Sensitive touch needed to soothe ethnic tensions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 September, 2009, 12:00am

The sacking of Urumqi's Communist Party Secretary Li Zhi yesterday, a rare move in response to public protests, reflects the gravity of the situation facing the central government in Xinjiang. Five people have been killed and scores injured in mass rallies triggered by Han Chinese who are angered at a failure by provincial authorities to secure their safety amid a wave of terrifying attacks with syringes.

The main target of the protesters, Xinjiang party leader Wang Lequan , remains in his position, at least for the time being. But the city is tense and people are frightened. Coming only two months after violence between Uygurs and Han Chinese claimed nearly 200 lives, it has the potential to escalate. The priority must be to ensure people's safety and to show them that their grievances are being taken seriously.

Security forces have shut down Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, and arrested journalists. At least three reporters from Hong Kong were beaten and detained. Though they were later released, their rough treatment - including an allegation by one of the reporters that a gun was levelled at him - was unjustified and excessive.

The harsh response by security forces across the city may have helped restore order at a superficial level, but the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty will not dissipate so easily. People need to feel safe and secure. Continuing an internet blackout and cracking down on reporters will not help restore calm and confidence. By blocking news and releasing only partial information through official channels, rumours and panic can easily spread.

Trouble apparently first started when some Han Chinese demonstrators tried to march on Uygur neighbourhoods, causing riot police to step in. For weeks, families have been afraid to go out. Parents are not allowing their children to attend school because of fears about anti-Han attackers armed with syringes. Uygurs are worried about retaliation by Han Chinese. People refuse to take public buses. Shops are closed. Though scores of suspects have been arrested for the attacks, serious doubts remain. Clearly, people have lost trust in the government's ability to maintain order since the deadly riots broke out in July; the syringe attacks have added fuel to the fire.

The latest rallies can be seen as a response to the riots instigated by the Uygurs in July. The central government is especially worried as they are taking place only a month before the nation's 60th anniversary. Sending Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu to the scene shows Beijing's concern. Meng said the syringe attacks were a continuation of the July violence perpetrated by separatists bent on pitting Han Chinese against Muslim Uygurs. That may or may not be the case. It is unclear how organised those attacks have been. But by adding ethnic tensions to the mix, there is now a potentially combustible situation.

Every effort must be made to establish the truth and stop the attacks. But the hardline approach adopted will not solve the deeper problem of ethnic tensions in Xinjiang. The root causes need to be tackled - i.e. the economic inequality and social injustice from which Uygurs suffer. Their region might have been modernised, but many feel their culture and religion are being marginalised.

A more sensitive and inclusive approach is needed if tensions are to be eased. The task is not an easy one, but it must be undertaken if people in Xinjiang are to feel safe and live together in harmony.