China Blames Violence in Its Muslim Western Region on Outsiders

By Patrick Goodenough | July 13, 2009 | 6:10 AM EDT

( – Amid reported quiet in its far-west Xinjiang region, Chinese state media on Monday charged that pro-Uighur protests at Chinese diplomatic missions in the West indicated that outsiders had planned the recent violence in the Muslim-majority area.
“Supporters of the East Turkistan separatists started well-orchestrated and sometimes violent attacks on Chinese embassies and consulates in several countries soon after the riots occurred last Sunday,” the Xinhua news agency said.
“The attacks against China’s diplomatic missions and the Urumqi riots seemed to be well-organized.”
It cited protests in the U.S., Western Europe, Turkey, Australia and Japan, including one in Washington D.C. led by Rebiya Khadeer, the exiled Uighur activist who Beijing has painted as the mastermind behind the unrest in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
Khadeer, a successful businesswoman and dissident, was imprisoned for six years for “leaking state secrets” before China released her in 2005 and allowed her to travel to the U.S., where she now lives. She is president of the World Uighur Congress.
“Kadeer has long made it clear that the WUC would plot sabotage activities this year, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China,” Xinhua said.
The unrest was sparked by local anger about the deaths of two Uighurs at the hands of Han Chinese coworkers at a toy factory in distant Guandgong province in southern China.
Uighurs in Urumqi took to the streets to demonstrate their disapproval of the government’s handling of the incident and the protests turned violent, with Uighurs turning on Han, and security forces cracking down.
The Chinese government says 184 people were killed in the rioting, 46 of them Uighurs and 137 Han. Kadeer, who has denied playing any role in encouraging the protests, says the true number is probably some where between 500 and 1,000.
Uighurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims whose traditional homeland enjoyed brief independence as East Turkistan in the 1930s and 40s, but fell under communist Chinese rule in 1949.
Muslim Uighurs are the majority in Xinjiang, but millions of ethnic Han have moved into the resource-rich region in China’s far north-west and now make up 40 percent of the total population, while the Uighur proportion of the population has dropped to 45 percent. In Urumqi, Han make up 75 percent of the population.
Uighur campaigns say Chinese rule had been characterized by attempts to assimilate the Uighurs, by settling Han in the region and restricting Uighur culture, religion and language.
At least one separatist Uighur group, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), has links to al-Qaeda and operates from the tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Washington in 2002 designated ETIM under an executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists by freezing assets in the U.S., but the State Department also says China uses counterterrorism as a pretext for repression against Uighurs, whether or not they support radicals.
Beijing’s focus on Kadeer is reminiscent of its media campaign against the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader blamed for an outbreak of violence in the Chinese-controlled Himalayan region last year.
Xinjiang and neighboring Tibet are China’s two largest administrative divisions, together making up more than one-quarter of the country’s territory. Beijing says both have benefited from being part of the PRC and is sensitive about outside criticism of its policies in the regions, calling it interference in its internal affairs.
The Chinese government views separatism as one of “three evils” (the other two being terrorism and extremism) and has identified the Dalai Lama and Kadeer as its most dangerous exponents.
Xinhua quoted Xinjiang’s Communist Party chief, Wang Lequan, as saying that as soon as Kadeer went to the U.S., she became involved with “overseas terrorists, separatists and extremists forces.”
Official media attempted to draw links between Kadeer and the Dalai Lama and their respective supporters.
“There are astonishing similarities between the two separatist groups,” said an article in the state-run China Daily. “They have repeatedly used the same tactics as if fellow pupils who graduated from the same insurgence crash course.”
“Both the groups, while using the local people as cheap sacrificial lambs for their personal ambitions, also appoint themselves as the natural, political and spiritual representatives of the local communities,” it said.
“Like the Dalai Lama, Ms. Kadeer is also fully cognizant of the importance of P.R. endeavors in a bid to rally the international support,” the Communist Party organ People’s Daily said in a commentary.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow