July 5, 2014


The Uyghur dilemma, 2009-14 (ENVER TOHTI BUGHDA, 5 July 2014, Open Democracy)

Five years ago, on 5 July 2009, news emerged of rioting and ethnic conflict between the Uyghur and the Han, the largest ethnic group in China. The bloody clashes took place in Ürümchi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China's far west, and  claimed over 200 lives according to the official tally.

For those directly involved, as well as those indirectly implicated in the rioting, it was a tragic day. Friends and families of the victims have suffered great torments, while hundreds of Uyghurs are still waiting to hear about the fate of their missing menfolk who were rounded up in the aftermath of the riot. In fact, it was a protest march by hundreds of Uyghur women in Ürümchi on 6 July, demanding the immediate release of their missing loved ones, that changed the western media's initial indifference towards the event.

In this sense, by catapulting a local conflict onto the world stage the riot and its aftermath heralded the beginning of wider international awareness of the Uyghur cause. Today, many more people know about the Uyghurs, the historic inhabitants of the vast region known as the  "new territory/domain" (Xinjiang) which lies beyond the western limits of the Great Wall of China.

Five years on, the nature of the Ürümchi events is still unclear. Was the key event a riot or an uprising against Chinese colonial rule, a spontaneous outburst or a premeditated uprising, even an organic expression of prevailing discontent about the social injustice and racial discrimination practised by the People's Republic of China?

What is clear is that the events of this day five years ago were the violent expression of dangerous tensions in Xinjiang that over the previous decade had been heightened by several factors: a shifting demographic balance engendered by a large influx of internal migrants, land grabs, the over-exploitation of limited natural resources, the marginalisation of the indigenous inhabitants, and an increasing wealth gap along ethnic lines. In turn these reflect the legacy of events since in the mid-18th century, when the region was annexed by the Manchu Qing dynasty. Today, the situation in Xinjiang is again worsening, and heading towards an impasse for the Uyghurs and the Chinese state alike.

Posted by at July 5, 2014 6:17 PM

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