Riots in China’s restless Xinjiang province are nothing new. In 1990, 50 people were killed in the town of Baren when armed police put down a demonstration against Chinese rule by 3,000 disgruntled Muslims. In 1997, members of the province’s ethnic Uighur population gathered in the city of Gulja to protest against the execution of 30 activists who had been campaigning for an independent Eastern Turkestan. After two days of demonstrations, Chinese riot police moved in. The official death toll was put at nine, but some western observers say as many as 400 people died.
Early reports following Sunday’s riot in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, estimated that 140 people were killed and more than 800 injured when police and soldiers broke up a peaceful demonstration by Uighurs, which quickly turned violent. The riot, in which Han civilians were attacked, cars overturned and shops set on fire, has been described as the most bloody since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
More so even than Tibet, Xinjiang is the jewel in the crown of the People’s Republic. A strategic buffer between China and the former Soviet republics, it accounts for a sixth of China’s land mass and is rich in oil and gas deposits. The Communist regime is anxious, to the point of paranoia, that a coherent separatist movement will lead to an independent Xinjiang and thus to the fracturing of the country.
For this reason, it will stop at nothing to suppress Uighur dissent. If history is anything to go by, the next six months will be a desperate period for the Uighurs. In the wake of the Baren incident, every male in the area between the age of 13 and 60 was arrested. After the riots in Gulja, so many Muslim men were taken into custody the authorities were obliged to move them to a sports stadium on the outskirts of the city.
According to Amnesty International, the prisoners were hosed with water cannons and had to live without shelter for several days. It was mid-winter. Many lost hands and fingers to frostbite. The alleged ringleaders of the Gulja uprising were driven through the streets of the city in open trucks en route to a mass sentencing rally. Witnesses reported they appeared drugged and were beaten by their captors in full view of the crowd.
During this period, house-to-house searches became commonplace across Xinjiang. Curfews were imposed and foreign journalists barred from entering the region. A similar picture emerged in Tibet after last year’s riots. Monastery towns were sealed off and mass arrests carried out. Around 1,200 Tibetans seized during this period are still unaccounted for by their families. Beijing blamed the Dalai Lama for instigating the riots. It came as no surprise, therefore, to learn that last Sunday’s events in Urumqi have been blamed on Rebiya Kadeer, the businesswoman who lives in the United States and is regarded by the Uighur community as a ruler-in-exile.
The Uighurs and their Han rulers are engaged in a cycle of violence and despair that shows no sign of abating. In recent weeks, tensions between them were running high due to the seemingly heedless destruction of the old city of Kashgar. Buildings of enormous historical and cultural significance are being torn down to make way for highways and apartment blocks that symbolise the Chinese economic miracle. Uighur families who have lived in Kashgar for decades are being forcibly evicted to new homes on the outskirts of the city.
The frustration and resentment felt by most Uighurs at China’s crass insensitivity boiled over last Sunday. It can only be hoped that the continued suppression of Uighurs does not drive its more radical elements into the hands of ideologues and fanatics.
Charles Cumming, a contributing editor of The Week magazine and occasionally writes book reviews for The Mail on Sunday.