Inequalities and corruption at root of violence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 July, 2009, 12:00am

Exactly one week after the most deadly ethnic violence on the mainland in decades, the city of Urumqi , the centre of the violence, and the rest of Xinjiang were reportedly tense but calm yesterday.

The authorities have raised the death toll to 184 and for the first time gave the ethnic breakdown of the dead, of whom 137 were Han Chinese.

As mainlanders of all ethnicities try to come to terms with the full horror of the riots, it is time for attention to shift from the breaking news to examining the deeper issues and searching for answers.

Why, for instance, did the Xinjiang authorities fail to contain the spread of the violence when the riots started?

There is little doubt the riots, which came less than 18 months after the violence in Tibet , will trigger a sharp debate among mainland academics and, more important, within the leadership over the policy on ethnic minorities.

The central government appears to have drawn an important lesson from its mishandling of the overseas media during the riots in Tibet, this time choosing to grant foreign journalists access in Urumqi and elsewhere in Xinjiang swiftly. The move earned praise from international correspondents and analysts, while helping to improve the mainland's image.

While the authorities wasted no time in saying the riots were well organised and planned by exiled Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer, they failed to explain why the government was unable to stop the violence before it escalated into a wave that killed nearly 200 people.

According to the official accounts, the authorities in Xinjiang started to notice a surge in messages over the internet and telephone traffic urging Uygurs to assemble for protests in the key downtown areas as early as 1pm on July 5.

But the rampage of killing and burning by the rioters reportedly did not start until 6pm or 7pm, according to the official media. Critical time was lost.

Furthermore, it was not that the officials had not been warned.

Anger was already building among Uygurs in Xinjiang after the violent clash late last month between Han and Uygur workers at a toy factory in Shaoguan , Guangdong, that left two Uygurs dead.

Most overseas analysts have attributed the violence in both Xinjiang and Tibet to the failure of Beijing's policies on ethnic minorities.

Indeed, the failure by officials to re-examine the policies towards minorities in the wake of the Tibet violence means the leadership will almost certainly have that debate now.

Already, some nationalists have begun to advocate hardline policies against dissenting minorities, posting articles on internet forums hailing Wang Zhen , the late former vice-president. Wang, the People's Liberation Army commander in Xinjiang in the late 1940s and 1950s, was known for resolutely using lethal means to crush dissent and insurgency in the area.

Although such harsh nationalistic reactions are unlikely to prevail, their appearance has refocused the spotlight on the two long-standing schools of opinion on governing ethnic minorities - the get-tough model versus the conciliatory approach.

But it would be lopsided to view the violence in Xinjiang or riots in Tibet as merely an ethnic or religious issue.

The fundamental cause behind the riots in both instances is similar to what has driven riots involving only Han Chinese - people feel they have been left behind economically and are angry over the widening income gap, rampant corruption and widespread social injustices.