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Huseyin Celil
Husein Dzhelil standing in front of the Canadian Parliament buildings, Ottawa, Ontario, May2005.
 
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East Turkistan map (also known as Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region)
Xinjiang on Pins and Needles


2009-09-08


The Wall Street Journal



Healing Urumqi may require more political change than Beijing can muster.
 

When mosquito bites are routinely confused for race-based syringe attacks, you know you have a problem. Welcome to China's western province of Xinjiang, where security has gone from bad to worse thanks in part to ham-fisted government policies.

Racial tensions between the Han Chinese, China's majority ethnic group, and the Uighurs, a Muslim and Turkic ethnic group, have probably never been worse. On July 5 a Uighur demonstration turned into a violent riot that left 197people dead, most of whom were Han Chinese. Last Thursday tens of thousands of Han protesters took to the streets asking for better state protection and the resignation of Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan. State media reported five dead after those demonstrations, with no official explanation given.

For much of the last six decades Beijing has steadily built up the Han presence in Xinjiang and solidified its control there. This process was sped up by the "Strike Hard" campaign launched in 1996 that targeted criminals and supposed "separatists" who might support political freedoms for Xinjiang. The province is important to Beijing because it occupies one-sixth of China's land mass and is home to the country's largest oil fields. While state-directed investment has poured into the province, Uighurs often feel left out of the economic boom and complain their way of life is being destroyed.

The man at the heart of many of these policies is Mr. Wang, a politburo member who has been Xinjiang Party Secretary since 1995. His vision for the province—economic development combined with gradual tightening of religious and cultural freedoms—tracks closely with the way Hu Jintao governed Tibet when he was Party Secretary there, and the two men are seen as allies.

Today, more than two months after the July 5 protests, life has hardly returned to normal. All schools are closed—officially as a swine flu precaution—and university campuses are sealed. Traffic restrictions at night act as a curfew and business has ground to a standstill. All Internet in the province is cut off, as is most text messaging and international calls, and people are stockpiling food. Soldiers patrol the streets and stand guard around Uighur neighborhoods to prevent Han vigilantes from taking justice into their own hands. This is hardly the stuff of the "harmonious society" that Mr. Hu likes to talk about.

The mob mentality of two ethnic groups that are at each other's throats is difficult for any government to deal with; but an information blackout has made things worse. Dangerous rumors have sprung up in place of reliable information, which contributed to the mass hysteria of the syringe attacks. (In hundreds of cases, no puncture mark has been found by doctors.) The government inadvertently acknowledged this problem Monday by announcing possible jail penalties for rumor-mongers.

So far there are no signs that policy change is on the way. A high-ranking Chinese official, Jia Qinglin, suggested Monday that improving the living standards of ethnic minorities was an important part of ethnic unity. But this is precisely the approach that got Xinjiang where it is today. Beijing has poured money into the province and guided its commercial development through a pseudo-military corporation known as the Bingtuan. But higher living standards or not, the Uighurs who have inhabited Xinjiang for centuries want to hold onto their basic religious and cultural freedoms, like fasting during Ramadan or educating their children in Uighur instead of Mandarin.

Rather than considering small policy changes like these, Xinjiang officials have blamed an elderly Uighur woman living in the United States, Rebiya Kadeer, for masterminding the riots and spent considerable energies going after her family and her properties in Xinjiang. In the tradition of the Cultural Revolution, her children have been forced to issue written denunciations of their mother. Ms. Kadeer's landmark shopping center in Urumqi, where many of her extended family live, is due to be razed to the ground.

But Xinjiang needs more than just a new, non-Kadeer-affiliated shopping center if its people are to live in peace. Beijing did fire two provincial party leaders over the weekend, and it would do well seriously to consider the protesters' calls for Mr. Wang's resignation. That would take a special meeting of the politburo—and serve as a sign that the leadership in Beijing is prepared to hold its own members accountable in response to the demands of its citizens.
 
 
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