The Xinjiang Riots: Tried Paradigms, Fresh Tensions

By James Leibold

The mainstream media, both Western and Chinese, seem to be struggling to make sense of the deadly riots that broke out in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi last week. Well-worn explanations on both sides have largely failed to grasp the complexities behind this new, unprecedented wave of mass communal violence in China. Not since the dying days of the Manchu Qing empire has China witnessed this sort of spontaneous ethnically-based violence.

With initial headlines like “Chinese riot police, Muslims clash in northwestern city,” “China in deadly crackdown after Uighurs go on the rampage,” and “Uighurs cling to life in People’s hospital as China’s wounds weep,” the foreign media painted the usual picture of the Chinese Communist Party and its security apparatuses brutally cracking down on the repressed and helpless minorities.

In much of the early reporting the emphasis lay on “the heavy-handed use of force by the Chinese security forces” and the subsequent tightening of media and Internet control, rather than the mob rule and racial retribution being doled out by Uighur and Han youth alike. When searching for answers to this wanton and impulsive brutality, the foreign media wheeled out its usual critique of state-sponsored violence against the Uighurs, Tibetans and other ethnic minorities in China.

Yet, this time, many of the dead and wounded appear to have been Han rather than ethnic minorities. The confusion surrounding this misidentification caused the London Evening Standard, among other media outlets, to use a photo of two blood-soaked Han women to invocate the “blood and defiance” and “Tiananmen’s spirit” of a group of Uighur women who confronted security forces several days after the initial incident.

Seeking to counter this familiar criticism, the official Chinese media went on the front foot; and, in sharp contrast to its handling of last year's unrest in Tibet, immediately reported the Urumqi violence in graphic detail, hoping to define rather than suppress the message both domestically and internationally. Yet, its coverage provided no fresh explanations, reverting instead to familiar clichés and slogans.

The Chinese media was quick to stress how unidentified “rioters” and “outlaws,” “controlled and instigated from abroad” by “the “Uighur Dalai Lama” Rebiya Kadeer, unleashed “the most inhumane atrocities too horrible to look at.” Behind headlines like “Recalling the nightmare: witnesses’ account of Xinjiang riot,” and “Ravaged by riot, Xinjiang’s capital in horror,” the Chinese media sought to expose those “evil” and “external” forces that left Urumqi “blood tainted,” while stressing the “heroic deeds” of all ethnic groups in China to uphold “national unity and social stability” in the face of international criticism and outside meddling.

While details remain sketchy, eyewitness accounts tell a different story: the outbreak of spontaneous communal violence between China’s Han ethnic majority and the increasingly marginalized Uighur inhabitants of Xinjiang. On the evening of July 5th, several hundred Uighur youths went on a bloody rampage following a peaceful demonstration over a separate incident of ethnic violence at a Guangdong toy factory. The results, according to Chinese government figures, was the destruction of thousands of dollars worth of property, the death of nearly two hundred innocent civilians and another thousand injured.

In the days that followed, bands of roving Han vigilantes armed with kitchen knives, hammers, metal pipes and other improvised weapons sought to mete out revenge in the Uighur suburbs of the city. Both this incident and last year’s unrest in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and other Tibetan areas represent a worrying new wave of ethnic violence (not only physical violence on the streets of cities like Lhasa and Urumqi, but also virtual violence on the numerous ethnically-based blogging sites on the Chinese Internet). And here the well-worn paradigms of state repression and foreign incitement conceal more than they reveal.

The root causes behind this spike in communal tension are far more complex and multidimensional than the media would have us believe. It is true that state-sponsored Han migration has culturally and economically marginalized the once majority Uighur population of Xinjiang—a situation that has been made worse by the recent global economic downturn.

But many Han migrants are themselves unhappy, and they are increasingly pointing a finger at the state’s extensive affirmative action policies (youhui zhengce) that provides special economic, cultural and educational benefits to the minorities. These policies, they claim, only serve to mollycoddle the “backward” and “simple” minorities, while rendering the naturally superior Han second-class citizens. Caught in-between these increasingly polarized and agitated ethnic communities is the Chinese state, which, rather than orchestrating the brutal oppression of the non-Han minorities, finds itself increasingly powerless to stop the spiralling circle of ethnic hatred which its policies helped to foster in the first place.

In a recent online report on the violence in the Tibetan region last year, the progressive, Beijing-based Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative) think tank explored some of the major social causes behind this wellspring of violent discontent. The report claimed that the rapid (almost dizzying) pace of state-directed change in frontier regions like Tibet and Xinjiang has failed to bring any real benefit to the vast majority of the minority inhabitants in these regions, instead resulting in growing income disparity, high education dropout rates, growing unemployment and underemployment, cultural dislocation and a growing sense of powerlessness. While asserting that “the state’s major preferential policies and support have not been of any effective benefit to the main body of Tibetan people,” the report also speaks of the rise of a new Tibetan “aristocracy,” whose legitimacy rests on central government affiliation rather than traditional clan or religious ties, making it easier for this new elite to turn a blind eye to the negative social consequences of imposed modernization.

The report’s authors argue that the rich tradition of “Han departmentalism” (hanzu benwei zhuyi), which seeks to compartmentalize different ethnic communities under a hollow ideology of Confucian harmony, continues to hinder effective political responses to these problems. The structure of governance in autonomous regions like Tibet and Xinjiang means that, on the one hand, minority cadres have carved out “deep-rooted local power elite networks” and seek to protect their personal interests by blaming all social unrest on “foreign forces” as “fig leaves to conceal their mistakes in governance and to repress social discontent,” while on the other hand, continued discrimination and social marginalization among ordinary, non-Han minorities hinders their identification with the PRC state and any shared concept of nationhood.

In seeking to understand this troubling rise in ethnic-based violence in China, we need to look beyond the usual bogeymen at the increasingly torn fabric of Reform Era Chinese society. In the end, the over twenty years of rapid economic growth has unleashed as many demons as it has benefits—evident in the increasing number of ordinary citizens who are turning to ethnic profiling and violence to vent their shared frustrations. The result is a burgeoning level of internal racism that should concern us all.

Dr James Leibold is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Asian Studies at La Trobe University and author of Reconfiguring Chinese Nationalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). His current research focuses on contemporary expressions of Han racial nationalism on the Internet and recent developments in the PRC’s minority policy and the broader discourse of multiculturalism in Reform Era China.