SHANGHAI — China appears to have contained its "Uyghur problem," but it certainly hasn't solved it.
The number of darkened mosques across Urumqi at prayer time Friday underlined as nothing else could that Beijing is in no rush to deal with anything but "the three forces" it says are to blame for nearly a week of trouble in the Xinjiang region that has left at least 156 dead and more than 1,000 wounded: "religious extremism, ethnic separatism and terrorism."
In no way does the Beijing government seem prepared to heed the advice of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch and "break with past practice and acknowledge Uyghurs' grievances."
Authorities in Urumqi said a few small mosques were allowed to open their doors Friday to Uyghurs seeking the solace of their Moslem religion after a week of turmoil, but the Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted an official in charge of religious affairs in the city as saying most mosques were closed at the "suggestion" of their Beijing-appointed imams. He continued: "Muslims normally perform rituals at home in time of plague or social unrest."
Earlier in the week, when the Chinese authorities were going to great lengths to condemn Rebiya Kadeer, the 62-year-old exiled leader of the World Uyghur Congress and blame her personally for inciting last Sunday's riot, they appeared to have settled on separatism as the main cause for the Uyghur unrest. But perhaps fearing it left open the possibility that events in Urumqi might be portrayed as a popular uprising of an oppressed people, a so-called "colour-revolution, Beijing is now upping the ante and claiming the rioters had "terrorist connections," too.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters at his regular briefing in Beijing: "We have a lot of evidence to prove that those people (members of the 'three forces' behind the trouble) accepted training from terrorism groups like al-Qaida·"
In the aftermath of 9/11, when the U.S. was eager to gather support for its war on terrorism, China provided much of the evidence Washington used to include the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) on the State Department terrorist list. Opinions are mixed on whether the militant Uyghur group deserves to be there, but what is clear is that it is serving Beijing's purpose now to try to link Kadeer to ETIM and taint her name and cause with hints of terrorist connections.
Much can be justified in the name of fighting terrorism — and much can also be ignored. Uyghur claims, for instance, that the real cause of the Urumqi riot was pent-up frustration over being treated as second-class citizens and being denied the right to freely practise religion, speak their own language and follow their own customs.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, warned this week: "The cycle of violence will only erupt again if the government doesn't even acknowledge its repressive policies' role in creating the volatile atmosphere of resentment in Xinjiang."
For a country of 1.3 billion people, China is an amazingly homogenous place. There are 56 recognized ethnic groups, but the majority Han Chinese make up 91.9 per cent of the population and groups like the Uyghurs, with only seven million and the Tibetans with just 2.5 million, are a drop in the bucket, except in their home territory. Even there, by coincidence or design, they are outnumbered by Han coming to settle and scooping up jobs and opportunities that used to belong exclusively to them.
Beijing has gone to some lengths to accommodate its ethnic minorities. It has, for instance, exempted them from the one-child policy most Han suffer under. But over and over again it has also shown it has no time for the kind of real diversity the Tibetans and Uyghurs seek. Beijing has little tolerance for individuality at the best of times, and none whatsoever when it threatens "social harmony."