Understanding Uighur-Han conflict in China's Xinjiang Province

Friday, July 24, 2009 | 11:53 a.m. CDT; updated 1:12 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 24, 2009

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: One leg of the fabled Silk Road passed through the modern day Xinjiang Province, home of the ethnic Uighurs, a group of Chinese who speak not Mandarin but their own Turkic language. Many are practicing Muslims and can be understood by citizens of Istanbul more readily than Beijing. Going back to the Seventh Century, the Uighur people have desired independence. Now, the Han Chinese are trying to assimilate the area. As a result, some Uighurs, a small minority in China, began challenging Han domination. Last year, as the Olympic Games were beginning in Beijing, 16 policemen were killed in Xinjiang. New clashes started on July 5 this year. Since then, perhaps 197 have been killed in fighting and hundreds more injured. What are the real facts, and what are the implications for China and the rest of the world? Why is it so difficult to cover this strife in Kashgar and the Xinjiang Province?

Andrew Jacobs, correspondent, New York Times, Beijing: Unlike Urumqi, where the upriseing took place, Kashgar is 90 percent Uighur and is also the symbolic and historic heart of Uighur culture. It’s a little more locked down than other places in Xinjiang. In Urumqi, the capital of the province, the city is 70 percent Han Chinese. There is a general fear that Kashgar and the southwest region could explode and be harder to contain. It is also close to the border with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries.

Loory: The Chinese government says Uighur thugs are responsible for all of the killing, while the Uighurs say they are being killed by the Chinese. Which is it?

Jacobs: The majority of the people killed were Han Chinese. I think Uighurs did much of the killing in Urumqi. Certainly, there were two days of revenge killing as well.

Loory: The Turkish prime minister has called what is going on in Xinjiang genocide, and the Chinese have demanded an apology from him. Is that going to be forthcoming?

Yigal Schleifer, correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, Istanbul: He has been a bit dramatic. The Chinese wanted him to take his words back, which he did not do, but there have been some back-channel talks to calm things down. In Turkey, it is a nationalist reaction combined with a pan-Turkic reaction. There has always been a strong sentiment here about uniting all the various Turkic people. What the prime minister said was to more appease a domestic audience, without really thinking about how strongly this would offend China.

Loory: How big a story is this in the rest of China?

Bill Foreman, South China bureau chief, Associated Press, Guangzhou, China: It gets a lot of coverage in the Chinese newspapers. The Xinhua news wire continues to have several stories about Xinjiang each day. It is a story of interest in southern China because in many ways this whole thing was ignited by an incident in Guangdong Province. Uighurs at a factory were attacked, officially two were killed, but Uighurs believe many more were killed. This is largely believed to have stirred up the riots and protests in Urumqi.

Loory: What is the American reaction to what is going on in Xinjiang?

Don Kirk, Korea correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, Washington: There is not much popular reaction. However, the Chinese are very concerned about U.S. support. They say it is quite significant for the World Uighur Congress run by Rebiya Kadeer, who lives in suburban Washington. They say the U.S. is backing this woman, who they say has a lot to do with igniting problems. She is supported by a relatively small grant for $200,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy, which is a Congress-supported non-governmental organization. It seems hard to believe that a grant that size could be responsible for unrest so far away, but it is a significant aspect of the issue.

Loory: How did a group of Uighurs end up in Guantanamo Bay prison camp?

Kirk: They were captured near Tora Bora, Afghanistan. China denounces these Uighurs as Al Qaeda terrorists. China demanded that they be extradited to China, where they would be tried and certainly imprisoned, possibility executed as terrorists. Instead, four of them were recently released because they were deemed not a threat and sent to Palau (a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean) at great expense because nowhere else would take them.

Loory: But, isn’t the Uighur movement also on the U.S. terrorist watch list?

Kirk: Yes, but there is sympathy at high levels in the U.S. government urging an end to violence. They are not saying, “We support the Uighurs,” but beneath the formal stated level there is criticism of the Chinese position, which is regarded as extreme. The Chinese are upset with the U.S. on its Tibet position, and this is another irritant, which is significant in terms of Korea. There is a large Korean minority along the border with North Korea, and it could have repercussions on Chinese policy towards North Korea.

Loory: Why is Xinjiang Province of importance to China?

Jacobs: The largest oil wells in China are located there; also a lot of mineral wealth. It is three times the size of Texas and serves as an important buffer with a number of countries including: Russia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. It has been settled by perhaps 20 million Han Chinese.

Loory: Is the question of separatism in Xinjiang as big as in Tibet?

Jacobs: No, but it is a concern. What is striking about Xinjiang is that there is nothing Chinese about it—not the language, people, their history or culture. Tibet has been part of the obit of China for centuries.

Kirk: Centuries ago, there was a Uighurstan. And, there is a Uighurstan national movement. It has historically been quite a threat, which was put down by the Chinese in the dynastic era, but it is something that is not forgotten.

Loory: It is called East Turkestan in other countries of the world. The Chinese must not like that.

Schleifer: The seal of the president of Turkey has 16 stars; one of those represents the Uighur Empire. This is not forgotten in the Turkic world. There is a sense of the Uighurs being the proto-Turks and maintaining a kind of purity of language and Turkic-ness. Clearly, the Chinese don’t want that brought up too much.

Loory: How serious might separatist movements become in China — with the Koreans, Mongols, Uighurs, Tibetans?

Kirk: China gives a certain amount of autonomy, sometimes a lot, to people who are not Han Chinese. But, there is terrific sensitivity to the problem of incipient rebellious sentiments. One reason why China does not accept North Koreans who flee to China as refugees is that they are wary of an increasingly large restive Korean minority. They are concerned that if North Korea fragments, millions of North Koreans will pour across the border.

Foreman: China framed the whole issue as an incident that was masterminded by Kadeer, involving a small minority of violent elements and terrorists. Most of the people I interviewed weren’t pushing for an independent nation. They were angry about what they alleged was long standing cruel discrimination against them and difficulties in finding good jobs. They said they weren’t led by Kadeer and didn’t know who she was.

Loory: Tell us more about Rebiya Kadeer.

Kirk: She was imprisoned in China and got out to the states via the offices of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It is true that her influence inside the Uighur region is not high, but she seems to have influence in Washington. There was a front-page article about her in The Washington Post.

Jacobs: The riots notwithstanding, China is normally good at cracking down on any kind of dissent. This was largely homegrown — students sending emails and texts to organize people. The Chinese government uses the notion that there are outsiders and Muslims organizing as a red herring and distraction.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George and Brian Jarvis. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at

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