration of Han Chinese.

The government's settlement policy is driven by security concerns, say foreign experts, and by a conviction in Beijing that Tibet and Xinjiang are integral parts of China.

That is not a view shared by local inhabitants, who "have competing identities that run counter to the way China tries to define them as Chinese minorities," says Elliot Sperling, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the university.]

Security the 'guiding principle' of Beijing's policy