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October 6, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright October 6, 2009 Liang Zheng. Used by permission.


It’s been three months since the city of Urumqi was plunged into chaos and terror by the deadliest ethnic bloodletting in the history of the People’s Republic. The riot on July 5th this summer erupted right after a mostly peaceful demonstration organized by Uyghur youths in Urumqi called to demand the government thoroughly investigate a brawl in southern China, which had left two Uyghur workers dead and dozens more injured. At that point, no one anticipated the demonstration would be followed by a horrible massacre in Urumqi that took at least 197 innocent lives, most of them members of the Han ethnicity (a group to which the vast majority of PRC citizens belongs). There have been scores of headline-grabbing stories about these events and a variety of different kinds of explanations, but an important dimension of the massacre of Han Chinese–the role that Islamic fundamentalism played in it–has been ignored so far by both the Chinese government and most of those writing for the Western press.

Demonstrations are not uncommon in China today. The country’s breakneck economic growth and rampant corruption involving ignorant and greedy local officials combine to create a breeding ground for local discontent, which usually targets economic marginalization, environmental degradation and acts of official malfeasance. However, attributing the root cause of this violent crime in Urumqi to the same mix of grievances is to miss a crucial part of the real situation on the ground. This misleading generalization also reinforces a simple government versus the people dichotomy (very popular in the West), which neither helps us fully understand the situation in Xinjiang nor contributes to the effort to find meaningful solutions to the problems there.

Xinjiang today is facing the same problems as other provinces, problems generated by the modernization drive that features mass migration of peasant workers, pollution of the environment, and economic marginalization of the socially vulnerable, problems that have been critical ones for China since the1980s. Uyghurs living in Xinjiang not only have to deal with the downsides of the modernization drive; they also suffer from a systematic discrimination in employment and obstacles placed in the way of practicing Islam. These real issues, too, cause upset among Uyghurs in Xinjiang. As citizens of the PRC, Uyghurs certainly are entitled to speak out, have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. However, the killing of innocent people should not be justified as a way to express discontent or anger. The unfair state policy and the indiscriminate killing of innocent people are matters of entirely different natures, and the loss of innocent lives can’t be justified by any political arguments.