Analyzing Xinjiang 7.5 unrest

An outbreak of riots in Urumqi, the capital city of the Chinese far west Xinjiang province produced an another major human tragedy in modern Chinese history. The deadly riots on last Sunday July 5th resulted in at least 180 death, hundreds were injured and more than 1000 were arrested, according to figures released by the government. The city of Urumqi is now under curfew and in lock down by police force. The tragedy is still unfold as we speak. The most recent ethnic uprise in China was the Tibetan riots in March 2008, which left 19 people dead, most of which are Han Chinese.

What kind of people are Uyghurs?

A crash-course question for most Chinese is why a tragedy like this has happened in the first place. Why do there exist apparent ethnic frictions between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in Xinjiang? What kind of people are Uyghurs (维吾尔)? I am not sure how many Chinese have knowledge of this region of our country and its people.

[Side notes. (1) A basic education: when one criticizes Chinese, it doesn’t necessarily mean this person must be a foreigner who hates Chinese or a Chinese traitor who betrays his homeland. I am a Chinese, and I believe I am entitled to criticize Chinese. (2) when one criticizes Chinese government, it doesn’t mean this person hates Chinese people. Citizens should all be protected with a constitutional right to criticize and monitor their government.]

I should admit that I was not well-informed to know this part of the
country ever since I was a child. "Xinjiang is a good place"
(新疆是个好地方,天山南北好风光; 维吾尔人能歌善舞,维吾尔姑娘很漂亮). This was what I learned and it
has remained in my impression. I didn’t have any clue that there actually exists ethnic tension between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

Xinjiang, or the "New Frontier", is a vast Chinese western province (also called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) that has a complex ethnic mix and a long border with neighboring countries including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Demographically, Uyghurs account for a half of the entire population of around 20 million in this region. In the city of Urumqi, Han Chinese consists of the majority of population, about 75%, while 12.8% are Uyghurs and the rest are other ethnic groups including Kazakhs and Hui (Muslim) Chinese. In the southwestern city of Kashgar, or Kashi (protests were also reported there, following the Urumqi riots), Uyghurs are composed of nearly 90% of the population while 9% are ethnic Han Chinese.

Uyghurs are closely related to Turkic people in ethnic identity and language. In religion, this ethnic group mainly are Sunni Muslims, one of the major branches of Islamism. Sunnis account for between 85-90% of the global Muslim population. Another major Muslim group is Shia (or Shiite), which are majorities in countries like Iraq and Iran. Historically, Uyghurs lived in Altai Mountains. Modern Uyghurs mainly live in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and others are spread out around the world including China’s neighboring countries and small Uyghur communities elsewhere.

Information control and its impact

After the deadly riots, the authorities locked down local cell phone and internet access in Urumqi and blocked social websites including Twitter, Facebook and Youtube across the country, citing that these measures are aimed to minimize the spread of riots. Also, major web portals are only allowed to report information that aligns perfectly with the official government lines. If you read news on or or watch CCTV, you get literally the same information word by word. No independent reports of this tragedy by domestic media is allowed. In these websites, you often cannot leave comments. Even if you somehow could, sensitive posts are swiftly removed. Left alone that this practice to restrict citizens to access information should be considered illegal given, it backfires and effectively damages the credibility of authorities (the Chinese government does not have much credibility left anyways) and this allows rumors become more truthful. That’s why this leaves big room for media to speculate by often injecting objective guesses (I refer to foreign media, of course. China does not have a free domestic media, period. Surprisingly, many Chinese believe this is a good thing that helps us to avoid doing stupid things because Chinese people are not capable of living our own life and making our own decisions).

It remains a myth to me why in this open, modern and information-driven human society, the Chinese government is still trying its best to limit citizens to access information. I know that there are many explanations and excuses that side with the government, but I never see anyone that can elaborate a sound reason. The mentality is largely to accept what you cannot change no matter how bad it is. Take it a little further, one can have a better feeling if one somehow manages to persuade him/herself that he/she deserves all these and that the government is actually doing this for his/her goodness.

Tight information control makes objective analysis difficult and independent investigations impossible. The harm made to Chinese people and Chinese society by information control is not a simple case to analyze.

Rule of law and social justice

Many foreign media reports believe that minority groups are marginalized by Han Chinese. However, on one hand, minority groups such as Uyghurs enjoy special policies that are not available to Han Chinese. For example, minorities can have more than one child and they get extra points to college entrance exam just because they are minorities. Any in many cases, violent crimes by minority towards Han Chinese were often tolerated with regard to so-called "ethnic harmony". All the above policies or special treatments indicate that Chinese government does not manage our country with rule of law that is applicable to all citizens and institutions. In fact, all these unjust treatments produce more discrimination and divide between ethnic groups and Han Chinese.

In China, social and political life is hard to come by even for all ethnic groups including the majority Han Chinese. I won’t be surprised that minorities meet more difficulties in adapting because of another layer of cultural (or even language) barrier. I think that this perhaps factors as one hypothesis for why minorities don’t feel given equal opportunities.

I like this blog from the Atlantic that discusses the issue related to Chinese government information control during the Xinjiang riots.

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