It was a year ago today that China’s northwestern Xinjiang Province was rocked by ethnic rioting that eventually left more than 200 dead and thousands more under arrest. The riots came after Chinese police tried to breakup a mass demonstration by the Uighur ethnic group that is native to Xinjiang; several thousand Uighurs took to the streets last year to protest the murder of two migrant Uighur workers at the hands of an ethnic Han mob in a factory town in eastern China (the Han are China’s largest ethnic group, the Han mob apparently attacked the two Uighur men over allegations that they had assaulted a Han woman, claims that were later proved to be false); days of violence and rioting followed. While the murders may have been the catalyst for the demonstration, they also pointed to long-simmering tensions in this remote corner of China.
Officially the province has the lengthy name of the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” but Uighur (sometimes also spelled Uyghur) exiles claim that the central government in Beijing has been suppressing their language and religion (most Uighurs are Muslims) while encouraging mass immigration of Han Chinese from other parts of the country into Xinjiang – a process designed to weaken Uighur culture and one that has effectively made them a minority within their own “homeland” (not coincidentally it is remarkably similar to the strategy Beijing has pursued in neighboring Tibet).
With the one year anniversary of the riots coming up, Beijing has taken steps that could be viewed as a softening in tone towards Xinjiang – Wang Lequan, a hardline Communist Party official who has run Xinjiang for the past decade and a half, was recently replaced by a more moderate official who has taken steps towards reconciliation, like restoring Internet access for the region, which was cut off shortly after the riots. China’s state-run Xinhua news agency also has been on the reconciliation kick, publishing this story, among others, discussing how “grassroots-level officials” are trying to learn the Uighurs Turkic-language so that they can better serve Xinjiang’s rural regions.
Uighur exile groups are skeptical though, pointing to Chinese development efforts that have been aimed largely at making Xinjiang more easily accessible from the rest of China (and thus easier to emigrate to), and the destruction of much of the old quarter of the city of Kashgar - the historic center of Uighur spiritual and cultural life - under the banner of “earthquake safety” measures; it’s worth noting though that the old quarter of Kashgar has stood for hundreds of years. Uighur groups counter by saying that uprooting their people from old Kashgar and concentrating them in housing projects built at the edge of the city simply makes it easier for Chinese officials to monitor and control them.
We’ll see if the anniversary of the protests passes without incident.