There are four possible narratives about the Uighurs. (1.) This is not about separatism; (2.) This *is* about separatism; (3.) This started as harmonious, but it may lead to separatism; and (4.) This started out about separatism, but it will lead to harmony.
In a process of elimination, we can immediately rule out narrative # 4. Nobody is feeling very harmonious about what recently happened. This article will analyze narratives # 1, 2, and 3.
#1. This is not about separatism.
In this case, to understand the Urumqi incident of 7.5 [July 5, 2009], it is first necessary to understand the Shaoguan incident of 6.26 [June 26, 2009]. In the Shaoguan incident, Uighurs were getting hurt. Later, in the Urumqi incident, both Uighurs and Han were getting hurt. Shaoguan is the city in Guangdong province where the Xuri (or "Early Light") toy factory was the site of a violent clash between Han Chinese and Uighur workers. It is said that in May, the Chinese government brought 800 Uighur peasants to work at the toy factory in Shaoguan. This may have displaced some Han Chinese workers. If so, that is a grievance that should be taken up with the Chinese government, not the Uighurs.
A laid off, disgruntled worker is said to have started a rumor that the new arrivals (Uighurs) had raped Chinese women. The government itself has called that rumor false, and according to Xinhua (the Communist Party newswire), it has arrested two men for spreading rumors online about the alleged rapes. As far as I know, that is a change in the government's story since June 27, when the Associated Press (a Western newswire) quoted an unnamed "spokesman from the Shaoguan City government" saying, "the fight started after a Han Chinese girl entered a dormitory where Uighur workers were staying. Uighur workers tried to harass her, and she screamed."
The Wall Street Journal reports, "It appears many of the factory's 18,000 workers and Han Chinese across the country believe the rape allegations are true and the government is covering up the facts to protect minority people and preserve ethnic peace."
Well, the rumor alone was enough to start fighting in Shaoguan. What is described by Uighurs is a massive, racist mob attack. "Thousands of Han Chinese workers attacked the ethnic Uyghur workers in an electric toy factory in Guangdong province, southern China. By carrying metal pipes, knives and bricks in their hands, the Han Chinese workers in mass numbers entered the Uyghur workers dormitory to attack the Uyghurs." The government reports 2 Uighurs killed and 118 injuries. The World Uyghur Congress reports 18 Uighurs killed and 300 injuries. Less reliable YouTube comments suggest 26 - 300 killed.
Also troubling is this from the World Uyghur Congress: "Some Chinese distributed a truck load of batons to Chinese workers. Security guards on site not only did not stop them but also helped distribute batons. The police did not show up for three hours." Citing "reports that local security forces did not take an active role in stopping the violence," the WUC notes that "the Chinese government failed to protect the Uyghurs from violent perpetrators."
It is clear that the Chinese workers were able to raid the dormitories of Uighur workers, and that one grievance here is that the Chinese government did not respond in a timely manner to stop the fight. Also by the government's own reports, 81 of 118 (69%) of the injuries were to Uighurs. Reports about that fight indicate no deaths of Han Chinese.
Are Uighurs unhappy about their treatment by the Chinese government? Yes. However, there is a good argument to be made that this was not about separatism. These 800 Uighurs were only factory workers, people who were there for a job, not for political independence or a free East Turkestan.
And, if we accept that 6.26 led to 7.5, then we can see the Chinese government spreading lies in its propaganda after the 7.5 incident. The Chinese government says that 7.5 was "orchestrated" by the international influence of Rebiya Kadeer, the lady who is President of the World Uyghur Congress. However, that should logically imply that Ms. Kadeer arranged the fight at the toy factory on 6.26. Clearly, that is a preposterous way to explain 6.26!
In this narrative # 1, the government has much to answer for, and it has clearly lied to the public about recent unrest of Uighurs, and this is not about separatism.
#2. This *is* about separatism.
Plenty of analysts will make this about separatism, recounting the lengthier history about minority grievances in the west of China. Reuters (a Western newswire) put out a "Factbox" about "China's restive Xinjiang region."
Note for newbies: Western news agencies have a double standard about western regions of China. In the case of Tibet, they use the name Tibet, not the Chinese name "Xizang province." In the case of East Turkestan, they use the Chinese name "Xinjiang province," not East Turkestan. Western newswires are inconsistent in this way. Does this reveal a bias of more sympathy for Tibetans, and less sympathy for Uighurs?
In any case, Reuters included these tidbits in its report:
"The oasis cities in what is now Xinjiang were conquered by China during the Han dynasty. For the next two millennia, they were variously independent, under Chinese rule, or part of other central Asian kingdoms. The area was briefly an independent East Turkestan in the 1940s and has been ruled by Beijing since the Communist victory in 1949.
"Human rights groups say China has used its support for the U.S.-led fight against al Qaeda to justify a wider crackdown on Uighurs, including arbitrary arrests, closed-door trials and application of the death penalty.
"The Chinese government has accused militant Uighurs of working with Islamist militant group al Qaeda to bring about an independent East Turkestan by violent means."
Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng has commented that charges of terrorism against the World Uyghur Congress are "just a trick that the Chinese Communist Party used to graft rumors in an effort to defame."
Reuters again: Chinese security officials blamed attacks before and during last year's Olympic Games on independence-seeking Uighur militants. In the most violent, 16 armed police were killed in a bomb and stabbing attack in Kashgar.
Wei Jingsheng has also commented about that, but his comment reveals that in his definition, terrorism requires civilian casualties: "We should notice that, during the Beijing Olympics period last year, the violent attacks against the Chinese Communist regime by some Uyghurs targeted the Chinese police and armies, instead of the common people. That kind of action is different from 'terrorism.'"
Wei looks upon the instant villification of Rebiya Kadeer as evidence that the 7.5 incident was pre-planned by the Chinese Communist regime. It is true that the accusation came swiftly. In the early morning of July 6, less than 24 hours after the violence, MSNBC (a Western news outlet) was reporting, "Xinjiang’s government accused Uighur exiles led by a former businesswoman now living in America, Rebiya Kadeer, of fomenting the violence via the Internet."
By all reports, the original protest started peacefully, and according to the WUC protestors demanded "justice for Uyghurs wounded and killed in Guangdong. They also protested against increased racial discrimination they face as Uyghurs across China." Hence, this was a protest about civil rights and equal justice under the law – these are laudable and high minded objectives to promote.
The protest became a violent riot only after police brutality started the violence. That’s when buses and shops were burned. The government responded with one of its trademark crackdowns and a massacre of protesting civilians.
The Chinese state media says 156 died in the 7.5 [July 5] violence. Other credible reports have ranged from 500 - 800 dead, and one in Turkey even suggested over 1,000 died. Another report indicated that 17 demonstrators were crushed by armored vehicles near Xinjiang University.
Wei Jingsheng blames the government, saying, "Obviously, the Chinese government planned beforehand and according to their plan, produced this bloody massacre. The Chinese Communist regime must take responsibility for all the people who were killed, including both Han Chinese and Uyghurs. The Chinese Communist regime in XinJiang is the real ringleader for the massacre and arrests."
It is true that Uighurs have long standing grievances with the Chinese government, beginning with being conquered in 1949, and going on to being occupied, annexed, and colonized. The WUC said, "We ask the Chinese government to change their six-decade long heavy-handed policies of forced assimilation, as well as cultural and ethnic genocide imposed upon the peace-loving Uyghur people and seek to resolve the East Turkestan Question through peaceful dialogue."
These complaints echo those of Tibetans, who have had their freedom, their religious worship, and even their language curtailed. They have complained of cultural genocide, and they had an uprising and crackdown last year (in 2008). While they are not involved in the Urumqi incident, they are observing.
On July 8, Tibetan blogger Bhuchung Tsering wrote, "This development should be a wake up call to the Chinese Government on its overall policies relating to people like the Uyghurs and the Tibetans....those policies have failed and the Chinese Government needs to understand that." He also dismisses analysis through the prism of economics, and said:
"Highlighting economic reasons, which are logical and plausible, provides the authorities the opportunity to divert the attention from the root cause, i.e. misplaced policies on people like the Tibetans and the Uyghurs and denying them basic rights.
"To take another case, rather than trying to understand the root cause of discrimination and denial of rights of the Uyghur people, the authorities and Chinese opinion makers have sought recourse to blaming Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress for the unrest. To this, they have added the three forces of separatism, radicalism and extremism as being responsible for the unrests. This is very typical of the mindset that is responsible for the increased grievances among the people.
"Another attempt at diverting attention from the real issue is by calling this 'an isolated incident.'"
On the whole, whether or not the 7.5 incident is about separatism, clearly there are longstanding grievances and the victims of them can understandably want a separation between them and the malarkey that is brought to them by the central government regime in Beijing.
#3. This started as harmonious, but it may lead to separatism.
The real situation didn’t start as harmonious. Only Hu Jintao’s narrative started as harmonious.
The Chinese government seems to have "branched" its strategy. It's media did something different this time: actually cover the unrest. Writers for The Motley Fool investment newsletter witnessed this in Shanghai. They wrote in English to Western investors:
"There wasn't a person in Shanghai today who wasn't talking about western China. And though the business leaders we spoke with were happy to focus on the enormous economic opportunities in that part of the country, most people were focused on something else: the violent riots in Urumqi.
"We're not sure how much play this got in the States, but the news in China covered nothing but the turmoil that left more than 150 dead and 800 injured. This is big news here -- not only because uprisings against the government are so rare, but also because this uprising was based on the ethnic divide between the Uighur and the Han Chinese in a country that advertises its unity. The riot was sparked by the Uighurs' protest of how the Han Chinese government handled a fight in late June. That conflict in a Guangdong toy factory between members of the two groups left two Uighurs dead. In the eyes of the Uighur, the Han-dominated government eschewed justice to protect its own.
"China's normally staid, state-run media did nothing to play down the nature of the conflict. In fact, they stoked the fire by running bloody images of the riot in newspapers and on television-- and by running this quote from Urumqi Public Security Bureau deputy director Huang Yabo over and over again: 'It was like a war zone here, with many bodies of ethnic Han people lying on the road.' We heard that thousands of Han Chinese were mobilizing to go to Urumqi to protect their brethren."
The Western media largely downplayed this whole confrontation. At a time when "the news in China covered nothing but the turmoil...," the news in America covered nothing but the memorial service for pop singer Michael Jackson.
Tuesday, July 7, included two events: Muslim women (Uighurs) began confronting the Chinese authorities, saying, “Give us our men back!” And in the evening, a mob of civilian Han Chinese went charging into Uighur neighborhoods, getting “revenge” upon terrified Uighurs. On Wednesday morning, it became clear that there was an exodus of Uighurs moving out of the city
Above, I mentioned that the Chinese government seemed to “branch” its strategy. What is new or notable is its use of media. Usually, when there is unrest in China, its media has no story. This time, its media has two different stories, one broadcast in Uighur language for a Uighur audience, and the other broadcast in Mandarin for a Han Chinese audience.
For the Han audiences, they have highlighted “Uighur thuggery,” continuing the divisive insult campaign that demonizes or devalues many ethnic and religious minorities. Newsweek magazine notes, “Prejudice against Uighurs often portrays them as violent criminals.” Newsweek described segmenting the message—
"Since Urumqi's protest erupted, the government's Uighur-language TV channel has carried a statement from Xinjiang provincial government chairman Nur Bekri promising 'strenuous efforts' to investigate the killings in Guangdong. On Tuesday, Xinhua also reported 13 arrests over the false allegations. This attempt at redress segments the message. Awareness of local grievances is aired on regional TV in the Uighur language, while the wider message of Uighur thuggery plays to a receptive national audience."
On July 7, the WUC said that "the Chinese media showed yesterday only some wounded Chinese victims and scenes of Uyghurs attacking various vehicles--images that they carefully selected for the world and the Chinese audience to see, portraying Uyghurs as bad, troublemaking terrorists."
Indeed, Newsweek corroborates: “Official media depicts the rioters as thugs rather than people with political grievances.”
Why is the Chinese government trying to calm the Uighurs, but inflame and incite the Han Chinese? And at the same time, the government shut off the internet and cell phones. The obvious desire is to block unofficial information. Observers must conclude that the government has something to hide.
Unmistakably, there is the sense of coordinated “spin” in government media coverage. It is reinforced by what we quoted above, written by Motley Fool investment newsletter:
“In fact, they stoked the fire by running bloody images of the riot in newspapers and on television-- and by running this quote from Urumqi Public Security Bureau deputy director Huang Yabo over and over again: ‘It was like a war zone here, with many bodies of ethnic Han people lying on the road.’"
Newsweek also reports, “At the same time, state media ignores the role of the security forces in the body count.” So, the Chinese media swung into action with slanted, one-sided reporting that essentially says, “Uighurs: bad. Government: not bad.” The truth is the reverse, but many Han Chinese are falling for this slanted media reporting.
The Chinese government, which says it wants a harmonious society, deliberately fanned the fires of hatred. In the result, Motley Fool reported, "We heard that thousands of Han Chinese were mobilizing to go to Urumqi to protect their brethren."
So now, Han Chinese people are deliberately running into the middle of a riot, seeking vengeance for a “blood debt.” What should we do? Congratulate Beijing for its success in starting a race war? And what happens when Han Chinese people remember the blood debt of the Communist Party?
Chinese dissident Xiao Qiang told Newsweek that Chinese state media "is very unified. They all point to Rebiya Kadeer, they all have the same narrative, there's no independent reporting—it's a very highly controlled version of the story."
Perhaps Han Chinese people should take into consideration that their government, through the media, lies to them. Their story will always take the form, “Other people: bad. Communist Party: not bad.” I repeat that the truth is the reverse, and it would be good if sophisticated news consumers would finally see through the media’s web of lies.
If China continues on its present course, it can indeed lead to separatism. There are cycles in Chinese history, where a divided China will next come together, but then in a united China, the center cannot hold. After a period of strong central government, the next stage in this cycle is separation. If history is a guide, separatism may indeed be next.