The conflict marked both the explosive character of national oppression in China and the rising competition within different layers of the Chinese working class, as the world capitalist economic crisis deepens.
In late June two Uighurs working in a factory hundreds of miles away in Guandong Province were killed and 60 injured when Han Chinese workers attacked them after an Internet posting claimed Uighurs had raped a Han woman. The rumor was found to be false.
According to the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, the hundreds of Uighurs working in the plant of 18,000 were paid less than Han workers.
The recent clashes in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, followed a July 5 demonstration of hundreds of Uighurs, most of them students, to protest discrimination and the killing of the two Uighur workers. Over the next few days, groups of both Uighurs and Hans began attacking each other with homemade weapons throughout Urumqi, reported the Wall Street Journal. More than 1,600 people were wounded.
Police banned assemblies, marches and demonstrations on public roads and at public places, the Telegraph in London reported. Chinese security minister Zhou Yongkang visited the area and called on the cops to win the tough war of maintaining Xinjiangs stability and nip all hidden dangers in the bud.
Uighurs are an oppressed nationality in China and also exist in some Central Asian countries. There are large Uighur concentrations in Chinas westernmost province, Xinjiang. They speak a Turkic language, written with Arabic script, and are predominately Muslim. Most Uighurs are farmers living in rural areas.
Following the fall of the Qing dynasty in China in 1911, there were several attempts to form independent Uighur republics. Uighurs fought for independence and in 1933-34 an Islamic Republic of East Turkistan existed. In 1944 Uighurs favoring independence, backed by the Soviet Union, established the Second East Turkistan Republic.
After the 1949 Chinese revolution, the Chinese Communist Party came to power and Beijing declared Xinjiang a Chinese province. It was later classified as an autonomous region in 1955. Although the Chinese constitution identifies Uighurs as an official ethnic group whose language and religious rights are protected, discrimination against Uighurs by employers, the government, cops, and the courts has persisted.
Uighur students began organizing in the 1980s as part of the rising struggles among youth in China for democratic rights and against corruption. In the 1990s small groups of Uighurs, including some favoring secession, carried out armed attacks on Chinese government targets.
The Beijing bureaucrats initially labeled Uighurs who oppose their policies splitists, although not all favored independence. Today dissidents are more likely to be branded terrorists, based on alleged ties between a Uighur organization called the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and al-Qaeda.
In the 1990s Beijing went on a major campaign to develop the resources of Xinjiang Province, which contains a third of the countrys oil and natural gas and 40 percent of its coal. This was part of the deepening evolution of the Stalinist regimes course, from bureaucratic state ownership and planning, and forced collectivization, toward promoting privately owned capitalist enterprises and foreign investment.
Han Chinese go west
In Xinjiang Province a highway and a railroad were built and millions of Han Chinese, including many workers and peasants, were encouraged to go west to seek their fortunes. The Han migration became so large that today, according to official figures, Xinjiang Province is 40 percent Han, who enjoy the best jobs. Hans were 7 percent of the province in 1949.
Over the last two decades the explosion of economic activity in the region has increased the average income 20-fold, a Frontline documentary reported. But as in the rest of China, inequalities have widened, particularly between the cities and the countryside. Most Uighurs have not shared in the prosperity, which is centered in the urban areas. Reuters reports that the average annual disposable income in 2008 in Urumqi was $1,800, but in the rural parts of the province it was about one-third of that figure.
One exception to this trend is Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur based in Washington, D.C., who heads the World Uighur Congress and Uighur American Association, which are funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.
Kadeer profited handsomely from the capitalist expansion in Xinjiang Province in the 1990s as a department store magnate. She told the Journal she became Chinas wealthiest woman and developed close ties with the ruling bureaucracy. But she began to lose favor in 1997 when she publicly spoke out against anti-Uighur discrimination. She was imprisoned in 1999 and later exiled after she attempted to meet with a U.S. delegation on a trip to Urumqi.
For Uighurs trying to make a living on the land or in the energy industry, the situation is far different. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a semi-military agricultural and construction conglomerate in Xinjiang, employs 2.2 million workers, but only a tiny minority of them are Uighurs, according to the Telegraph.
A BBC reporter visited the Tazhong oil refinery in the Taklakan desert in Xinjiang. At exercise time, wrote Louisa Lim, all the faces are Han Chinese.
Beijing restricts teaching in the Uighur language. A state worker in the city of Korla told the Christian Science Monitor that from second grade on basic courses like math are taught in Mandarin Chinese only. In 2002 the main university in Xinjiang stopped teaching the Uighur language altogether.
Uighurs also suffer persecution of their religion. There is no religious freedom here, a cotton farmer told the Christian Science Monitor. Religious activities outside the official framework, he explained, are equated with terrorism and separatism.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that government employees are not allowed to practice Islam and Muslim imams cannot teach religion in private. There have been instances of police forcing women to take off their veil and male government employees are made to shave their beards. Young men under the age of 18 are prohibited from praying in mosques.
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