Two recent incidents in northwest China have called to attention the dire situation among Uyghurs and the need for a far-reaching review of policies for Chinese officials.
According to Chinese state media (there are no independent accounts) alleged terrorists in two small townships of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region or East Turkestan – depending on your politics – conducted a series of attacks on government property and civilians.
The June 26 incident in the northerly township of Lukchun appeared the deadlier of the two with Chinese official media asserting 35 people had been killed either by assailants or police. The second incident in Hanerik Township near Hotan in the south of the region seems to have been sparked by tensions stemming from excessive regulation on religion.
Since the incident, Chinese officials have promised to strike hard on “terrorism” with Nur Bekri, the regional chairman calling the fight a life or death political struggle. In the absence of any effective check on state authority, there is genuine concern widespread human rights violations will occur as the authorities cast their net.
The concern is not without precedent, on July 5, 2009 and even deadlier outbreak of unrest shook the regional capital of Urumqi. The state claimed nearly 200 people died in the unrest, while most independent observers simply do not know the extent of the bloodshed. Nevertheless, a number of human rights organizations reported widespread arbitrary detentions, trials lacking due process and enforced disappearances at the tail of the unrest.
China has blamed a number of outsiders from Syria to the United States for having a role in creating the recent incidents. The lack of a public acknowledgement of its own hand in creating the current mess in the region does not auger well for the future.
Prior to the outbreak of the 2009 unrest, Uyghurs faced a number of economic and cultural challenges. Higher rates of poverty and unemployment not the least stemming from open discrimination in the job market are well documented. While economic issues can be explained away as the byproduct of a rapidly modernizing economy, the exclusion of the Uyghur language in the education system and heavy regulation of religion appears punitive and ham-fisted.
The 2009 unrest in Urumqi had its roots in this repressive atmosphere and the situation largely arose after the implementation of a centrally directed western development campaign. The initiative covered a vast area of China’s western regions that had experienced slower rates of growth than the export friendly eastern seaboard.
In the Uyghur region, the campaign encouraged large-scale investment in natural resources extraction that left Uyghurs overwhelmingly on the sidelines. After the 2009 unrest, the Chinese government simply intensified its previous approach confirming this at the May 2010 Xinjiang Work Forum.
The absence of Chinese officials’ introspection is lamentable, most of all for the Uyghurs, and the clear tenacious pursuit of policies that have failed the Uyghurs indicates that behind the scenes exchanges of opinion are not wide-ranging. In addition, the pervasive suppression of any dissenting voices among Uyghurs ensures the narrow confines of the Chinese state’s approach remain intact.
Marginalization of Uyghurs from participating in the decision-making processes on their region and the welfare of their communities has led to the imbalanced policies of today. Marginalization only looks set to continue as the state media develops its “sweep the government’s role under the carpet” and “point fingers outward” narrative in the wake of the Lukchun and Hanerik incidents. Just ask a Uyghur, if you openly can.
Henryk Szadziewski is a senior researcher with the Uyghur Human Rights Project.