Uighur unrest

Uighur unrest

China’s Xinjiang province is in a state of ferment. Violent clashes between the province’s largest ethnic group, the Uighurs, and Han Chinese, who are the dominant ethnic group in China, have broken out resulting in the death of at least 150 people so far. Around 800 others are injured and over 1,500 have been arrested. What started off as a brawl between a few Uighurs and Han Chinese several weeks earlier in a toy factory in Guangdong province has escalated into violent ethnic clashes in Xinjiang. The violence in Xinjiang on Sunday was so serious that it has been described as the deadliest single day of violence in China since the 1989 crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

The violence is showing no signs of abating and is reportedly spreading to other towns in Xinjiang. Beijing has blamed the unrest on Uighur separatists abroad. While they might have played a role in fuelling it, the roots of Uighur anger are domestic. Beijing has invested millions in economic development of Xinjiang but its policy of settling millions of Han Chinese here has negated the gains of the economic boom. Settling of Han Chinese in Xinjiang has not only altered the ethnic composition of the population – Han Chinese account for roughly 40 per cent of the population today – but also, it is the Han Chinese alone who have benefited from the economic development. Uighurs are Muslim and they resent Beijing’s imposition of restrictions on their practice of their religion.

Beijing has sought to use Han nationalism to glue together the Chinese people. This strategy has not worked in Tibet or Xinjiang. The autonomy extended by Beijing to both these restive regions remains nominal. Xinjiang has a Uighur governor but the person who wields real power in the province is the regional secretary-general of the Communist Party, Wang Lequan, a Han Chinese. Besides, Beijing has adopted a heavy-handed approach to dealing with Uighur political aspirations. Sweeping arrests, restrictions on communication and increasing military presence has only served to fuel separatist and secessionist sentiment here.

The use of force against protesting mobs is a tempting option as it could quell protests soon but it will not silence the Uighur people. It is a counterproductive strategy over the long run as it will deepen Uighur alienation from the Chinese state. Chinese authorities should bear this in mind as they plan their next steps in the restive region.

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