Agam's Gecko
Friday, July 10, 2009
Chinese security
Keeping the peace in Sinkiang. Yes, those are crossbows.
Photo: AFP

he Chinese Empire's conquered colonies are restless. More than a year after the latest Tibetan uprising, protest still continues in Tibetan areas and China's responses are as intolerant and repressive as ever. Now a spark has ignited the dry tinder of rage in Uyghurstan, which the Communist empire calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. A protest march in the regional capital Urumqi turned into a violent anti-Chinese riot, and protests have also been reported in Kashgar and several other towns.

The vast culturally Turkic area of central Asia was once divided up between two competing imperial powers — neither of which had anything much in common with the people of the region. West Turkestan was conquered by the Russian Empire in the mid 19th century, around the same period that the Qing Dynasty Empire (Manchus who had previously subsumed China and were not themselves Chinese) conquered East Turkestan. After the Russian Revolution the communists held on to the empire's central Asian colonies, converting them into Soviet Socialist Republics (Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz SSR's). After the fall of Soviet communism, these all became independent countries.

But the Turkic Muslims in the eastern part of this vast region had a different fate. With the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the advent of the new Chinese Republic in 1912, the fringes of the empire began to fall away. The Tibetans evicted the Chinese and declared their independence, while eastern Turkestan fell under the control of various warlords and ethnic insurgencies. An East Turkestan Republic existed briefly in 1933-34 until a Russian-backed Chinese warlord retook control. A second East Turkestan Republic was declared (in what is now northern Xinjiang) in 1944. With the advance of the Chinese communist revolution in 1949 and the People's Liberation Army's advance into southern Sinkiang, Chinese Republican government officials fled to other countries or surrendered to the communists.

Uyghur resistance to the CCP continued, and the leaders of the East Turkestan Republic travelled to the Soviet Union in 1949 — where they were advised to cooperate with the Chinese communists. The five leaders boarded a plane in Kazakhstan, enroute to Beijing. The plane crashed, killing all on board. With all their experienced leaders now gone, the remaining figures in the East Turkestan government agreed to incorporate their republic into the "Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region" of China. KGB files released after the collapse of Soviet communism revealed that the East Turkestan leaders had been killed on orders from Stalin — and in accordance with a deal the Soviet dictator had made with the new Chinese dictator, Mao Tse Tung.

This is admittedly a thumbnail sketch of Uyghurstan's recent history, but we can surely better appreciate the depth of resentment on view over the past five days if we have at least an outline of the initial relations between the Uyghurs and the Chinese communists. Unfortunately for the latter, you never have a second chance to make a first impression. By his own rhetoric, Mao was a great liberator of humanity. But by his practice, he was determined to recover every square inch of land ever (even marginally) colonized by long-past Chinese empires. Mao evidently inherited the imperialist gene from the earlier emperors, including the non-Chinese ones.

And Mao handed that gene down to his political descendants who have taken and run with it. At the time of the communists' victory in China's civil war, the Han Chinese comprised around 5-6% of the population in East Turkestan. Today, with its longstanding policy of transmigration into "minority" regions, the CCP has turned that around. The Han migrants now comprise around 40% of the entire "autonomous" region — three times the size of France. In the major commercial city of Urumqi (current population 2.4 million), the Han make up around 75% now.

The trouble on late Sunday afternoon began with a student protest march through Urumqi (a Dzungar name meaning "beautiful pasture"). The students were photographed in a non-violent procession, chanting and carrying Chinese flags, making their way toward People's Square. After that, the sequence of events is murky (I held off making a post on this until a clearer understanding of what happened on Sunday evening could be known — it still isn't). Foreign journalists were permitted to flood into the city the next day, but reliable accounts of the time between the protest march and the (at least) 156 deaths that night are hard to find.

Whatever happened, a non-violent protest march became — in the space of a few hours — an extremely violent anti-Chinese riot. Given the recent history of crowd control in Tibet, one might surmise that the smashing of shops and cars could have been triggered by a violent dispersal of the student protesters. Some hours later, Uyghur youths were hunting for Hans to beat and kill. Learning the exact sequence of events will be essential in understanding how this could happen, yet this short period (before journalists were present) is the murkiest of the past five days.

Troop assembly
Troops assemble in People's Square, Urumqi, July 8, 2009.
Photo: AP / Ng Han Guan
Did the police disperse the marchers with firearms, and were Uyghurs killed before the gangs began their rampage later in the evening? Or were the marchers merely beaten with clubs to prevent them reaching the square, and they initially responded by destroying property? Did the Han (remember, 75% of the city population) vigilante groups appear that night to retaliate, or did they only appear, as reported, the next day? Were the students who marched carrying China's national flag really the same people who beat and stabbed Han Chinese a few hours later? Will any of these questions ever be answered?

One thing we do know about the spark for all this, is that it originated thousands of miles away. The students were marching to demand justice for some of their compatriots who had been lynched by a Han mob in Guangdong, a major industrial province in southern China. Those riots had been sparked by rumours initiated by a disgruntled Han factory employee, which claimed that Uyghur boys had raped some Han girls. At least one of the Uyghurs killed by the mob was reportedly a girl. After the riot and lynchings, it was found that the rape rumour had been false.

Rumours can be deadly, and perhaps the Chinese authorities are learning this. If China actually had a vibrant free press, the chances that one hateful person could start a baseless rumour and have it widely believed (with such deadly consequences) might be close to nil. The starting requirement is an unfettered press with journalists willing and able to investigate anything. Then it will still take time for various media outlets to establish themselves as trustworthy, or not. Until such time as citizens can trust the press, they will fall for rumours.

Of course the Guangdong riot was not covered by the Chinese media in any detail, since the authorities believe that hushing up uncomfortable events is the best course. This is a nutritious environment for growing bigger and better rumours. Authorities claim that only two Uyghurs were killed by the lynch mob, but with no trustworthy journalism to dig up the story, Uyghurs were also inclined to believe rumours. Following the Urumqi riots, I came across at least three separate accounts by Uyghurs claiming that the Guangdong mob had killed over 600 of their people, and that the bodies had been chopped up and dumped into garbage bins. That's some fine rumour fuel for what would follow.

The Chinese government must learn that an independent and trustworthy press is the only thing which can remedy this situation. But government officials continue to believe that they must control absolutely everything, especially information. This ridiculous attitude will cause many more deaths until the CCP learns their lesson.

The clearest accounts of the Guangdong incident come from a secretly-conducted interview with some of the hundreds of Uyghur factory workers now held under the protection of Chinese police. They are not allowed to leave the place where they are held, much less go home. One of the workers had a hidden cell phone, though they are not permitted to communicate to the outside. Radio Free Asia's Uyghur service was able to establish contact and spoke with three of them. Why aren't Chinese citizens permitted to know what happened that night, from the victims' perspective?

But even the deadly rumour from Guangdong can't be blamed for everything that happened in Urumqi. A "Strike Hard" campaign (Tibetans know all about those) was launched in Xinjiang in April. Many have been arrested over the past few months for taking part in "illegal religious activities" and regional Party leaders have been flying into their familiar Cultural Revolution-style tirades well before the Sunday night riot.

For whatever reason, the Chinese are not precisely following their Tibet pattern in responding to this incident. The day after the initial riot, foreign journalists were welcomed to travel to Urumqi and were afforded the only open internet connections in the city (at their hotel). But the authorities were unable to completely dispense with their impulse to control the message, and they set up guided "tours" for the press — apparently believing they had things well in hand. Suddenly, out of the lanes and alleys of an impoverished Uyghur neighbourhood, dozens of women and children appeared and wailed over the disappearance of their husbands, fathers and sons. Yet another staged media event (Labrang, Jokhang...) had gone awry.

Tursun Gul
Tursun Gul walks with her crutch toward the might of the Chinese state, July 7, 2009.
Photo: agencies
The women and children displayed the identity cards of their menfolk who had been swept up by the security forces during the night — the figure of 1,434 arrested has not been updated for days now. One woman, who was present with a small child, hobbled alone on her crutch toward the ranks of soldiers and armoured vehicles, shaking her finger at them and demanding the return of her husband. In an incredible scene the lone handicapped woman advanced, and the mass of assembled troops and their high-tech machines began to retreat. The image has already achieved an iconic status similar to "Tank-man" at TAM Square.

The only video I've found of this event is in a report by Tania Branigan and Dan Chung in The Guardian. Watch for the soldiers and their equipment backing up at Tursun Gul's approach, in the opening seconds of that clip. Peter Foster of the Daily Telegraph tells her story. Without the accidental presence of foreign media, her act of courage would not have been known by the world.

But there was more to come. That same day, a new mob was taking over the streets. Angered by their own army's failure to protect them from the angry, marginalized and colonized minority, the Chinese citizenry organized vigilante gangs. Armed with crude weapons, they went hunting for minorities to kill.
It was too quiet. At two o'clock on another hot, dry afternoon they strolled up towards the People's Square. Some were in smart shirts and ties, others in jeans and trainers. In their hands were iron bars, knives, staves of wood, metal chains and nunchuks, golf clubs and meat cleavers, lengths of piping, shovels and axes.

Little by little the numbers swelled, almost imperceptibly. Within half an hour there were hundreds of Han Chinese on the streets of Urumqi – then thousands. At first the talk was of self-defence. Then it turned to vengeance.
For the rest of the week, Chinese riot police and soldiers have played cat-and-mouse with the roving gangs of vengeance-seekers and the defiant remaining pockets of Uyghurs willing to challenge them. At some points the two groups were hurling rocks at each other over the heads of security forces. Heavy military deployments were made around Uyghur neighbourhoods in attempts to keep the Hans out — not always successful. But over those few days the vigilantes were kept on the move and unable to congregate in one place, earning the security forces an unaccustomed praise for their tactics from some foreign media members.

Han Chinese vigilante
A Chinese vigilante joins a mob attacking Uyghurs on July 7, 2009, showing off his multi-tasking capabilities in beating and documenting with one hand.
Photo: AP / Ng Han Guan
Each day has seen thousands more troops brought into Urumqi's streets, and it seems finally to have reached the saturation point at which action by any side is no longer possible. But an overbearing military occupation can't continue indefinitely, and people on both sides of the ethnic divide now fear what will happen when the soldiers leave. Frictions between the native Uyghur and the migrant Han have been kept under a tight lid for many years, but now that it has blown off in such spectacular fashion, things will never again be as they were.

Some things, though, will never change under the CCP. Prominent Uyghur intellectuals disappear, presumably by police action (and even if he lives in far-off Beijing). The initial unexpected openness toward foreign media has an expiry date, as news agency reporters have now been ordered out (including a Canadian in Kashgar). Being that Friday is the most important Muslim prayer day, it's only sensible for the government to padlock the mosques and order everyone to pray at home, right? That was the decision this morning, but evidently that one won't fly right now. Urumqi's Uyghur population was able to get into at least some of their mosques today.

Also on the 'never change' list is the standard, number one response of the CCP — blame some outsider for your own deficiencies. With Tibet, of course, everything is always the Dalai Lama's fault. Party functionaries dream up conspiracies of plotting death and destruction, with His Holiness always at the centre. They have "plenty of evidence" but none is ever presented — only elaborate passages in official speeches lifted straight out of the Cultural Revolution, disseminated far and wide on the state controlled media mouthpieces. For the Uyghurs? That's easy: Rebiya Kadeer did it all. What would these vile repressive dictatorships do without a small but tough woman to blame for everything? (Is Hu taking lessons from Burma's Than Shwe?)

And let us not forget the clever strategy of vowing to execute as many as possible — that's always a smart move, and quite helpful at calming inflamed passions. It worked so well in Tibet, right? Oh wait... well, it couldn't hurt to try, eh?

A good source for keeping up with events in Uyghurstan is The New Dominion, a well-written and apparently well-connected website which has followed this episode from its first hours. The latest article is a letter from an anonymous foreign traveller who flew into Kashgar from Urumqi just before the riot. There is an account of the Kashgar protest, and the crackdown that followed it. Chinese CCPatriots will be pleased to know that it is depressing; if you want to experience Uyghur culture, you'd better hurry. The Motherland is burying it as quickly as possible.

Striking up a conversation with a police officer, the letter-writer asks him his thoughts on the situation. The officer replied that everything would be fine. "You know, in the next ten years, we’ll just send more Han here and that’ll just end the problem once and for all."

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