|Xinjiang on Pins and Needles
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
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.