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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