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Ethnic Clashes in China: Uighurs vs. Han Chinese

Uighur women grieve for their men who they claim were taken away by Chinese authorities after Sunday's protest in Urumqi, China, Tuesday, July 7 , 2009. Urumqi was tense Tuesday, with protests happening in several parts of the city and both Han Chinese and Uighur groups facing off with armed police. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Uighur women grieve for their men who they claim were taken away by Chinese authorities after Sunday's protest in Urumqi, China, Tuesday, July 7 , 2009. Urumqi was tense Tuesday, with protests happening in several parts of the city and both Han Chinese and Uighur groups facing off with armed police. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan) (Ng Han Guan - AP)

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Sean Roberts
Director, International Development Studies Program and Cultural Anthropologist, George Washington University
Wednesday, July 8, 2009; 1:00 PM

The Chinese government blanketed Urumqi, the capital of China's far western Xinjiang region, with 20,000 new security troops on Wednesday, as thousands of residents began to flee following the deadly ethnic clashes that erupted over the weekend.

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The unrest has become a major challenge for this country's Communist leaders. In a sign of their growing concern about the situation, President Hu Jintao canceled plans to attend the Group of Eight summit in Italy and rushed home early Wednesday.

Sean Roberts, director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University, who has been studying the Uighurs for about 20 years and who has authored numerous articles about the Uighur communities of Kazakhstan and China, was online Wednesday, July 8, at 1 p.m. ET to talk about the conflict.

In an e-mail interview with washingtonpost.com, Roberts said, "The current unrest in Xinjiang is another chapter in a long history of tensions between Han Chinese and Uighurs, but it is mostly the result of the frustrations experienced by Uighurs over the last decade as the rapid pace of Chinese development in the region has brought scores of Han Chinese migrants to Xinjiang and has displaced Uyghurs from their traditional livelihoods and communities. While the violence that has emerged on both sides of the conflict is shocking, the most surprising aspect of the events may be that the tensions had not boiled over into direct confrontations until now."

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Sean Roberts: Hello, my name is Sean Roberts, and I have been studying Uyghurs for about 20 years.

While many people are shocked at the violence transpiring in Xinjiang presently, I may be more surprised that the tension between Han Chinese and Uyghurs has not boiled over into such mass violence until now.

In general, I see this violence as an outgrowth of processes which have been ongoing in Xinjiang for the last decade. During that time, China has invested more in the development of this region than anytime previously. In doing so, however, they have largely excluded the Uyghurs from the decision-making process. Furthermore, this development has brought many Han Chinese to the region seeking their fortunes, which has served to displace many Uyghurs from their traditional communities and livelihoods.

Finally, political repression that became more pronounced during the later 1990s in Xinjiang intensified following September 11, 2001. With the advent of the Global War on Terror, the Chinese state has increasingly justified more brutal crackdowns on Uyghur political dissent as part of its contribution to the Global War on Terror. At the same time, Han Chinese coming to the region to seek their fortunes in China's continued development boom do not understand the Uyghurs' dissatisfaction or the violent response this dissatisfaction has elicited.

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Chestnut Hill, Mass.: How long has the rivalry between Uighurs and Han Chinese existed for and why did it start?

Sean Roberts: The tension between Han Chinese and Uyghurs has a long history reaching back at least 250 years. While Xinjiang's history remains contentious, I generally subscribe to the interpretation that the Qing dynasty first colonized Xinjiang in the 1750s. This resulted in a substantial resistance movement that continued to fight against Qing rule for decades. In the late 19th century, a revolt pushed the Qing out of the region for several years, and in the 1930s and 1940s Uyghur attempts to establish sovereign states in the region resulted in short-term independent states in areas of Xinjiang. In this sense, what is happening today has a very long history.

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Uighur passerby: What are the characteristics of a Uighur that make them so identifiable to the Han Chinese?

Sean Roberts: The Uyghurs are a Turkic speaking Muslim people who share more culturally and historically with people to the west of Xinjiang, particularly in former Soviet Central Asia, than they do with the Han Chinese. Physically, Uyghurs do not look like Han Chinese. Their physical types are much more diverse given that Central Asia has long been a crossroads of civilizations, and they have many European physical characteristics that would likely distinguish them from the Han.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Why is the unrest in Xinjiang being portrayed as "rioting" by "angry Uighurs" in U.S. media? When a people are as oppressed as Uighurs in China are, I would think the word to use would be "protesting." Furthermore, there is no confirmation that the violence is predominantly one-sided by Uighur protesters, and not reciprocated or exacerbated or even initiated by Han vigilante groups.

Today's Times article about the violence (which has commenting disabled) states in one paragraph that "angry Uighurs attacked Han civilians," while in the very next sentence admitting, "Government officials declined Tuesday to give an ethnic breakdown of the dead." Earlier in the article, they quoted a horribly unreliable source: "one Han family member who reviewed photos of the dead, seeking to identify a relative, said in an interview that the great majority of the photographs were of Han victims."

Why is the U.S. media siding with the oppressive Chinese government and portraying this struggle for freedom and basic human rights in China as mob violence? What is the U.S. really going to gain by refusing to take a hard stance on these violations and not making good on its word to be a leader in this world?

washingtonpost.com: China Official Threatens Death Penalty After Riots (The New York Times, July 8)

Sean Roberts: Well, the problem is likely that we still do not have enough information to know exactly what happened. I, for example, also have a question from somebody asking the opposite - why is the U.S. media so sympathetic to the Uyghurs? I think part of the problem is that the Uyghurs have no ability to organize politically inside Xinjiang - thus, this was likely a spontaneous protest that spiraled out of control. My guess is that the Chinese security forces responded to the protest with force, as they have in the past. As a result, the Uyghur protesters then became violent and allegedly did attack Han bystanders. Essentially, however, I agree that it is not accurate to excuse the Chinese state for its role in creating this violence. Not only did their response to the protest probably trigger the violence, but the policies of the PRC towards Uyghurs for the last 20 years and more has created the frustration that pushed the protesters to become violent. Let us remember that even the Tibetan protests last summer turned violent despite the fact that Tibetans are so often viewed as peaceful and non-violent.

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Washington, D.C.: Seems like the same thing that is happening in Tibet. However, the violence appears to be between the Tibetans and the military, not necessarily the civilian Han Chinese, is this correct?

Sean Roberts: If I remember correctly, last summer in Tibet, Han bystanders were also attacked as well as Chinese owned stores. So, I think there is little difference. The major difference I do see here, however, is that Han Chinese mobs have joined in the violence as well, which did not happen in Tibet.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dr. Roberts,

For those of us who are angry and hurt by the crackdown on Uighur religious, civil, and property rights in Xinjiang, and by the state violence against Uighurs that will surely follow these demonstrations, how would you recommend that we do something to make a difference? What organizations have you seen that do outstanding work on this issue and who in the US government would you say to call to share our understanding of the problem? There is no reason that the situation of Uighurs in Xinjiang cannot attain the same level of international awareness of the Tibetans, the Iranian protesters, or the Tiananmen Square marchers, we just need to make it so. But how do we start?

Many thanks.

Sean Roberts: You are quite correct in pointing out that the Uyghurs have fair

Sean Roberts: The Uyghurs do have less of a presence politically on the international stage. That being said, the Uyghur World Congress, which the Chinese are blaming for organizing the disturbances in Xinjiang (I believe unjustifiably), has become more active in recent years under the leadership of Rabiya Kadeer. In the US, the Uyghur American Association also advocates for Uyghur rights in China, and a related organization called the Uyghur Human Rights Project reports on human rights abuses from a non-partisan position. In Congress, Representative Delahunt of MA has recently raised questions about the Uyghurs' problems in China in the context of hearings about the Uyghurs who had been held in Guantanamo Bay. There are also many Uyghur groups now on social networking sites, such as Facebook. Until somebody with a substantial international profile takes up the cause, however, it will likely still not receive the attention that the Tibetans receive.

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Fairfax, Va.: It seems that Ms Kadeer advocate Uighurs "self-determination" in an very large and ethnically mixed area along with demanding more religious and cultural freedom. Of course there is the question of question of who are there first. What should the position of U.S. government on this issue given that her operation is largely funded by Endowment for democracy? Also what are your thoughts on her complaints about the Chinese immigration has taken Uighurs jobs and diluted her culture? Is it justified to complain about these issue in today's global environment?

Sean Roberts: You pose some very interesting questions. There is always the question of the onward march of modernization and the unfortunate casualties of that process. As an anthropologist, I do not believe that any state should have the right to trample over indigenous cultures for the good of modernization. Rather, I believe that sustainable forms of development can be achieved that respect the rights of indigenous groups. The situation of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang could be compared, for example, to that of the native Americans in America's west in the 19th century. Just because that happened at the hands of the United States, however, does not make it right or an excuse for similar processes to take place elsewhere. With regards to the issue of self-determination, it is interesting to note that most self-determination movements in Xinjiang have explicitly chose not to advocate Uyghur sovereignty. Rather, they use the term Eastern Turkestan to refer to Xinjiang in an attempt to advocate for a multi-ethnic Turkic autonomy.

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San Francisco, Calif.: I find it disturbing that the media has been portraying the Chinese security forces as high handed and arbitrary. From what I have read, the Uighurs rioted and killed people. Some Hans retaliated and killed people. Around 80 percent of the casualties have been Han, so around 80 percent of the arrests have been Uighur. How is this high handed/arbitrary? Regardless of what is the ultimate cause, what is the media's expectation of the results? Are security forces not allowed to calm the city down and arrest murderers?

Sean Roberts: Please refer to one of the questions above where I answered somebody accusing the US media of not being sympathetic enough with the Uyghurs. I do question whether the Chinese security forces had a proper response during the initial protests. Reports do suggest that they have been more responsible in making sure that the violence does not escalate into an ongoing bloody riot between Hans and Uyghurs. But, the truth is that we do not have enough information to understand the whole picture. Also, these specific incidents of street violence cannot be viewed in isolation with disregard for the policies of the Chinese state in Xinjiang over the last twenty years.

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Washington, D.C.: How should the international community respond to this particular event and what kind of message should the U.S. government send to the Chinese government as well as Uighurs in Xinjiang?

Sean Roberts: The lack of clarity in what has been transpiring makes it difficult for the US or the international community to comment. That being said, I think there should be urges for calm accompanied by calls on the Chinese government to allow freedom of expression in Xinjiang and to address the underlying socio-economic and political issues that have caused so much frustration among Uyghurs in the region. It would be useful, for example, to encourage a dialogue between Uyghur diaspora groups and the Chinese government like that has been forged between the Dali Lama and China. That being said, it seems that little has been accomplished along these lines for the Tibetans either. In the end, many of the issues that are at the heart of the problems in Xinjiang and Tibet relate to China's refusal to adopt a more democratic system of governance that would allow for legal and peaceful means for disenfranchised people to voice their desires.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there any chance that these recent tensions, combined with recent greater market freedoms in Chinese cities, will result in an actual challenge to the Chinese Communist Party? Will the emerging Chinese middle class look upon these events and demand more political freedoms? Or will the Uighurs simply be suppressed and the entire conflict will lead to nothing? I am reminded of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, which many international observers predicted would result in a real challenge to the Communist Party, which of course did not actually prove to be the case. But the situation is very different today, since there is a much stronger, more globalized middle class in the cities with greater access to international media, and political reforms usually come from the educated middle classes, not from angry peasants.

Sean Roberts: This is a very interesting question indeed. To date, Chinese democracy advocates have not tended to forge direct solidarity with ethnic minority groups like the Uyghurs and Tibetans. That being said, I do believe that a new generation of Han Chinese who are increasingly exposed to the international arena may begin to understand why they need to empower minorities inside China to have more political and cultural autonomy. These tendencies, however, are also counterbalanced by a growing Han Chinese nationalism in the country as we saw last year when Han students studying in the US reacted so negatively to Tibetan protests during the Olympics. Unfortunately, I think these problems will not be resolved soon, but I also think that - until they are - they will continue to create substantial problems for the Chinese state and the CCP.

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Anonymous: What sect of Islam are the Uighurs, generally? Do the Muslim fanatics in the middle east spend any time or energy on the Uighurs' cause?

Sean Roberts: Uyghurs are mostly Sunni Muslims, but they are also many Sufi sects in Xinjiang. Generally, the Chinese government has been quite diligent in preventing middle eastern countries from fostering fundamentalism, and particularly political Islam, among the Uyghurs. China has established close ties with Pakistan and continually addresses this issue with the Pakistani leadership. Likewise, China has established critical economic relations with the Arab states, especially through oil deals, which helps to discourage any Arab support for Uyghur separatism.

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Farifax, Va.: Dr. Roberts, Why most of the media interview only Han Chinese residents, while there is no single Uighur resident being interviewed or expressing his/her opinion via media? Thank you.

Sean Roberts: I believe this is largely because Uyghurs fear being interviewed, especially for broadcast media. Uyghurs in Xinjiang who speak with journalists or scholars are often subjected to interrogation by local authorities.

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Vienna, Va.: Dear Sean:

The Soviet Union saw an influx of ethnic Uighur refugees during China's cultural revolution. If violence is to continue, is there the possibility of Uighurs fleeing to neighboring Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan? What about the involvement of the Uighur diaspora in those countries? Are they at all able to influence the situation in Xinjiang?

Eric

Sean Roberts: In the early 1990s, the Central Asian states showed more sympathy to the Uyghurs in China than they do now. As a result of a series of agreements with China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other Central Asian states have increasingly discouraged Uyghurs from taking part in political activities on their territory. In recent years, for example, these countries have extradited Uyghurs who have fled China at the request of the Chinese state. Uzbekistan even extradited a Uyghur Canadian citizen who was visiting relatives in Uzbekistan. Thus, it is difficult to say what would happen if the violence really spiraled that out of control. In the 1960s, however, there is evidence that the Chinese willfully allowed Uyghurs to flee to the Soviet Union. Perhaps the Chinese state would not be opposed to many Uyghurs fleeing now.

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Baltimore, Md.: Do you think that the violence and protests are confined to Urumqi or are there protests occurring all over Xinjiang?

Sean Roberts: It is difficult to say. There have been reports of various disturbances outside Urumqi, but it does not appear to me that there are any international correspondents in these different cities. Thus, there is not much reliable information about the scope of the unrest around the region.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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