Getting an interview this week with Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province, the site of a deadly clash Sunday with ethnic Han Chinese, is nearly impossible – as the Monitor’s Beijing Bureau Chief Peter Ford noted earlier this week.
But a Monitor visit to the central Chinese city of Xian in the wake of a 2001 riot between ethnic Chinese and Uighur university students sheds light on longstanding issues behind Sunday’s violence, including Han attitudes and Uighur humiliation.
The campus atmosphere was electric a week later. Police presence was high. But a reporter entered after dark, around 10 p.m., on the assumption that students did not go to bed that early, which proved true on two successive nights.
A different riot, blow-by-blow
The riot: Uighur students at Changan University were playing music loudly in a courtyard. They later admitted it was too loud. A Han student threw a bottle out a window that hit a Uighur, who started bleeding. The young man, from Dorm 5, ran into Dorm 6, to confront the bottle thrower.
Instantly, the situation escalated. One of the great shocks, Uighurs later said, was the total mobilization against them by Han students. The Uighur that went into Dorm 6, who went by the nom de plume of “Captain,” was immediately driven back to Dorm 5 – where 40 Uighurs locked themselves in a series of rooms on the first floor.
Hundreds of Han students gathered. They pulled up sidewalk pavers and threw them through the windows. Over campus loudspeakers came an announcement to the student body: “If you are Han, come out.” Thousands more did, surrounding Dorm 5, banging on the doors, and singing the Chinese national anthem.
“We were shocked at the level of anger,” a Uighur woman among the 40 on the first floor told the Monitor. “We know we aren’t liked. But we hadn’t felt really hated, really despised, until then.”
The Uighurs called the police, who did not come. As the situation intensified, Captain called the police and told them if they didn’t come, the Uighurs would be dead by morning. The main crowd was not dispersed until 4 a.m.; later, the Uighurs felt the police did not defend them. Twenty were injured.
Why Han disliked Uighur students
Ethnic Han students offered two points: First, Uighurs were unruly and ungrateful for their schooling.
Second, Han students uniformly repeated that the Uighurs were only at the school because entrance qualifications had been modified. To hear Chinese students describe the issue, one imagined a school about to be taken over by Uighurs. Yet Changan records showed that of 27,000 students, only 150 were Uighur, and not all entered on the modified affirmative action rules.
Uighurs cited humiliation
In the aftermath, Uighur grievances came to the surface in a formal letter. One complaint: Uighurs felt treated like second-class students. But the chief protest was that textbooks and course material at the university was bereft of any mention of the Uighurs in China – their history and identity. They felt humiliated, they said.
In follow-up meetings with the Monitor, including with Captain, humiliation was repeated numerous times.
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