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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture