When we talk about polities marred by ethnic divisions and unequal modernization and economic growth, China is often not the first country that comes to mind. One is perhaps more inclined to picture a Nigeria or a Sudan, for instance. Yet ethnic tensions have been and remain among the defining features of the Middle Kingdom, which is why the recent unrest is rather unsurprising, though nevertheless quite upsetting.
From what I've been able to gather, no one appears to know exactly what triggered the Uighur violence. While some blame it on exiled Uighur Rebiya Kadeer, others suggest the violence was triggered by a brawl which took place in factory several weeks ago and has since escalated. Naturally, leaders in Beijing blame the West for masterminding the whole thing, though I find little basis for such accusations if for no other reason than the simple fact that the West has little political or strategic interest in China's Muslim community. There were/are twenty-two Uighurs captive in Gitmo, though I doubt the protests have anything to do with this. Rather, the strife seems to be a purely domestic matter, with a historically marginalized sector of the populace acting out against state policies that continue to leave them on the periphery of economic growth, especially since large numbers of Han Chinese have moved into the traditionally Muslim province and are usurping jobs from resident Uighurs.
Of course this is no justification for such awful acts of violence. Since the Uighur riots began on Sunday, 156 individuals have been killed and over 1,400 arrested in what is said to be the worst ethnic violence since the Cultural Revolution. Despite the fact that the population in Xinjiang comprises less than 1.5% of China's overall population, the State is heavily cracking down on the violence so as to preserve the "stability of the state," which is another way of saying 'One China'.
It is important to remember that Beijing's 'One China' policy is directed not only at Tibet and Taiwan, but any separatist movements, of which the Uighurs in Xinjiang are one. Many Chinese likewise uphold the notion of 'One China' which adds yet another element of complexity to the ongoing protests. One could say that the Uighurs are protesting against their marginalization and (perhaps symbolically) for separation, while the Han Chinese are protesting against the protests and for One China. In a curious way, these protests call into question the very notion of Han nationalism, which has long been regarded as a sort of ideological superglue holding together a united China. I seriously question the strength of this glue to begin with, but it seems to be wearing off - if it was even there to begin with.
As with the ongoing turmoil in Iran, the outcome of the unrest in Xinjiang is unclear. Fresh demonstrations have started in the capital Urumqi despite ongoing internet restrictions aimed at quelling the violence. Yet it does seem unlikely that all of this will amount to much. The government in Beijing certainly isn't likely to change its policies, and I don't know that the Uighurs are powerful enough as a group to continue with their tactics in the face of a powerful State. As was the case with 2008 Tibetan unrest, I sense that the protests may go on for a little while longer until the costs of violence will outweigh the benefits and all will be calm (at least on the exterior) once again. After all, the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Communist takeover is fast approaching and the CCP has other matters to tend to. Dealing with an ethnic minority who resents the loss of its culture, freedom and the ability to determine its future is not one of them.
photo credit: UK Times