In the west we don’t always have easy access to news coming out of China where the media is kept on a tight leash and forced to make concessions in what they cover in order to get any access at all. Despite this partial news blackout, events in trouble Xianjiang Province are escalating to the point where the Chinese government cannot keep a lid on what is turning into another grim chapter in their long history of human rights abuses.
Xianjiang’s population of mostly muslim Uighurs has been seen as a potentially troublesome minority for decades and in an effort to keep the region under control and protect their access to energy resources, the Chinese government has been encouraging ethnic Han Chinese to move into the area and has been showing favoritism to these settlers over the Uighur natives in employment and providing government services. This has reached the point where the Uighurs have become increasingly ghettoized and demoted to a status as second-class citizens in their own homeland. In the Urumqi, the capital of Xianjiang, ethnic Chinese now outnumber the native Uighurs 7 to 1.
In recent weeks this situation has become more ugly, with riots breaking out in major cities, especially Urumqi. Mobs of Uighurs and Chinese settlers are roaming the streets and meeting in violent clashes while Chinese soldiers look on and make little effort to do more than contain the violence. In one case a Chinese mob caught brutalizing a lone Uighur even attacked an ABC news crew and police and soldiers chose not to intervene.
Exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer has been accused by the Chinese of inciting the violence, but she maintains that the Chinese are telling only one side of the story and that Uighurs are being forced to respond to violence from the Chinese population who are supported and protected by the government and military.
The current violence was spurred by a June 26th attack on Uighur factory workers in Guangdong province in which at least two Uighurs were killed by Chinese mobs. Protests have spread throughout Uighur populated areas, but protesting Uighurs often face violent reprisals from the more numerous Chinese population. There is certainly violence on both sides in the conflict, but with larger numbers and the tacit approval of the government and military the ethnic Chinese enjoy a considerable advantage. Bands of Chinese vigilantes roam the streets of the cities, attacking any Uighurs who venture out of their ghetto-like neighborhoods.
The extent of the violence is hard to gauge with limited media access to the region, but even the Chinese Xinhua news service admits that hundreds are dead in the last week alone, over 150 of them when Chinese settlers and police attacked a Uighur protest march Urumqi on the 5th of July.
The violence has lead to the Chinese government declaring martial law in Urumqi, a curfew in Xianjiang and Guangdong, rounding up hundreds of suspected Uighur “ringleaders” and barricading Uighur neighborhoods to keep residents contained. Even though most of the violence seems to have been initiated by ethnic Chinese, the response of the police has been to crack down primarily on Uighurs while looking on Chinese vigilante gangs as allies rather than part of the problem.
Amnesty International complains that this recent violence is just the culmination of a long-term government campaign against the Uighurs which began in the 1980s, in which the minority group has been “the target of systematic and extensive human rights violations”, including “arbitrary detention and imprisonment, incommunicado detention, and serious restrictions on religious freedom as well as cultural and social rights.” They describe a situation in Xianjiang which comes close to “ethnic cleansing” or full government-supported genocide.