Credible riot probe can restore China's standing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 July, 2009, 12:00am

Beijing has finally broken its silence over the deadly Xinjiang riots. However, the statement put out after a Politburo meeting chaired by President Hu Jintao was predictable. As expected, it promised harsh punishment for the perpetrators and a crackdown on troublemakers. It blamed the violence on 'the three forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism at home and abroad'. At this sensitive time, Beijing should tone down its rhetoric. Authorities have a right and a duty to impose order, protect property and prevent any further loss of life. But they must be careful lest their words are interpreted as encouraging vigilantism or acts of revenge by Han Chinese. It is also disappointing that exiled Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer, of the World Uygur Congress, has accused security forces of firing on and killing more than 100 protesters in Kashgar on Tuesday. Her claims are almost certainly exaggerated. Neither side has offered any credible evidence to support their accusations. The last thing we need is to inflame an already tense situation.

Ethnic conflicts are among the most intractable of political problems. As an ethnic group which feels increasingly marginalised, the Uygurs have legitimate grievances; any long-term solution must offer viable means to redress them. But Han migrants, many of them poor and looking for a better life in Xinjiang, have every right to expect safety and protection from local authorities. Meeting these conflicting demands would test the mettle of anyone in power.

Many people have rushed to judgment, but we still do not know how the initial demonstration in Urumqi on Sunday became violent or how it spread to other parts of the city. The mainland authorities last night raised the death toll to 184 and released a breakdown of the ethnicity of the victims. This delay might have been because the authorities were trying to hide the facts to avoid inciting ethnic tensions. But there is a need for a credible account of the events; the world needs to know what happened. Otherwise, critics will simply assume the worst.

In an open and transparent society, such an outbreak of violence would inevitably have led to an independent commission of inquiry headed by respected public figures and specialists to answer fundamental questions, determine the truth and find solutions. But this is not likely to happen on the mainland. Authorities have made a good start by letting some foreign journalists into affected areas. Nevertheless, an investigation into the events is clearly called for. It has to be fair in its dealings with witnesses, and the evidence presented credible. China's international standing is at stake.

Even though many Chinese citizens support the official actions so far, they need a better understanding of the riots and their underlying causes to avoid the stereotyping of ethnic minorities and harbouring of racial hatred. Officials must not pander to bigotry and extreme nationalism, which will undermine any attempt to reconcile or bring about social harmony. The riots in Xinjiang inevitably take on racial overtones, but their root causes have at least as much to do with economic inequality and social injustice. In this respect, they are not so different from hundreds of other incidents of unrest in other parts of the country. These usually have to do with corruption, exploitation, unfair wages and unsafe working conditions. Adding a racial dimension to already explosive social problems make them even more combustible in Xinjiang. Clearly, Beijing needs to change course and adopt a more sensitive and nuanced approach in the province.