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“We Uighur, we are powerless”

Violence in the Chinese region of Urumqi has left 156 people dead. Now the Chinese government is bla

Violence in the Chinese region of Urumqi has left 156 people dead. Now the Chinese government is blaming the exiled Rebiya Kadeer for the riots

On 5 July, the streets of Urumqi, the capital of China’s north-western Xinjiang region, erupted in violence that left 156 people dead and many hundreds injured, according to official figures. Urumqi is 3,300km away from the private house in Beijing where a young Uighur man and I sit talking the following day, but he is still nervous. When we hear a kettle boiling somewhere downstairs, the man, who has asked to remain nameless because he fears official repercussions, flinches and asks in an insistent whisper: “Is there anyone else here?”

By the time we meet, hundreds of suspects have been arrested and Li Zhi, the Urumqi Communist Party secretary, has already vowed to impose death sentences on the rioters involved in killings. More than a thousand Uighurs, a Muslim minority in China, took part in the protests. They were reacting to the deaths of two Uighur migrant workers at a toy factory in southern China following a brawl, after some Uighur men at the factory had been accused of rape.

Once he is sure that we are alone, my Uighur companion begins to speak. “I saw the news this morning,” he says quietly, “but I’m not clear why this happened.”

Tensions between China’s Han majority and the country’s Uighur population are deep-seated. The Han Chinese see Uighurs as troublemakers. They are lazy and ungrateful for the special treatment they get, a young Han Chinese man had told me earlier that day. Uighurs, whose school education is, in effect, conducted in a second language – Mandarin, rather than their native Uighur, a Turkic language – can enter university with lower grades than Han Chinese. Uighurs are also exempt from the one-child policy to which Han must adhere. Educated and thoughtful, the Han man to whom I talk still can’t understand why Uighurs feel so hard done by.

Others – namely, rights groups, academics and the Uighur people themselves – see things differently. “Two of the gravest problems in Xinjiang are massive Uighur unemployment and deep, palpable Han chauvinism toward Uighurs and Uighur culture,” says Gardner Bovingdon, a professor at Indiana University who specialises in the politics of that region.

The young Uighur man needs little prodding to talk about why his people are unhappy. “Ever since I was born, until now, there has been this problem between Uighur and Han,” he explains. “Han people don’t treat us or our culture with any respect, and the key thing is that there are more and more Han coming to live in Xinjiang. And that means that we Uighur people are losing our culture and we have less freedoms.”

Before the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, Han Chinese made up about 5 per cent of Xinjiang’s population. Today, that figure is around 40 per cent of the 20 million people who live in the province, which is huge, arid and rich in mineral deposits.

According to some reports, the protests in Urumqi began peacefully, and violence erupted only when police moved in to clear the protesters.

But the Chinese government needed no time to collect evidence. It knew who was to blame. Just as they did after last year’s Tibet riots, officials pointed the finger at an exile figure they accuse of seeking independence from China. Then, it was the Dalai Lama; this time it is 62-year-old Rebiya Kadeer, leader of a US-based Uighur rights group called World Uighur Congress. Kadeer spent six years as a political prisoner in China and was exiled to the US in 2005.

“The unrest was a pre-emptive, organised, violent crime. It was instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws in the country,” ran a government statement.

When asked if Kadeer could be behind the violence, the young Uighur man bursts into laughter. “There’s no way she could have done this,” he says. “This is fake news by the government. She knows everything that’s going on, but she couldn’t be behind it.”

The young man shakes his head and strokes his trimmed beard, then takes a sip of tea. I ask him if he wants an independent Xinjiang. “Do I really need to answer that?” he laughs, almost nervously.

“We Uighur, we are powerless. There is no use in wishing for this. They have caught and suppressed our culture and religion. It’s gone.” He clenches his fist on the word “caught” and then lets it drop. “China is too powerful.” With that, he finishes his tea and makes his way out.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.