Recent ethnic clashes between Han Chinese and ethnically Turkic Uighurs in western China’s Xinjiang Province left a reported 156 people dead and prompted authorities to send thousands of troops to restore order. The violence, following major riots in Tibet last spring between ethnic Tibetans and Han Chinese, has highlighted “deep ethnic and racial differences” in the country, says Dru C. Gladney, an expert on China’s ethnic minorities. He says the protests, which devolved into what he called almost “an ethnic war,” had started off peacefully and were really about social justice. They had “nothing to do with Islam, or separatism, or independence.” Gladney fears the protests may also spark greater Chinese nationalism across the country, similar to anti-Tibetan sentiment after riots in Tibet last year.
China’s ethnic minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet, have frequently complained of economic discrimination and are resentful of policies that they see as an attempt at changing the demographics of their regions through migration of Han Chinese. Gladney says China has a progressive affirmative action policy for its minorities, but only in writing. In reality, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet, he says the local populations feel they have not benefited from the booming economy or the extraction of resources from their region.
While Tibetans and Uighurs share grievances regarding social justice and freedom of religion, Uighurs, unlike Tibetans, receive much less support internationally for their cause. Gladney says it’s because the Muslim Uighurs are portrayed as terrorists by Beijing. “Since 9/11, being a Muslim group accused of terrorism does not engender any warm sympathy. The Uighurs are faced with this issue of not having a positive image in the media or abroad with non-Muslim populations, and even Muslim countries really haven’t spoken out on their behalf,” he says. He hopes the latest round of clashes will cause the Chinese government to reallocate resources to local populations and to allow local populations greater participation in economic opportunities.