China on Edge

Ethnic strife in China’s frontier shows the brutal lengths to which the Communist Party will go to silence any dissent.

The outbreak of violence in Xinjiang this week paints a disturbing picture of life in China's far flung western provinces. Due to the lack of independent reporting from Xinjiang, there is still a great deal that is not known about the scope, causes and consequences of this most recent outbreak of violence. But soon after reports of the unrest in Urumqi began to emerge, international media quickly drew comparisons to the unrest that struck Tibet in March 2008. While some comparisons are tempting, initial reports of the Xinjiang unrest paint a starkly different picture compared to the Tibetan riots just over a year earlier.

There are certainly some commonalities. Domestic and exiled activists seek independence for both Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions and are vilified by Chinese authorities. In both cases, marchers reportedly set out peacefully from key urban institutions-Xinjiang University in Urumqi and various monasteries in Lhasa-before street violence broke out. Like the Lhasa riots, Chinese officials and academics were quick to identify external causes for the Urumqi unrest, fingering exile Uighurs as backers and instigators. Some Chinese experts have speculated on the involvement of the U.S. government in both incidents, citing "evidence" of CIA interference in the case of the Lhasa riots. International analysts have pointed to Tibetan-Han and Uighur-Han relations as underlying causes of the unrest, highlighting increasing Han migration to minority areas, uneven distribution of economic opportunities and suppression of religious freedom as key factors driving discontent. In addition to the apparent failure of civilian authorities to effectively implement policies aimed at co-opting minorities in these regions, security forces were also unable to prevent unrest from occurring in each place.

Despite these common threads, it is immediately clear that China's reaction to the events in Urumqi and Lhasa was different, particularly in the restoration of order. The response of China's People's Armed Police and Public Security units to the unrest in Urumqi appeared determined and decisive. As of this writing, official statements have placed the number of dead at 156 with almost one thousand wounded and scores of protesters, many of them students, rounded up. The scope of violence was extensive with hundreds of vehicles destroyed on the streets. One Urumqi hospital reported a number of gunshot wounds among its patients and eyewitnesses reported armed police used lethal and nonlethal means to disperse crowds. Security forces appear to have effectively reestablished order in a few hours, dispersing crowds and preventing rioters from rampaging more than a day.

The level of violence in Urumqi appears to have surpassed the March 2008 riots that occurred in Lhasa. The Chinese government reported that eighteen civilians and one police officer were killed in Lhasa (exile Tibetan groups claimed more) and many international analysts argued that riot police in Tibet were relatively restrained. That said, the Lhasa disturbance was preceded by four days of demonstrations that culminated in widespread rioting on March 14. Security units in Lhasa were at first overwhelmed by rioters, driven from downtown and unable to restore order until the following day.

It is still too soon to draw firm conclusions from the recent unrest in Urumqi, or identify what its impact might be on Chinese domestic or foreign policy. At this point however, Chinese analysts appear unwilling to openly debate their government's economic, minority or religious policies and their lack of effectiveness in meeting the needs of citizens in these restive regions. An all too familiar narrative is unfortunately already emerging, with Chinese officials and experts claiming that exile groups are the tools of Beijing's international enemies that seek to prevent the nation's rise and weaken it from without and within. Regrettably, these same analysts are likely missing an opportunity to promote reconciliation and seek durable solutions to one of China's enduring domestic problems.


Drew Thompson is Director of China Studies and the Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center.