A Han Chinese man carries a spiked steel bar while using his cell phone to take photos as he joins a mob of Han Chinese men attacking Uighur properties in Urumqi. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Starting on the evening of July 5th, riots erupted in Urumqi when Uyghur rioters looted Han Chinese businesses and killed and injured hundreds of Han Chinese. This was followed by a tough police crackdown, which has been followed in turn by Han Chinese revenge violence against Uyghurs.
That this type of event has occurred doesn’t surprise me. I’m sorry to say that the only surprise is that this took so long.
When I got off the train in Urumqi in the spring of 2003, the first thing I realized was that I wasnt in “China Proper” anymore. The streets of the city were diverse — not only are there Uyghurs and Han Chinese, but other Turkic and Mongol people, and even Pakistanis and Russians, were out on the street. But once you went into post offices, hotels, and saw the police on the street, all the faces were Han Chinese. To me, a casual but aware observer, the resulting economic divide and ethnic tensions that resulted from this active policy of “Hanification” was obvious. For years, China’s government has been shipping out Han Chinese to the frontier territories, give them jobs, and indirectly task them with making the place more “Chinese” and thus reducing the risk that such places will want to go independent in the future. But this comes at a heavy price with regard to ethnic relations and the economic divide between locals and the imported Han Chinese, and ultimately aggravates the very problems of separatism that the government wants to snuff out.
The spark of the current riots apparently began in a toy factory in Shaoguan, near Hong Kong but thousands of miles from Urumqi, when rumors began to spread online that a Uyghur migrant worker had raped a Han Chinese women. Han workers attacked their Uighur co-workers, killing two and injuring dozens more. Pictures and videos of this were distributed widely online — witness this youtube video, posted June 26th, and titled “Chinese Commies Massacre Uyghur Innocent Workers 3,” with the comment “26.jun.2009.China’s GuangDong Province , ShaoGuan city. Whole City attacking Innocent Uyghur workers and killed many of them and wounded hundreds.”
This apparently led to the organization of revenge riots in Urumqi, which began 11 days after this video was posted.
Yet the ethnic mistrust begins with Hanification in the first place. The Uighurs employed at the toy plant in Shaoguan are working there as part of a labor-export scheme promoted by the government to try and help forge bonds between Uighur migrants and Han Chinese workers in eastern China. This is nonsense — China has poured money for development into western China to create jobs and economic growth, but the jobs go to Han Chinese, not locals. China should stop forcing the melting pot, and keep development money flowing in for Urumqi locals. That would also reduce the need to send them to Hong Kong to work in factory jobs.
China’s government is the biggest loser with the recent explosion of violence. The western press is once again scrutinizing China’s actions. The Uyghurs in Urumqi are outraged that they don’t have immediate news on their injured and dead relatives. The Han workers in the factory in Shaoguan believe that the government is still covering up the rape allegations to protect minorities. And public opinion in China feels betrayed because “their” taxes are financing the development in Urumqi where the riots are happening. For my part, let me point out that the Chinese coverage overwhelmingly, although perhaps not explicitly, points the blame at Uyghurs, and makes the Han out as victims. Hopefully China can start to reverse its force migration of Han people into Uyghur territory and Uyghurs into Han territory and try to reverse engineer itself out of this mess.