Roots of a race riot in China's Wild West

A campus fight between majority Chinese and ethnic Uighurs last month mirrors tensions in Xinjiang province.

Along No. 5 and No. 6 dormitories at Changan University, the sidewalks are paved with cement so fresh you can smell it.

It's the smallest hint that last month, one of China's largest race riots in a decade took place here. Hundreds of Han students - China's ethnic majority - tore up the sidewalk, hurling pieces of it through the windows of dorm 6, where Muslim Uighur students live.

At one level, it was a nasty student brawl. But analysts say it's also an example of significant new ethnic tensions in a province farther west - Xinjiang. More than Tibet, this is the part of China that's emerging as a source of concern in Beijing.

"The western region is our most important security problem in the next 20 years," says Zhang Xiaoping, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "We have an energy and oil supply problem there. We have Islamic fundamentalism and a lack of border control. The biggest future threat is in Xinjiang."

Western China, poor and ignored for years, is the focus of a major national project of oil pipelines, railroads, and a transplanted Han population. The campaign often clashes with the sentiments of the Uighurs, proud Turkic peoples - many of whom welcome the new Islamic and separatist breezes blowing across the border from Central Asia.

In fact, the student race riot in Xian is connected to a yawning vacuum of identity and security in Central Asia after the Soviet breakup. For decades, the vast deserts and mountains of Central Asia were considered "off the map" - a geopolitical cipher of camel caravans, veiled women, and exotic copperware.

Under Soviet control, there was little exchange of anything - goods or ideas - between Central Asia and western China. Yet a fierce competition for hearts and minds is now under way in a region that one expert describes as "virtually borderless." States ranging from Turkey and Iran, to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, are projecting cultural and religious influences to peoples in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and de facto into Xinjiang, with its 60 percent Uighur population.

Worried about the future of their largest resource-rich province, China is resettling thousands of Hans every month in Xinjiang. They bring money and business acumen, and they oversee most infrastructure projects. Army presence is high.

While the state-run media generally avoid news on Xinjiang's ethnic problems, a report last month by an adviser to President Jiang Zemin concluded that the "rising misunderstanding" among Uighurs and Hans is partly due to "foreign power" media that "intensify the anti-Han feeling of minority people."

A security crackdown has been under way since December. Dozens of roundups and executions of militants engaging in "anti-Chinese activity" took place this spring, say human rights groups. Chinese concern is also evident in a new diplomatic forum: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of four Central Asian states, plus by China and Russia. The group vowed at a June 14 summit to curb "terrorism, extremism, and separatism."

Breeding a conflict

This atmosphere fed the undercurrents at Changan campus on June 6, two days after exams. Twelve Uighur males, by their own admission, were playing music too loudly at 11 p.m. After an exchange of epithets and a thrown bottle, a Uighur, followed by friends, ran into Dorm 5 to confront the perpetrator. When the hallways filled with Han students, the Uighurs retreated to Dorm 6. Fights broke out and the fracas continued to escalate, according to several eyewitness accounts. The dorm was quickly surrounded by Han students. Hans broadcast a message on a campus-wide, student-controlled loudspeaker at 12:45: "If you are Han, come out."

At one point, nearly 3,000 students cheered about 250 others, who pried bricks from the sidewalk and threw them into dorm 6. There was "glass all over, bricks on the beds and chairs, everywhere," recalls one Uighur student. The crowd began singing the Chinese national anthem and other patriotic songs. As the clash was under way, several Han students put out messages to major Chinese Web sites, blaming the Uighurs for the riot.

At first, Uighur calls for help were met with disbelief at the local police station. Later, they called military police. Told by one officer at 3 a.m. that there was no clearance to send a riot team, the Uighur student said, "Either come now and stop this, or come in the morning and collect our 40 bodies."

Police brought the riot to an end at 4 a.m. Yet, not until several Uighurs saw crowds of Han students still milling around on an adjacent field at 10 a.m. did the depth of Han feelings dawn on them. "We were shocked at the level of anger," says one female Uighur. "We know we aren't liked. But we hadn't felt really hated, really despised, until then."

Some Han grievances center on laws that allow Uighurs entrance to university with lower exam scores. "They are skilled at using their special minority status to gain every advantage.... Uighur solidarity is the problem. They don't want to mix with us," says one Han student.

Another, a senior, defended the outbreak, saying the "history of Uighur attitudes on campus had reached its limit. They [Uighurs] know that Chinese are mild. With the music, with the tearing around campus, we just couldn't take it anymore - you have to be a Han to really understand."

Indeed, Han students offer a picture of Uighurs as a huge, well-organized minority on campus. But of the 27,000 students at Changan, only about 150 are Uighurs. Only 45 Uighur men live on the central campus where the riot took place. At top Chinese universities - Changan is a school for careers in roads and transportation - Uighur presence is even smaller.

About 20 students were treated for injuries from the incident. The Uighurs staged a sit-in outside Dorm 6 the next afternoon, then agreed to be taken off campus to help cool the tensions.

They returned a week later, presenting a letter signed by "all Uighur students" to the college president. It included a request for an apology, an investigation of the riot, and a review of the Internet news. The letter addressed what it said were the deeper causes of the clash - a failure of Hans to understand the minorities. It asked for attention to Uighur culture in the curriculum - which currently contains no material on China's minorities. "Our teachers describe Uighurs as being violent, difficult comrades, and our history books blank out minorities. Isn't there something to be learned from this case?" states the letter.

Recommendations in Beijing

Such requests are being heard in Beijing, if the report by President Jiang's adviser, Zeng Qinghong, is an example. In two chapters dealing with Xinjiang that include advice such as more instruction of the Mandarin language to minorities and "further crackdown on separatist activity," is a call for "more respect of minority language and customs." Yet, as of this writing, no changes - or apologies - have been announced at Changan University.

"The Chinese Han really can't understand why groups like the Uighurs aren't just falling down on their knees in gratitude for their lives in China," says one American scholar familiar with the western regions. "There's been a myth in China of a universal, multiethnic state where minorities ... love to climb on tables and sing happily after dinner. Cases like this show they don't always sing happily."

Last week, three Uighurs involved in the riot were expelled from the university. It is unclear if any Hans were expelled.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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