The sequence of events is contested, but goes like this. In Shaoguan City in distant Guangdong province two Uighurs were accused of raping a Han Chinese girl. The Chinese authorities now say this accusation was baseless. However, it led to some kind of anti-Uighur pogrom and at least two Uighurs, and possibly a few more, were killed.No kidding. Leaving aside the anti-China stuff, it seems very, very unlikely that the Uighur are extraordinarily radical. The extent to which they're radicalized seems to be line with their difficult situation, not any kind of extremist Islamic theocracy.
This led, the next day, to a demonstration against the general repression of Uighurs, China's biggest Muslim minority, in Xinjiang's capital city, Urumqi. The Uighurs have a lot of grievances. The Australian government clearly thinks some of them significant, as Uighur issues always figure in the annual Australia-China human rights dialogue. When the Chinese communists took control of Xinjiang in 1949, ethnic Han made up about 6 per cent of the population, with Uighurs the vast majority.
Today, the Han make up about 50 per cent, with Uighurs a minority in their own homeland. There are several other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. It is now a very segregated province. Urumqi has clear Han and Uighur districts, and throughout Xinjiang there are separate Uighur, Khazak and Han villages.
The practice of the Muslim religion is very circumscribed. Individual visits to Mecca for the haj are illegal. Religion is discouraged in schools, religious festivals not fully celebrated.
The vast natural resource development has resulted in jobs for Han, not for Uighurs. Although Xinjiang is formally designated a Uighur Autonomous Region, all political power, most political positions, most jobs and most economic development has gone to the Han. Some Han are recent migrants, others were forcibly relocated to Xinjiang during either the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.
The Uighurs say the recent violence began when their peaceful demonstration was met with savage brutality by Chinese police. We cannot know for sure what happened, but the Uighur claims are plausible as they would be consistent with Chinese police behaviour elsewhere in China and especially in Xinjiang.
The Chinese authorities say the violence began when the Uighur demonstrators went on an anti-Han rampage. Subsequently Han mobs went on an anti-Uighur rampage. If any other country were managing a minority region with this degree of crudity there would be immediate calls for greater autonomy and perhaps self determination. But, as usual, the Chinese have the international community bluffed. They have achieved this with Xinjiang in part by convincing the world that all Uighur activists are 9/11-style terrorists.
In fact, the Americans are trying to find homes for the Uighur residents of Guantanamo Bay because they have come to the conclusion that they pose no terrorist threat.
There have been Uighur separatist terrorist bombings in China, but independent analysts believe the number of Uighurs involved in international jihadist terrorism is tiny. However, by its recent behaviour China certainly risks radicalising young Uighur men.
But it's hard to say exactly what happened, because the Internet has been, you guessed it, blamed for this and shut down. More on that in the next post.