The early July inter-ethnic violence that hit China's western Xinjiang Province may have been shocking, but it shouldn't have been surprising. Tension between the Uighur and Han Chinese communities had been steadily building over the past three decades, and Communist authorities in Beijing hadn't been doing much to defuse simmering anger.
On July 9, Beijing began forcefully reasserting its authority after four days of Uighur rioting in Xinjiang's provincial capital, Urumqi, and other population centers. "Preserving and maintaining the overall stability of Xinjiang is currently the most urgent task," said a statement issued by China's Politburo Standing Committee on July 9, as reported by the official Xinhua News Agency. Authorities were flooding Urumqi with security forces, some of whom rode into the city center in trucks emblazoned with slogans such as "We must defeat the terrorists." Meanwhile, handbills posted throughout the city called on local residents to "keep calm and maintain public order."
Overall, at least 156 people died and 1,100 were injured in the rioting, which began on July 5. Some reports suggest as many as 800 people may have been killed. Many of the victims were Han Chinese who fell at the hands of rampaging Uighurs. As of July 7, authorities had taken over 1,400 people into custody in connection with the unrest. Officials have vowed to execute those responsible for fomenting mayhem. The spark for the social explosion in Xinjiang reportedly was a deadly factory brawl in far-away, coastal Guangdong Province. The brawl broke out amid suspicion that a Uighur worker had sexually assaulted a Han Chinese woman.
In an interesting twist, it seems that Uighur protesters mimicked tactics used by anti-government demonstrators in Iran in June -- utilizing internet-based social networking platforms to disseminate information and to organize. Chinese leaders have long sought to contain the internet's power to inform. The Xinjiang events suggest that Beijing's efforts to keep a lid on the internet haven't worked.
One gets the sense that the large-scale violence and loss of life in Xinjiang could have been avoided, given that the problems which fueled the rioting have long been evident. Uighurs not too long ago constituted a healthy majority in Xinjiang. But two decades of programs designed to bolster Beijing's grip over remote Western regions prompted a massive influx of Han Chinese. As a result, the indigenous population now feels that its cultural survival is threatened. On top of ethnic-identity anxiety, there is economic disparity to contend with. Beijing, it is true, has poured a considerable amount of resources into the region to improve its infrastructure, due in large part to the fact that Xinjiang is a hub for trade with Central Asian states, as well as China's largest oil-producing region. But changes seem to have benefited the local Han population more than Uighurs.
Signs that frustration was reaching the boiling point were evident in June. On June 16, for example, inter-ethnic tension spiked when a Uighur member of local security forces in Urumqi shot and killed a Han Chinese individual during a protest over a local construction project. Xinhua characterized the incident as an accidental shooting. Earlier news reports indicated that small-scale protests and property damage were fairly common in the region. In one such June incident, a crowd angered by a proposed tax hike wrecked police cars and temporarily blocked a highway.
Such spontaneous outbursts offered clear indicators that the indigenous population is feeling oppressed. But rather than address the root cultural and political causes of rising discontent, Chinese authorities have consistently attributed Uighur restlessness to economic stratification brought on by backwardness. Once order is fully restored, Beijing will likely keep on throwing money at the problem. Yet, experience has shown this approach tends to exacerbate ethnic tension, rather than ease it.
Uighurs see their land disappearing and their Muslim religion being persecuted, or co-opted by state agencies. Economic improvements so far haven't offset these perceived disadvantages. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that discontent within the Uighur community will continue to spread.
Ultimately, Xinjiang's problem is political. The official reaction to the July events so far suggests that China's leaders have no ready answers on how to ease frustration before it spills over into violence. The tired response of blaming outside agitators and branding troublemakers as terrorists hints that officials are unwilling to substantively grapple with the root causes of discontent.
Economic development tends to intensify ethnic and national consciousness, instead of dissipating such feelings. Within this context, the Uighur unrest of early July serves as another indicator that Chinese leaders should recalibrate their governing style. China has achieved remarkable progress over the last quarter-century. But the socio-economic forces unleashed by rapid development are powerful, and they require the country's leadership to constantly adapt in order to ensure continuing stability.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.