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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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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.