Few will know of Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province in China’s far west, but the reports from the BBC that riots that have erupted (and the news reports of them) show much about what China isn’t anymore. There have been riots, protests and counter-riots between the Uighur minority (who are the majority in Xinjiang) and the Han Chinese. Reports of 156 dead Han Chinese from Sunday’s riots are what the monopoly state media report, but some Uighur are saying many of their people were killed too. The truth is difficult to determine whilst China remains largely closed to alternative media.
It is easy to accept that China’s state media is pro-Han Chinese, so will always report the official view that all of China’s ethnic minorities are well treated and part of the People’s Republic of China family. Any protests are seen as counter-revolutionary riots inspired by foreign devils.
What has been reported so far is that there were Uighur protestors who turned on Han Chinese passers by, and the security forces. Since then, local Han Chinese have turned on Uighur owned shops and properties. In short, it is a nationalist conflict, being mediated by a state that is hardly known for its even handedness. China is, after all, a deeply racist society, which can be seen in its patronising attitude to minorities, and also if you scratch the surface about attitudes towards Africans, Europeans and other Asians.
However, let’s eliminate a few ideas about what these riots are:
1. Desire to overthrow the communist party: No, it’s not anything quite as fundamental as this. It started as a dispute regarding treatment of participants in a fight at a toy factory in Guangdong province between Han and Uighur peoples. Uighur are not so politically organised (or indeed brave) to confront that issue head on.
2. Muslim fundamentalism stoking in China: Yes Uighur are traditionally Muslim, but there is little sign that Uighur protestors are motivated by Islam.
This is a racial conflict, between Uighur who feels constantly discriminated against by Han Chinese, and now Han Chinese who are aggrieved by violence shown to them by rioting Uighur.
So what does it say about China? Well the tight security in Xinjiang seems to have waned significantly, as having protest to this extent and scale in this province is largely unknown (although protests are more common than most outsiders would believe). It also shows there will be grave fear that this could spark unrest elsewhere that could lead to the division of China – something the Communist Party fears second only to losing its monopoly on power.
It has echoes of Tibet, not that Xinjiang should be independent, but rather that calls for accountability, transparency and for the state to be colourblind are only fair and natural. However, one should be cautious about supporting the Uighur unreservedly. Turning on innocent passers by, attacking and killing them isn’t exactly a way of gaining ANY kind of moral authority.
However, it would probably be in the best interests of China, the Han Chinese and Uighur if the people of Xinjiang had the same sorts of freedoms, and independent state institutions that Chinese enjoy in another part of China – Hong Kong.