It has been a bloody few days in Urumqi.
It is not particularly clear what is happening in Xinjiang. Reports suggest that this incident was the spark:
Residents had been angered by the Government’s handling of a clash last month between Han and Uighur factory workers in southern China in which two Uighurs died. Locals had gathered after the hugely popular Sunday market in Urumqi to demand redress for the dead men, killed after what proved to be a rumour that two Han girls had been raped by Uighurs at the factory.
The crowd refused to disperse and turned their rage on Han residents, who now make up the majority of the population in Urumqi.
The unrest turned into rioting:
The rioters overturned roadside barriers, seized police cars, smashed the windscreens and then overturned and set fire to them. They burnt shops and offices and two apartment blocks.
State television showed several people near a bus station kicking a woman as she cowered on the ground. One man slumped against a railing, one side of his face swollen from beatings. Another lay dead, his throat cut. Most appeared to be Han.
One resident told The Times: “Two Han and two Kazakhs took refuge near the bazaar. They saw a girl with one hand chopped off and her face slashed so that the flesh was almost cut off.” He said many of the victims were trapped on buses by knife-wielding Uighurs. “They chopped at people like crazy. They didn’t seem to care if you were Han or not.”
He added that at first security forces held their fire but after a while he began to hear the sound of shooting. “I don’t know if they were shooting into the crowd or into the sky to warn them.”
One young Han shopkeeper said. “They used hammers to break the windows. I was so afraid that I hid under the bed with my sister-in-law. When they had taken everything they set fire to the store. We hid, covered by our quilt for three hours. Finally even the quilt caught fire.” However, both escaped with their lives. Uighurs said the bloodletting should come as no surprise. One man said: “The Chinese always treat us as so low. They don’t even want to look us in the eye. This has been going on for centuries.”
We know little about Uighur politics. There is some separatist activity in Xinjiang, some of which may be jihadist in nature. Some Uighurs were famously detained at Guantanamo, although most have now been released. There were some attacks on soldiers. A woman seems to have tried to blow up a plane. However, China being China, it is very difficult to get a reliable picture of the ideological context of these actions. Although it has been claimed – by the U.S. and China – that the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” has links to Al Qaeda, it has also been argued that China lumps together all separatists under the title of that organisation.
Supporters of liberal democracy know where they stand, in theory at least. It is unsurprising that an empire as large as the People’s Republic of China contains those who yearn for self government. It is equally unsurprising that such demands should be at their strongest on the fringes of the empire, where resistance to misrule and colonialism are likely to be at their most intense.
Xinjiang is no Iran. The immediate cause of these riots appears to be ethnic tension. There is no political movement patiently and peacefully demanding free and fair elections. But then this is not suprising: the PRC is a totalitarian regime which makes no pretense at democracy and openness.
Likewise, this is no Tibet. When Han chinese were attacked last year, the Dalai Lama threatened to resign if Tibetans engaged in anything other than non violent resistance.
Nevertheless, supporters of liberal democracy are naturally – and correctly – inclined to support the demands of regional self-government, along with the protection of the interests of minorities, and respect for equality and fundamental human rights.
It will be interesting to see what the reaction of other parts of the Left will be to these riots. Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity has run out of disk space, and so we don’t know what he thinks – although I can guess. My expectation is that, as with Sri Lanka – in which China’s support was an important part of the context – the absence of U.S. involvement will result in near-complete disinterest.
It is possible, however, that the fact that Uighurs are Muslims will result in a certain level of fraternal solidarity by Islamist groups. How that will play with those parts of the far Left with a warm fluffy feeling about Chinese communism, remains to be seen.
Shiraz Socialist says:
News reports from Xinjiang are sporadic at best, and likely to become more so over the next few days. What we do know however is that women and children have been prepared to defy all the forces of one of the most powerful co-ercive states in the world, in order to demand that their compatriots be released from jail. We know that hundreds continue to be arrested for peaceful protest in the face of that same state’s attempts to eradicate one of its own ethnic minority cultures. As in Iran, the people are beginning to stand up. We stand with them.
Things are getting worse:
Later hundreds of Han Chinese marched through the streets of Urumqi smashing shops and stalls belonging to Uighurs.
Police used loudspeakers to urge the crowd to stop and later fired tear gas, as the Han Chinese confronted groups of Uighurs.
Reuters news agency reported that some Chinese protesters shouted “attack Uighurs” as both sides threw stones at each other.
One Chinese protester, clutching a metal bar, told the AFP news agency: “The Uighurs came to our area to smash things, now we are going to their area to beat them.”