Posted by: Dexter Roberts on July 6, 2009
It’s the worst ethnic violence in China since last March’s Tibet uprising. On Monday, China reported that at least 140 people had been killed and 828 injured in riots Sunday in the city of Urumqi, capital of the oil and gas-rich far western Muslim region of Xinjiang. Apparently sparked by anger over a conflict late last month between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese at a factory in southern China, street protests involving at least 1,000 people grew violent starting in Urumqi’s Muslim district of Erdaoqiao.
By the time police and other security forces had squelched the riots several hours after they began plenty of damage had been done. While initial reports suggested only four had died, by Monday the official Xinhua news agency had revised that upwards to 140 and said that figure would likely grow higher. At a press conference on Monday the regional police chief announced that 261 vehicles, including 190 buses, at least ten taxis, and two police cars, as well as 203 shops and 14 homes had been destroyed in the city of 2 million-plus on Sunday.
Although Tibet’s problems with ethnic and religious strife are better known, and seized world headlines when riots in Lhasa occurred last March, the ten or so million Uighurs that make up roughly half the population of Xinjiang (that’s according to official Chinese figures; Uighur groups outside China say that the real number could be as high as 20 million) have a long history of resisting, sometimes violently, Beijing’s control. Indeed, a series of bomb attacks, including in Kunming and Shanghai, in the run-up and during last year’s Beijing Olympics, were claimed by groups saying they advocate an independent Xinjiang or what separatist-leaning Uighurs usually call Turkistan. And sixteen armed police in Xinjiang’s far western city of Kashgar were killed in a bomb and stabbing attack on Aug. 4 last year, just days before the Olympics opened.
As in the past, China quickly blamed exiled Uighur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer for inciting the unrest (she has lived in the U.S. since being released in 2005 from a Chinese jail after six years of imprisonment on the charge of “harming national security”). “Rebiya had phone conversations with people in China on July 5 in order to incite and Web sites … were used to orchestrate the incitement and spread propaganda,” Xinjiang’s governor Nur Bekri said on Chinese television Monday. A spokesman for Kadeer has denied she had any role in the riots. Meanwhile, Xinhua quoted a government statement Monday saying that the violence was “a pre-empted, organized violent crime. It is instigated and directed from abroad and carried out by outlaws in the country.”
Regardless of whether there was any support from outside the country, the latest riots suggest an uncomfortable reality for Beijing: as I noted in a blog during the Tibetan and Uighur unrest last year, China’s official policy of pushing rapid economic development in its lagging western areas seems of limited effect when it comes to appeasing its minorities (the hope has been that well-off minorities will be less likely to press for independence.) There is no doubt that the larger economic picture looks pretty good. Indeed I recently wrote about the rise of China’s southwest region economy (which borders on Tibet) and how that is drawing business investment to cities like Chengdu, Sichuan. Xinjiang, making up much of China’s northwest region, also looks quite good: its economy has grown at double digits for all of the last six years and in 2008 grew 11%-well above the national average.
But the fact is that the overall growth numbers in the west obscure a troubling reality: the economic benefits—including those emanating from massive centrally-funded infrastructure projects like the Qinghai-Tibet railway—the world’s highest track—and a series of gas pipelines that already run from the desert in Xinjiang to Shanghai and later will reach Guangzhou—are not equally reaching all.
That is apparent when one parses the official per capita income growth figures—while both urban and rural incomes grew more rapidly in Xinjiang than nationally last year, up 10.9% and 10.1% respectively, compared to 8.4% and 8% across China—they still were well below the national average. In particular, Xinjiang’s average rural income (most Muslim Uighurs live outside cities like Urumqi and make up the bulk of the region’s rural poor) was just $513 a year, or less than 75% the national rural average. At the same time, the broader economic growth continues to draw ever larger numbers of Chinese migrants to the region that often monopolize newly created jobs, adding to the resentment felt by local minorities. As more information comes out in the coming days it will be interesting to see to what degree economic concerns, including resentment about unequal economic opportunities, contributed to the violent Xinjiang riots.