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.

Suggested Topics
News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?