July 7, 2009 / 5:55 AM / 10 years ago

Q+A - Who are the Uighurs and why did they riot?

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police have arrested more than 1,400 suspects in connection with rioting in the capital of Muslim Xinjiang region which left 156 people dead and more than 800 injured, state media said on Tuesday.

Uighur protesters gather during a demonstration in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region July 7, 2009. REUTERS/Nir Elias

The Chinese government has blamed exiled separatists for the unrest in regional capital Urumqi on Sunday — the worst case of ethnic unrest in years.


Xinjiang is home to about 8 million Uighurs, or almost half of the region’s total population. Many Uighurs — a Turkic, largely Islamic people who share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia — resent the growing presence and economic grip of Han Chinese as well as government controls on religion and culture.

Exiled Uighur militants have been agitating to establish an independent East Turkestan in oil-rich Xinjiang bordering Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

China has accused Uighur militants of staging a series of terrorist attacks on Chinese civilians since the 1990s and hinted at their links with al Qaeda, but human rights groups said Beijing used its support for the previous U.S. administration’s “war on terror” to justify a crackdown on Uighurs.


Rioting on Sunday followed a protest about government handling of a June clash between Han Chinese and Uighur factory workers in southern China, where two Uighurs died.

The underlying cause of the unrest was probably long-standing economic, cultural and religious grievances, which have built up over decades of tight rule and periodically erupt into violence, though never before on such a deadly scale.

“In Xinjiang one of the major sources of discontent is that there is still a major gap economically between Han and Uighurs,” said Barry Sautman, a specialist in China’s ethnic politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.


Security forces moved swiftly to crush the unrest as soon as it erupted, and have established a heavy presence on the streets.

Analysts say there could be isolated incidents in other towns, particularly ones with a Uighur majority population, but China has a strong grip on Xinjiang and its geography is less of a challenge than neighbouring Tibet, so the chances of sustained unrest over a long period are low.

“Although the scale of the security-force response makes a serious deterioration in public order unlikely, more limited, isolated security incidents are very possible in the current climate,” Control Risks’ China analyst Andrew Gilholm said in a note on the Xinjiang situation.


It seems impossible that Beijing could ignore two major eruptions of ethnic violence in its two most sensitive regions over less than 18 months apart.

That said, the rioting will provide as much fuel to hardliners keen to tighten security screws as it will to officials who favour policies of reconciliation and accommodation.

“Every time there has been major ethnic incidents two (government) approaches go on parallel tracks,” said Sautman. “There are people who say ‘we have to think about changing policy’ and there are people who say ‘we have to be more effective in hunting down separatists’, and I think both things will probably occur.”

Any soul-searching is likely to happen in private as China’s secretive government has long fostered nationalism as a unifying ideology and favours presenting a strong, unified face to its citizens and the world.

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