Reflecting upon Urumqi Riot on its First Anniversary
Debasish Chaudhuri

Last year summer, the northwestern city of Urumqi experienced an unprecedented outburst of ethnic tension between the Han and the Uyghur communities. The riot popularly came to be known as “July 5th incident” (七五事件). The significance of this riot in Urumqi is such that in one single evening the number of casualties reportedly reached 197, a figure higher than even the total number of people claimed to have been killed across Xinjiang by the Eastern Turkestan terrorists between 1990 and 2001; apparently a peaceful demonstration that turned into a full scale riot and spread over different parts of the city within a short span of time. PRC came out with an all out attack against the Uyghur exile leader Rebiya Kadeer for her involvement in the riot and totally denied any need of revision of nationality policies.

Most of the Western scholars working on Chinese Muslims registered serious doubts if the incidents mentioned in the Post-September 11 official documents, were actually perpetrated by terrorist groups. Dru C. Glandney, an authority on Chinese Muslim, contends that majority of these incidents ‘apparently arise not from separatist sentiment but from more general form of alienation’. We may easily avoid bickering over whether or not separatist sentiment is some form of alienation. The wide spread and historically embedded separatist feeling among a large section of Uyghur population is a fact endorsed by everyone. In addition, inequitable distribution of economic benefits in the reform era created a situation of relative deprivation and made way to an unbridgeable gap between regions, rural and urban areas as well as majority and minority ethnic groups.

The main cause of Uyghur resentment arises from the community’s gradual exclusion from the economic activities in the large scale development programs in their resource rich region. The Chinese official position is that both the rioters in Urumqi on July 5th and those who killed 162 peoples and injured 440 in 200 different incidents across Xinjiang in over a decade belong to the category of terrorists. However, many analysts think that they are not terrorists.

There are sure evidences of Uyghur presence among Muslim terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries surrounding Xinjiang. It is possible that a large number of unemployed young Uyghurs with a deep rooted sense of deprivation might take up arms if they get opportunity. From the number the victims in Xinjiang until last summer and the nature of violence in most of the “incidents” in Xinjiang, it appears that the Uyghur are either not fully trusted by the international Muslim terrorist groups or have failed to get enough material or financial support from terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. The techno savvy terrorist of today’s world surely be embarrassed to know the kind of obsolete weapons that were used in a primitive form of warfare by their Uyghur counterparts in Urumqi riot last year. If we consider the number of victims as an indicator of efficacy of a separatist movement or intensity of terrorist activities then the last year’s Urumqi riot certainly added a new dimension to the Xinjiang problem.

To understand this problem we need to delve into the culture of protest that emerged in China in a relatively open political atmosphere during 1980s, the first decade of reform and opening. The university campuses across the country including those of Xinjiang, were the first to be engulfed with protests and demonstrations, but suffered serious setback after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Under the more authoritarian leadership of 1990s a new form of political activism and collective resistance, popularly known as mass incident (群众事件) emerged across the country. Between 1993 and 2005 the number mass incidents rose from 10,000 to 87,000. In most of these cases protests were launched against public decisions taken by the local government and the party organization. Usually peaceful demonstrations and sit-in protests turned violent due to the high handedness of security officials and local authority. In 2005 and 2006, the government made serious efforts to establish special “anti-terror” and riot police units in 36 major cities of the country and made People’s Armed Police (PAP) into an extremely combat-effective force. There were instances when these forces equipped with baton and armoured vehicles were called in to clear impoverished protestors. It appears that the government officials, party leadership and public security agencies have become increasingly intolerant towards public protests.

There is possibly no standard criterion towards conflict-resolution mechanism, and suppression still remains an as effective mode of state response to both rightful resistances as well as regime-threatening activities. It is note-worthy that transition from non-violent protests to mass violence across the country has strong resemblance with the radicalization of ethno-national movements in Tibet and Xinjiang in the late 1980s and early 1990s respectively. It would be a gross mistake to analyze the “July 5th” incident in Urumqi in isolation of the on-going social conflicts throughout China. One should not overlook state repression and inequitable development pattern in Xinjiang, and simply interpret last year’s riot in the region’s capital as Islamist attack on China’s “soft underbelly”.

Chinese leaders of the reform era believe that development is the hard rationale (硬道理) of the present stage of socialist market economy. In-migration of Han labour force in Xinjiang and out-migration of Uyghur labours from the impoverished counties of the region is based on this assumption. Government initiated labour transfer from the poor areas of Xinjiang is an integral part of poverty alleviation measures in this region. This novel technique of poverty alleviation however does not appear to be guided by any economic logic. The poor peoples of Xinjiang are encouraged to leave their native place for higher income jobs in other parts of China. The Uyghur workers, involved in the “June 26th” brawl (斗殴事件) at Xuri Toy Factory in Shaoguan, were transferred from Kashgar under such labour transfer scheme during May last year. The Chinese position was that the toy factory brawl was non-criminal case and assured that it would be settled in a timely and just manner. It appears that July 5th protest was a response to this official position.

It is not that spontaneous mass violence does not erupt as a reaction to another incident. But it seems that without any organizational support and proper plan a peaceful demonstration that started at 5 o’clock in the evening of July 5th could not have turned into a full scale riot across Urumqi within a few hours. One can infer from the timing of the demonstration that the organizers had a different plan for that evening and mass protest was just a prelude to an imminent violence. It was reported in Chinese websites that from July 4th onwards, various means of social networking and interaction such as internet, QQ service and distribution of hand notes, some people disseminated information of a mass demonstration to be held on July 5th. The report further describes exile Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer’s role in the riot, which sounds same as the official rhetoric against the Dalai Lama’s involvement in Tibetan riot prior to the Olympic Games in Beijing. Besides giving information about a phone call from Rebiya to her brother on July 4th, Chinese government did not provide any evidence of her involvement in the riot. It is very difficult to know who were behind the organization of the protest march. The Chinese source asserts that they were Rebiya’s men active in Xinjiang.

Chinese always exaggerates hostility and strength of their adversary, and they are never open in sharing information about the actual situation in Xinjiang. The local leaders use moderate statements about terrorist threat and social stability only when they try to give positive impact on the potential investors in the region. When a state restricts all possible channels of expressing resentment in legal and peaceful means and reacts offensively to any social resistance, it makes itself less secure. In course of fighting against the “three menace” (ethnic separatism, religious extremism and international terrorism), Chinese leadership often overlook the threatening nature of their own policies in Xinjiang that have marginalized and segregated the Uyghur population from the mainstream. However, the wholesale Chinese attacks against Rebiya Kadeer during last year’s riot have made the Uyghur cause more popular in the world.

At the end of August last year, Urumqi again turned restive due to so-called syringe attack and 531 people were reported to have been attacked with hypodermic syringes between August 20 and September 4. The Uyghurs were the sole suspect in this case and though there were Han and other ethnic groups including the Uyghurs among the victims of syringe attack it was only the latter who were were arrested,. A Hong Kong press reported that ten thousand Han citizens demonstrated demanding their protection and some also demanded dismissal of the regional party secretary Wang Lequan and the city party chief Li Zhi for their incompetence in protecting citizens from the Uyghur wrath. Ironically the Uyghur community in the region had also been demanding a replacement for the hard liner Wang Lequan. On September 5, Li Zhi was dismissed, but Wang, a close hand of President Hu Jintao remained and was finally transfered to Beijing with a higher position in April this year.

According to an official estimation 825 people were detained after the July riot. Though the Shaoguan incident was earlier referred to as a non-criminal case of public order, last October one person was sentenced to death and another to life imprisonment, and nine others were given prison terms ranging from five to eight years. In different trials relating to the July 5th riot, 23 persons were given sentence to death, three to suspended death sentence, six to life imprisonment and 11 were given fixed term imprisonment. One Han Chinese was possibly handed down death sentence in December 4th trial. In order to display the normalcy of inter-ethnic relations, the labour transfer from remote parts of south Xinjiang started again in the first week of August.
The March 14 riot in Lhasa in 2008 and last year’s Urumqi riot impelled many Chinese academicians to rethink the theory and practice of nationalities policy over the last sixty years. It was suggested that the central leadership should review its policy of rapid urbanization in minority regions and marginalization along ethnic lines in name of development. Propaganda for national unity and state coercion will only help China to maintain artificial stability. Recent reports on the preparations taken by the government in the first anniversary of the July 5th incident is the glaring example of stability and social order the Chinese leadership frequently talk about.

In order to ensure tranquillity in the capital city and other sensitive areas of Xinjiang, a month long strike hard campaign commenced on June 20, 2010. More than 8,800 (according to some reports the number is about 40,000) surveillance cameras has been installed in different parts of Urumqi. The public security bureau of Urumqi has specially created a highly efficient Flying Tiger Commandos (飞虎突击队) to defend the city from any possible riot. Miao Pusheng, the Deputy Director of Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences comments that in order to maintain the enduring security the authority has been considering short term, mid term and long term policy measures because the social security and ethnic unity is still under threat from forces of “three menace”. The newly appointed regional party secretary Zhang Chunxian views that the region has got a golden opportunity for realizing great construction, great opening and great development (大建设,大开放, 大发展). However, the question remains if these ambitious development plans would mitigate inter-ethnic tension in the region.

“Islamist fighters on the Silk Road”, M. K. Bhadrakumar, The Hindu, July 20, 2009
“Local Governments and the Suppression of Popular Resistance in China, Cai Yongshun, China Quarterly, No. 193 (March 2008)
“Social Conflicts and Modes of Action in China”, Cai Yongshun, China Journal, No. 59, January 2008.
“Responses to Chinese Rule – Patterns of Cooperation and Opposition”, Dru C. Gladney, in S.
Fredrick Starr, ed., Xinjiang China’s Muslim Borderland, Armonk, M. E. Sharpe, 2004.
“Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment”, James Millward, Policy Studies 6
Quartely Chronicle and Documentation, China Quarterly, No. 200 (December 2009) & No. 201 (March 2010)
“What really happened at Urumqi on July 5”, Zou Yonghong, The Hindu, July 13, 2009.
“Rethinking Theory and Practice of Nationalities Policy in China”, Qiu Yonghui, Paper presented in the International Seminar on Xinjiang in the 21st Century (3-4 March 2010) in Centre for South, Central and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
“新疆七五事件周年:乌鲁木齐街头平静严打显著” (09/07/2010)
“乌鲁木齐成立“飞虎突击队”反恐处突” (06/07/2010)
“乌鲁木齐将在7.5事件一周年前后开展一个月严打” (09/07/2010)

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