Violence in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region which left some 20 people dead this week may have been fueled by a mass migration of Han Chinese to a largely Uyghur county, stoking ethnic tensions amongst the area’s unemployed youth, according to residents.
Local officials, meanwhile, were striving to keep a lid on rumors swirling after the worst violence in seven months in the volatile region and have given strict orders to government employees not to speak to the media.
But a senior official told RFA that he had witnessed the violence which left nearly 20 dead on a busy street in Kargilik (in Chinese, Yecheng) county in Kashgar prefecture on Tuesday night.
“We saw the people were crying and fleeing and later all the streets in the town were blocked by police,” said Abdukeyim, chief of the county’s land management department, just 100 meters (330 feet) from a market where the violence occurred.
He said based on a government report on the incident, a group of knife-wielding Uyghurs went on a stabbing spree on Han Chinese, leading to a police shootout.
“This morning I attended a conference held by the county which all chiefs of county level departments were present at. Attendees were given a brief report on the incident,” Abdukeyim said.
“According to the report, nine [Uyghurs] took part in the attack and eight of them were shot [dead] by police. Ten Han [Chinese] were killed and five were injured.”
The government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region said in a statement published on its official website www.tianshannet.com on Wednesday that a group of Uyghurs stabbed to death 13 people before police shot seven of the attackers dead.
Second class citizens
Several residents of Kargilik county interviewed by RFA Wednesday said the violence stemmed from a massive influx of Han Chinese, resulting in fewer economic opportunities for the Uyghur community.
One Uyghur resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Uyghurs were fed up with being treated like second class citizens in their traditional homeland.
“Growing up in a village, I had never even seen a Han Chinese before I was 18 year old. Now you can see Han Chinese in all corners of Kargilik county,” he said.
“Their population is exploding and they have now occupied almost all of the towns in the county.”
“The flood of immigrants was a key reason behind the attack.”
Xinjiang has been gripped for years by persistent ethnic tensions between the Muslim Uyghurs and the rapidly growing Han Chinese migrant population, leading to riots in the regional capital Urumqi on July 5, 2009 which left 200 dead and 1,700 injured, according to state media.
Uyghurs, who form a distinct, Turkic-speaking minority in Xinjiang, say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness, even as Beijing pursued ambitious programs to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
A Han Chinese doctor from Bo-Ai Hospital in Kaghilik county expressed sympathy for the region’s Uyghurs, saying that Tuesday’s attack could have been an act of frustration with the government’s measures against the minority ethnic group.
“I think the sense of dissatisfaction and resistance is a direct result of the government enforcing a high-pressure policy on Uyghur people,” said the doctor, who says he had good relations with Uyghur doctors at the hospital.
“I have a very good relationship with my Uyghur colleagues at the hospital. I don’t want to see this kind thing happen, but I also don’t want to see excessive controls on the local Uygur people,” he said.
“If the [harsh] policy continues, there will be more of this kind of thing in the future. In the end, the ordinary citizens will suffer.”
A senior teacher in Kargilik county compared Han immigrants in the area to an invading army.
“Yes, it’s true that civilians were targeted in the attack, but in the view of the Uyghurs—myself included—there is no difference between Han civilians and the army,” he said, citing the July 5, 2009 riots in which he claimed Han Chinese civilians attacked Uyghur civilians “with support of the armed police.”
More than 1,000 Uyghurs have been jailed and several thousand “disappeared” in the aftermath of the most deadly episode of ethnic unrest in China’s recent history, according to Uyghur exile groups.
“Han civilians are taking our bread, taking our jobs, and taking our houses. They are threatening our survival,” the teacher said.
The teacher also complained that nearly all Han citizens in Xinjiang sided with the government on all ethnic issues.
“They never ask the government to end religious pressure on the local people, to stop arrests and executions, or call for equal job opportunities,” the teacher said.
He said Han citizens were likely targeted because the Uyghurs were not well armed enough to take on the security forces.
“The difference in power of arms between the two sides is incomparable. You can’t do anything to the armed police with a knife,” he said.
“I think this is the main reason they attacked Han civilians.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur and Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur and Mihray Abdilim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.