Crackdown or conciliation: China's politburo split over response to Uighur violence

The unrest that claimed 184 lives last week has again forced Beijing to question its reaction to calls for regional autonomy

The script is jarringly familiar. Bodies lie on riot-scarred streets in an ethnic minority area, troops patrol and Beijing denounces overseas enemies bent on splitting China.

Less than 18 months ago, when the violence was in Tibet, China responded harshly, and tight security has been in place ever since. But as discontent played out in energy-rich Xinjiang last week, analysts say there was almost certainly a parallel debate taking place within the secretive Communist Party about where policy on ethnic minorities went wrong.

Conservatives have been in the ascendant in recent years, presiding over a tightening of controls on religion and language, and pushing for a harsh response to the Tibetan violence that flared before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But two explosions of deadly rioting little more than a year apart are an embarrassing public challenge to the rule of a government that has brooked little dissent since it took power in 1949.

Late on Friday, officials provided the first ethnic breakdown of the deaths in the Xinjiang fighting. The official Xinhua News Agency reported that 137 of the 184 victims were from the dominant Han Chinese ethnic group. Of the other deaths, 46 were Uighurs and one was Hui.

"Frankly, coming up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, it gives China a bit of a black eye to have these on-going problems," said Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College in California.

The Communist Party has for decades swung between hardline policies that aim to crush dissent and weaken ethnic identity and softer approaches to make minorities feel they can have a dual identity, both Chinese and Tibetan or Uighur. Those who favour the latter approach will likely use the violence as evidence that Beijing cannot rule its vast hinterlands by coercion alone. But China has poured cash into Xinjiang and Tibet along with its troops, and many Han Chinese think that with development subsidies, the construction of schools and clinics and some affirmative action, the government has already done enough.

"In the past, there have been policies in favour of minorities, but many minorities have not been able to take advantage of these policies," said Bo Zhiyue, a China politics expert at Singapore's East Asian Institute. "I don't think there's a fundamental policy problem, but it's a fundamental governance issue." he added, expressing a view shared by much of China's elite.

Uighurs, however, say they have been left behind economically as Han Chinese dominate development opportunities, and are unhappy that they cannot practise their religion, Islam, as they wish. They also resent an inflow of migrants from the rest of China.

The government has deflected debate about domestic policy by blaming the riots on exiled separatists, but experts say China's growing political and economic might has in fact helped to stem a tide of support for independence. Many Uighur intellectuals are now convinced that a future as a genuinely autonomous part of China could be better than independence.

"If Beijing gave them proper autonomy, stopped Han migration and gave the people the language and religious rights that are guaranteed in the Chinese constitution, they might well find that Uighurs would happily remain part of China," said Joanne Smith Finley, a lecturer in Chinese at Newcastle University. But for Beijing, genuine autonomy is not an option because of the precedent it could set for other parts of the country to break away.

The riots have put Xinjiang on the world stage, but until now, the oil-rich region has been less of a worry for China's diplomats than Tibet, because the Uighurs and their plight have a low profile in the West and in Muslim nations. Their overseas advocates are mostly exiled Uighurs, while the Tibetan exile community has spent years building up powerful popular support in Europe and the US. Apparent gaffes by exiled Uighur leaders in claiming that images of protests in other parts of China were actually from Xinjiang have not helped and have been gleefully seized on by the government as further evidence of their "lies".

Chinese nationalist sentiment on the Tibetan riots last year was inflamed by the perception that foreigners were meddling in the country's affairs. But Uighur efforts to drum up foreign support have been complicated by the inclusion of certain Uighur separatist groups on the US's list of terrorists drawn up after the September 11 attacks

China's economic clout, and its refusal to comment on other country's internal affairs, may also mute leaders of Muslim nations who want Chinese investment. But the Saudi-based Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a league of 57 Muslim nations, has condemned excessive use of force against Uighur civilians and urged China to investigate.

Under pressure

The Uighurs are Muslims and speak a language related to Turkish. In the early part of the 20th century the Uighurs declared independence, but the region was taken by Communist China in 1949.

What's it like where they live?

Xinjiang's big cities have boomed in the past 10 years. Journalists are closely monitored and there are few independent sources of news.

But why are they angry at Beijing now?

They say their religious, commercial and cultural lives are suppressed. Beijing is also accused of trying to dilute the Uighurs by arranging mass immigration of Han Chinese.

What started the violence?

On 5 July, Uighurs came out on to the streets to protest about the killings of two Uighurs in clashes with Han Chinese at a factory in southern China in June. They say police fired on peaceful protests.

Who's to blame, then?

Xinjiang separatists based outside China, who are comparable to al-Qa'ida, says Beijing. Not so, says exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, who says blaming him is akin to blaming the Dalai Lama over Tibet.

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