Restore order, then tackle Xinjiang's woes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 July, 2009, 12:00am

The worst ethnic riots in decades are threatening to spin out of control. Mainland authorities must act to contain the unrest in Xinjiang and prevent any further loss of lives. Immediate action is needed to calm emotions on all sides. Casualties among Han Chinese have been high, but Uygurs also number among the victims. There is an urgent need to restore order before the deeper grievances, which lie at the root of Uygurs' resentment against Han Chinese, can be tackled.

Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan yesterday appealed for calm, but central government leaders have so far stayed silent. President Hu Jintao has been in Italy for the Group of Eight summit and has not commented on the riots. It may be that top leaders are giving local authorities a chance to deal with the situation and avoiding fanning the flames with high-profile comments. But given the seriousness of the disturbance and the sensitivity of ethnic tensions in the region, they need to address the issues and appeal for calm from both Han Chinese and Uygurs as fellow citizens. Those who perpetuated the violence deserve to be brought to justice, but legitimate grievances also need to be dealt with. Sweeping them under the carpet or merely denouncing the unrest as being caused by overseas Muslim dissidents can only worsen the situation.

The ferocity of the violence may be shocking, but officials should not be surprised. There have been warnings about the possibility of unrest for months. The situation is unstable and is in danger of escalating alarmingly. Yesterday, armed Han Chinese tried to approach Uygur districts in the heart of Urumqi to seek revenge and had to be dispersed by riot police. There were also reports of ethnic Uygurs trying to reach Guangdong, where two Uygurs were killed last month during a fight with Han Chinese co-workers at a factory. Any unrest must not be allowed to spread.

China is a multi-ethnic country. There is a tendency to see the latest unrest in racial terms. Without doubt, ethnic issues play a crucial part, but uneven economic and social developments are also key contributing factors. The 'Go West' campaign that the central government launched early this decade has brought development and prosperity to the region. But the incoming Han Chinese are seen by the Uygurs as being favoured by government policy and benefitting disproportionately from the economic opportunities created. As the dominant ethnic group, Uygurs, with some justification, feel marginalized.

All over China, people feel they have no real say in how they are governed. Where ethnic minorities are concerned, their feelings of isolation and powerlessness are exacerbated. In regions where large ethnic populations live, that can be a potent source of simmering discontent. Clearly, a more representative political system is needed. Distributing wealth more equitably and giving ethnic groups fairer opportunities in jobs are necessary; greater respect and sensitivity to their culture and religion are also needed.