China Unrest Has Roots In History

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This week's deadly clashes in Xinjiang province between ethnic Uighurs and China's majority Han are rooted in tensions that go back more than two centuries, an expert on the Uighurs says.

"Since the 1750s, essentially, there has been almost constant tension between the two groups," Sean Roberts, director of International Development Studies at George Washington University, tells Robert Siegel.

He says Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims, have more of a historical and cultural connection with their neighbors to the west than with the Han to the east. Roberts adds that for the most part, Uighurs have remained distinct from the Chinese.

China says its role in Xinjiang province has been one of modernization. The economic development has made the region attractive to Han, who have moved there in large numbers. Roberts says not everyone has welcomed the change.

"I would say since the mid-1980s, late-1980s, there's been an incredible amount of development in Xinjiang, but that has not always been completely welcome ... [by] the Uighurs because the mode of economic development that's taking place is essentially displacing them from their traditional livelihoods," he says.

Roberts says he is surprised that the tensions between the two communities did not boil over sooner.

The violence is "not unusual because we do know there is incredible frustration in the Uighur population," he says. "And, I think, most people have predicted that this would happen, and in some ways were surprised that this type of thing had not happened previously."

Racial Tensions High After Riots In Western China

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A large group of Han Chinese carry makeshift weapons in Urumqi i

A group of Han Chinese carrying makeshift weapons roams the streets of Urumqi in China's far western Xinjiang region on Tuesday. Police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of Han Chinese protesters after weekend rioting that claimed at least 156 lives. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
A large group of Han Chinese carry makeshift weapons in Urumqi

A group of Han Chinese carrying makeshift weapons roams the streets of Urumqi in China's far western Xinjiang region on Tuesday. Police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of Han Chinese protesters after weekend rioting that claimed at least 156 lives.

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
Chinese riot police watch a Muslim ethnic Uighur woman protest in Urumqi i

Chinese riot police watch a Muslim ethnic Uighur woman protest in Urumqi on Tuesday. Authorities ordered a night curfew, and thousands of heavily armed police deployed across Urumqi. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
Chinese riot police watch a Muslim ethnic Uighur woman protest in Urumqi

Chinese riot police watch a Muslim ethnic Uighur woman protest in Urumqi on Tuesday. Authorities ordered a night curfew, and thousands of heavily armed police deployed across Urumqi.

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Hundreds of majority Han Chinese, many of them armed, roamed the streets Tuesday in China's far western city of Urumqi in the aftermath of ethnic violence between Han and minority Uighurs that killed at least 156 people.

The local government narrowly avoided a second wave of widespread violence, arresting more than 1,400 people and imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

At an intersection near city hall in Urumqi, capital of China's Xinjiang region, crowds of mostly young, ethnic Han men milled about Tuesday. They carried clubs, meat cleavers, shovels and iron bars.

When a car suddenly plowed into a produce truck, the armed men surged into the intersection, as if fearing a Uighur attack. No one was hurt, but the scene seemed poised to explode into primal ethnic violence.

'We've Picked Up Weapons To Defend Ourselves'

"These reactionary forces are affecting our safety," said an ethnic Han taxi driver, Bai Li. "For ourselves, for humankind and for our own race, we've picked up weapons to defend ourselves. If we're threatened, I don't think any of us will retreat. We'll all charge to the front."

The unrest in Urumqi began Sunday, when a peaceful demonstration by Uighurs turned violent. The Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs were calling for the investigation into a deadly fight between Uighurs and Han Chinese at a factory in southern China that left two Uighurs dead.

Racial tensions have long simmered in the restive Xinjiang region, but the recent violence is the worst in decades.

Elsewhere in Urumqi, ethnic Han men roamed the street, toting iron bars and knives. One local resident, who only gave his family name, Zhu, blamed the Uighurs for the violence, but he also made demands on his own government.

"Month-old Han babies and 60- and 70-year olds were stomped and hurled to death. How can we suppress our emotions? We're not here to brawl with the Uighurs. We just demand that the government severely punish the perpetrators," he said.

Earlier Tuesday, aggrieved Uighurs protested the arrest or death of their relatives. Men in skullcaps and women in headscarves wailed in sorrow and anger.

"Release our innocent people," yelled one man. "We want freedom."

"The police came and arrested hundreds of our people," said another woman. "We don't want to fight."

Intense Pressure To Restore Order

In some places, riot troops kept the Han and Uighurs from clashing. And some media reports said a group of Uighurs attacked people near the Urumqi's railway station on Tuesday.

Authorities in Xinjiang province are under intense public pressure to restore order and to appear evenhanded in its treatment of Han and Uighurs.

At a televised press conference, the region's Communist Party Secretary Wang Lequan said the government could control the situation and did not need vigilantism.

"This kind of action is completely unnecessary. Our law enforcers have sufficient power to knock off the bad guys," he said.

Wang implored Han Chinese to stay off the streets and refrain from further ethnic feuding. And he warned Xinjiang people not to be duped by Uighur separatists trying to stir up racial hatred.

"We should aim our spearheads at the enemy forces inside and outside the country. We must not aim our fury at our ethnic brothers and sisters," he said.

Xinjiang stands at the crossroads of Central Asia and East Asia. And the painful tears now apparent in the multiethnic fabric of its society will take time to mend.

China's government has pinned the blame for the violence on overseas Uighur exiles. But critics say this ignores serious problems of racial mistrust and legitimate social and economic grievances on all sides.

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