China is grabbing international headlines again, but not in the way its leaders appreciate. Conflict between Han Chinese and ethnic minority Uighurs in the western Xinjiang Autonomous Region—a combination of Uighur rioting, police crackdowns, and Han reprisals—has left 156 dead and over 1,000 wounded in just three days, making this the most severe bout of ethnic conflict in China since the Tibetan uprising 16 months ago.
Chinese President Hu Jintao returned early from the G-8 summit to deal with the crisis—an indication of the severity of the problem in China and also to its potential impact on China’s international standing in the world. The United States must tread carefully, but it should make clear to the Chinese government and the world that repression to gain stability in the short term is ultimately self-defeating.
The first thing China, the United States, and other nations need to do is get the facts right. The immediate cause of the current conflict occurred on June 25, in southern Guangdong province. A false rumor claiming that two Han girls had been raped by Uighur migrant workers incited a clash between Han Chinese and Uighurs at a factory, which killed two people. Delays in the investigation of those deaths caused Uighurs in Urümqi, the capital, to carry out a protest Sunday night.
Chinese authorities have reported that over 150 have been killed and over 1,000 wounded following the initially peaceful demonstration. The exact causes of the deaths are still unclear. Chinese authorities claim the majority of those killed were Han Chinese, but the BBC cites Uighur sources who estimate that 90 percent of the dead were Uighurs. Mobs of armed Han Chinese retaliated by roaming the streets looking for Uighurs to attack.
Police in Urümqi, backed by People’s Liberation Army soldiers and paramilitary forces dispatched from Beijing, have clamped down on the protests. Authorities imposed martial law and a nighttime curfew on Tuesday, and there have been reports of mass arrests. The government has also imposed a communications blackout, blocked all internet access in Xinjiang province, and censored social networking sites—such as Twitter and Facebook—across the country. The top Chinese Communist Party official in Xinjiang, Li Zhi, said that he would seek the death penalty for those responsible for instigating the violence.
Similar to their response to the Tibet uprising, in which Chinese officials blamed the Dalai Lama and his “splittist clique” for the unrest, Chinese officials are blaming the current crisis on foreign influences, particularly exiled Uighur dissident Rebiya Kadeer, who denies the allegations.
More likely, the recent violence is simply the latest episode of Uighur violence that has regularly surfaced in Xinjiang, fueled by China’s discriminatory policies, economic disparities, and heavy-handed reaction to Uighur perceptions of ethnic disenfranchisement. A state-encouraged influx of Han Chinese migrants into Xinjiang has left Uighurs economically and politically marginalized in their own nominally autonomous region. Heavily restrictive controls on Uighur religious and cultural practices exacerbate these discontents. Such violence and targeting of Uighurs by the Chinese government is the primary reason it is not possible to repatriate the 17 Uighurs who were wrongly imprisoned at Guantánamo.
The Chinese Communist Party undoubtedly desires to avoid the prolonged public relations nightmare of last year’s Tibetan conflict, which explains their more sophisticated media response to the Urumqi uprising and why considerable force appears to have been used to subdue rioting Uighurs. The CCP wants to nip any sign of ethnic conflict in the bud before it snowballs out of control.
Yet violent repression trades long-term instability for short-term stability. Harsh suppression will further inflame ethnic tensions, and may convince otherwise peaceful Uighurs that peaceful means do not produce results.
This is the same conundrum that the CCP finds itself with in Tibet. By rebuffing negotiations with the Dalai Lama, the CCP taught the next generation of Tibetans that peaceful methods are a fruitless means to address grievances, thereby inadvertently sowing the seeds of last year’s uprising. The result is a near-permanent state of siege in Tibet, costly for the CCP and degrading for Tibetans.
Still, it would be a mistake for the United States to overreact. The CCP has successfully kept alive in China the nightmares of China’s near dismemberment at the hands of the Western powers a century ago—in a bid to foment nationalism to bolster its own legitimacy. It is too easy for the Chinese public to see U.S. human rights causes as a means by which to encumber a rising China. Saber rattling by the West could incite a nationalist backlash, as demonstrated last year in the Tibet uprising, and worse, it could be counterproductive.
Nor can the United States stay silent. It should instead tack a more sophisticated middle course. The United States should first mitigate Chinese nationalism by reassuring the Chinese public that it holds Xinjiang to be legitimately part of China. But it then must also emphasize that human rights are by definition universal, and “internal affairs” is no longer a valid excuse in the 21st century.
U.S. leaders should appeal to Beijing’s self-interest to advance human rights in Xinjiang. Moderates within the CCP know that violent suppression of ethnic disaffection is simply unsustainable in the long term. Rather, a genuine demonstration by the CCP that it is ready and willing both to respect Uighur political autonomy and to foster equitable economic prosperity in Xinjiang would greatly undercut the discontent fueling violence in the region.
Most importantly, U.S. policymakers should remind China that if it wishes for the international community to respect it as a great power, China must in turn respect its own people. Indeed, how China treats its own citizens now will be telling of what kind of great power it will be in the future.
Winny Chen is Research Assistant to National Security Senior Vice President Rudy deLeon at the Center for American Progress. Colin Cookman is Special Assistant for National Security at the Center. And Chris Beddor is an Intern with the National Security team. To read more about the Center’s U.S.-China policy proposals please go to our website.