Acknowledging a recent protest in the Muslim, northwestern province of Xinjian, the Chinese government has announced that Islamic separatist groups are seeking to foment unrest there.
The demonstration, which appears to have been quickly suppressed, took place in the town of Khotan on March 23, at a time when China was already grappling with widespread protests in Tibet and in neighboring provinces to the south and east of Xinjiang where Tibetans live in large numbers.
The news of the protest in Xinjiang underscored the breadth of China’s problems with ethnic and religious minority groups in the country’s vast western regions, where there is a long history of unhappiness with Chinese rule.
“A small number of elements tried to incite splittism, create disturbances in the market place and even trick the masses into an uprising,” a statement published on the website of the Khotan Government said on March 2, 2008 in the first acknowledgment of the disturbances.
Uighur residents of Khotan reached by telephone either claimed not to understand Chinese or refused to talk about recent events there. But Han residents said that as many as 500 members of China’s Uighur minority group protested in the centre of the city. Some reports have said the Uighurs, who are Muslim, were objecting to restrictions on wearing Islamic scarves and head coverings. Some interviewees, however, said the protesters were seeking independence. The demonstrators were quickly arrested by security forces who took control of the area.
Zhu Linxiu, a senior police official in Khotan, declined to comment in detail about the incident, saying it was “inappropriate to publicize.” He refused to confirm the number of protesters or arrests, but said the demonstrators were “instigated by bad elements.”
Two weeks before the reported protest in Khotan, China announced the discovery of what it called a terrorist plot in Xinjiang, which it said involved the smuggling of combustible liquids onto a commercial airliner by a Uighur woman who had spent time in neighbouring Pakistan.
Officials called the incident part of a terrorist campaign by a radical Islamic independence group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Uighur groups have denied the reports, and called them part of an effort to justify heavily stepped-up security in the region and the suppression of dissent before the Olympics.
In recent days, Beijing has also accused supporters of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, of plotting a suicide bombing campaign against China, as part of a separatist campaign.
On April 1, Amnesty International criticized the government for its crackdown on protest in Tibetan areas of China, and said the country’s efforts to silence dissidents before the Olympics violated Beijing’s pledges to improve human rights before it hosts the games in August. “The Olympic Games have so far failed to act as a catalyst for reform,” the international human rights groups said in a statement. “Unless urgent steps are taken to redress the situation, a positive human rights legacy for the Beijing Olympics looks increasingly beyond reach.”
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, denounced the Amnesty statement as “biased,” saying “anyone planning to use the Olympics to threaten China, or planning to put pressure on China, has miscalculated.”
Like Tibetans in Tibet, Uighurs have historically been the predominant ethnic group in Xinjiang, which is officially known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. In both Tibet and Xinjiang, indigenous groups have chafed at the arrival of large numbers of migrants from China’s Han majority, who have been spurred on in recent years by official government encouragement of western migration by Han.
Uighurs, like Tibetans, have complained over economic domination by the recent Han arrivals, over the predominance of Han in senior government and Communist Party posts in the province and over what they perceive as heavy-handed Chinese government control over their religious activities.
In telephone interviews, Han residents of Khotan and nearby areas said there was a long history of distrust and tension between Han and Uighur communities. Some Han migrants insisted the atmosphere remained volatile, and said that the Uighurs had been inspired by the recent Tibetan unrest.
“Some of jobless people here have heard about the situation Tibet, and they also want to make trouble,” said Wang Guoliang, a Han grocery store owner in Khotan. “They want independence and they want to expel the Han, who they dislike. Most of the main cadres in the Party, from counties and the cities to the provincial level are all Hans, while the local level officials are Uighur.” Mr. Wang called the purging of Uighur officials several years ago after a previous bout of tension “the root of the protest.”
Another Han, a clerk in a local bank who would only give his name as Chen, said there had been a long history of discontent in the region, and that people had been “on the lookout” since mid-March. At his bank, Mr. Chen said there had been grumblings over the restrictions on Muslim headgear, which he disagreed with, saying: “It is their national custom and we should respect it.” (Courtesy: New York Times, April 2, 2008)