The seriousness of the situation in the Xinjiang province of China has forced President Hu Jintao, who was on a state visit to Italy before participating in the G-8 summit starting on July 8, to fly back to Beijing after cancelling his participation and his state visit to Portugal, which was to follow the summit.
There is considerable concern in Xinjiang as well as in Beijing over the dangers of a communal conflagration between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese following large demonstrations by the Han Chinese in Urumqi on July 7. The Han Chinese, who are in a majority in Urumqi but in a minority in the rest of the province, have been enraged not only over the alleged attacks by young Uighurs on Han Chinese on the night of July 5, but also over the alleged failure of the security forces to protect them. What has been worrying the Chinese leadership is that the anger of the Han Chinese, which was initially against the Uighurs, has started taking an anti-government turn.
In an attempt to inform the rest of the world about the extent of the violence indulged in by Uighur students and others allegedly at the instigation of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, the Chinese for the first time gave details of what was happening in Urumqi. They did not give such details during the Lhasa uprising of Tibetan youth and monks in March, 2008. They were unusually transparent giving details of the number of dead and injured and allowed their media to disseminate photographs of the scenes from the riot-hit Urumqi The dispatches from the correspondents of the state-controlled Chinese media used expressions such as "a catastrophe", "horror", "chaos" in reporting on what happened on July 5.
A Xinhua despatch quoted Li Zhi, the chief of the Urumqi branch of the Communist Party of China, as saying as follows: "The casualty rate and loss from this incident are the most severe in Xinjiang since the establishment of the People's Republic of China." It also quoted Jerla Isamudin, the Urumqi mayor, as saying: "This is not a single, ethnic issue. The violence has not only impeached the peace and order of Xinjiang, it has also ignited anger among people."
These details of the situation as disseminated by the media have ignited anger among the Han Chinese not only in the Xinjiang province, but also in adjoining Tibet and in the Sichuan province. Many of the Han Chinese living in Urumqi had migrated from the Sichuan province. Throughout July 7, police vans fitted with loudspeakers moved around Urumqi appealing for calm and saying: "Uighur people and Han Chinese are brothers and sisters, we are a family." The local mayor and party chief went round the city appealing to the Han Chinese for calm. Despite this, some Han Chinese beat up Uighurs. The police had to use tear-smoke to disperse them. Urumqi continued to be under curfew for the
In a belated attempt to mollify the Uighurs, the Chinese authorities have announced the arrest of 13 Han Chinese workers of a Guangdong factory for allegedly attacking their Uighur co-workers on June 26 during which two Uighurs were killed. If they had taken this step immediately after June 26, Urumqi might have been spared the outbreak of violence seen since July 5.
In a demonisation campaign reminiscent of the campaign mounted against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Youth Congress after the Lhasa uprising, the Chinese continue to blame the World Uighur Congress and organisations associated with it as well as its President Rebiya Kadeer for the violence. The Chinese media have come out with articles describing her as the Uighur Dalai Lama, highlighting her professed admiration for His Holiness and projecting the Urumqi uprising as a copycat of the Lhasa uprising of March 2008. A Chinese court had sentenced Kadeer, a 59-year-old former business tycoon from Xinjiang, to nine years in prison on charges of instigating and engaging in secessionist activities in 1999.
But she was allowed to go to the US for medical treatment in March 2005 after promising to keep away from any separatist activities. She became the President of the WUC.
The linkages alleged by the Chinese between the Lhasa and Urumqi uprisings may cause Han Chinese anger against the Tibetans, thereby creating fresh tensions in the Tibetan-inhabited areas.
The Urumqi uprising, like the Lhasa uprising, has been a rude wake-up call for the Chinese leadership in Beijing. It shows dramatically in the 60th year of the People's Republic of China how unpopular the Han Chinese and the CCP are among the non-Han minorities. They also show that the use of brutal methods of suppression have only added to the feelings of alienation. China's non-Han periphery is a simmering volcano blowing up from time to time.
These uprisings have also demonstrated how out of touch the Beijing leadership is with the ground situation in the peripheral areas and how inadequate Chinese intelligence capabilities are.
Will heads roll after Hu's return? Will the rolling heads be confined to Urumqi or will they cover Beijing too? Is the situation in Xinjiang likely to weaken Hu's leadership of the CCP? These are questions for which one has to look for answers in the days to come.