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Spark that set off Urumqi explosion
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By John Sexton

The horrors of the inter-ethnic violence in Urumqi on Sunday July 5 shocked China and the world. The official death toll from Sunday's and subsequent clashes, stands at 192, and some of the injured are not expected to survive.

The protestations of some exile groups notwithstanding, there is no real reason to doubt the government's assertion that most victims of Sunday's violence were Han Chinese, and that many were killed in the most brutal manner; hacked to death, burned alive or beheaded.

Survivors described frenzied assaults on public buses, and being mercilessly attacked with machetes and clubs. Many victims were women; one was shopping for vegetables with her 6-year-old son when she was kicked to the ground, beaten and stabbed. Like most other Han victims, she identified her attackers as Uygurs, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people who are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang.

Thousands of vengeful Han Chinese took to the streets in Urumqi on Tuesday July 7, threatening all-out ethnic conflict. In response, the government imposed a curfew and deployed troops and armored cars along a peace line separating the communities. It was not perfect. Uygurs in one neighborhood said they were attacked three times before troops restored order. A few gangs of Han Chinese armed with clubs and cleavers continued to roam the streets late into the night; but the worst was avoided.

What caused the explosion of rage in Urumqi? There is little doubt the fuse was lit ten days earlier in the southern city of Shaoguan, Guangdong Province, when hundreds of Han Chinese attacked a factory dormitory housing Uygur migrant workers, killing two and badly injuring around 100.

The Shaoguan event followed an Internet post accusing the Uygur workers of raping Han Chinese women, and the police of being too soft and corrupt to take action. Soon, patriotic Han were being urged to take the matter into their own hands. After a murderous assault that began at 11 p.m. on July 26 and lasted for nearly 3 hours, a hideous video showing defenseless Uygurs being beaten with clubs was posted on the Internet. Shockingly, it was celebrated by many "netizens."

"Guangdong brothers you struck well and killed justly," one post read. A detailed description of the violence, allegedly written by an eye-witness, described the Uygur victims as "second generation Japanese devils" and implied that many more than two had been killed.

In the following days, the government removed almost all the offensive messages from bulletin boards. Officials said the rape allegations had been invented by a disgruntled former employee. But the damage had been done. In addition to telephone calls from the workers who had been attacked, Uygurs in Xinjiang were able to read the ugly, racist sentiments expressed in chat rooms and on home pages. Exaggeration followed rumor, and the seeds of Sunday's tragedy were sown.

China tends to see ethnic problems as resulting from separatist agitation, but chauvinism among the majority Han Chinese is potentially as great a threat to social cohesion. The enraged nationalist who distrusts government, media and police, feels he has had a raw deal economically, and is prepared to take it out on easy targets, is a destructive and all-too-common social type.

China's economic success has bred hubris, especially among the majority Han. Dreams of super-power status have great resonance with the young. A sense of inevitability about China inheriting the earth has taken root, amid talk of a blue water navy, aircraft carriers, and the yuan replacing the dollar. So far, so acceptable; but when triumphalism combines with resentment as it did during last year's anti-French and anti-CNN movements of last year, the results can be dangerous and unpredictable.

The irony is that China has many good policies on ethnic issues. National minorities are officially recognized and their cultures celebrated, (albeit sometimes in a Disneyfied style). For the most part, minorities are exempt from the one-child policy. Scripts have been devised for languages that previously had no written form. Affirmative action programs in education and government employment are far ahead of those in place in most Western countries.

The fact that many from the majority Han community resent these policies is evidence that they do not just exist on paper. People who have one parent from an ethnic minority almost always choose minority status, as it confers real advantages. In a recent, highly-publicized case, the father of one of the top scorers in the annual university entrance examination was found to have faked his son's minority ethnic status to improve his chances of getting into a good college.

No doubt Uygur grievances include the apparent ease with which Han businessmen achieve success in Xinjiang, often using corrupt government connections. They are also angered by insensitive religious and language policies. But almost all the Uygurs I spoke to in Urumqi last week pointed to the Shaoguan incident as the cause of the unrest. There is no doubt that racism among a section of the majority community is a major factor breeding alienation. To combat it, the government needs new policies.

It should study the public education programs that have slowly changed attitudes among majority white communities in Western countries. What its opponents call "multiculturalism," and the "race relations industry" has not eliminated racism. But it has made it unacceptable in major corporations, public institutions and polite society. It is simply not possible for people to get away with the casual expressions of contempt that were common currency just a few decades ago.

One thing is certain; repression and "severe punishment" will not heal the deep divisions revealed by the Urumqi riots. China needs to genuinely respect and encourage local languages, religions and customs. But, above all, it needs to educate the angry young men of the majority Han community that China is a multinational state comprising many different but equal peoples.

(China.org.cn July 16, 2009)

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