TOPICS > Politics

Tensions Remain High in China Following Deadly Riots

July 7, 2009 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Protests continued in Western China Tuesday following deadly clashes on Sunday between the region's Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese. Analysts examine the roots of the unrest with Judy Woodruff.

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff has more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for that, we go to Alim Seytoff, the spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress and the vice president of the Uyghur American Association, both of which promote the rights of Uighurs. Born and raised in East Turkestan, which China calls Xinjiang, he came to the United States in 1996.

And Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, he has written extensively about China.

We invited the Chinese embassy to participate in this discussion, but they declined.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Alim Seytoff, let me begin with you. The Uighurs have been in this region for centuries. Were the tensions just running so high that something was inevitable like this?

ALIM SEYTOFF, World Uyghur Congress: The tensions has been rising very high because of the Chinese government’s political propaganda, indoctrination of the Chinese people and Chinese nationalism, and portraying Uighurs — especially after 9/11 — as terrorists, separatists, and Islamic radicals.

So in the minds of the Chinese government, Uighur people, their very presence in East Turkestan or Xinjiang is a threat. So there is so much racism going on. As a result, we are witnessing what is happening in our homeland, unfortunately.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Minxin Pei, how do you describe what’s been going on in this region?

MINXIN PEI, Claremont McKenna College: Well, this has been a restive part of China. In the mid-’90s, the situation was much worse. Then, after a while, things quieted down a little bit. But in the last few years, tensions began to rise again for a variety of very complex reasons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are some of those reasons?

MINXIN PEI: Economic being one, because that part of China has huge natural resources, oil deposits, natural gas deposits, and the exploration of these resources is deeply resented by the local population.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the Chinese government has moved, what, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Han Chinese into this region?

MINXIN PEI: Yes, that policy is a longstanding policy. Since the early ’50s, the Chinese government has been steadily settling migrants. In recent years, it’s more driven by private entrepreneurship. This no explicit government encouragement, but the government has been enabling that migration of private entrepreneurs into that part of the region. And that, of course, has contributed to the ethnic tensions.

Ethnic resentment and mistrust

Alim Seytoff
World Uyghur Congress
Today, the Chinese government even criminalized Uighur thought, what they call a spiritual terrorism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alim Seytoff, when you say racism, what specifically are you talking about?

ALIM SEYTOFF: What I talk about is in China, because of the Chinese government political brainwashing, basically, of the Han Chinese population to describe the Uighurs, Tibetans, and other ethnic minorities as lazy, violent, barbaric, and they don't want to development, and they don't want to live in peace, and they are troublemakers, they are rioters, and that they are the problematic peoples in those areas.

As a result, we see high tension between the Uighurs and Chinese, between the Tibetans and Chinese, between the Mongols and the Chinese, unfortunately. And because of this, there is huge resentment on both sides. The Chinese hate the Uighurs; the Uighurs hate the Chinese. Then something like that can spark a huge ethnic and racial clash, which turns out to become such a violent event.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Minxin Pei, I'm going to come to you with a question I started with Mr. Seytoff. Was this just something waiting to happen?

MINXIN PEI: Oh, yes, absolutely, because the underlying conditions are very tense. You have lack of communication, dialogue between the ethnic groups, especially between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs. And then you have official rhetoric about separatism, terrorism, extremism, and then, of course, economically, as I said. The distribution of wealth has been another issue.

And then, of course, on top of this, we have rumors prior to this incident about Uighurs being killed in southern China.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alim Seytoff, the Chinese government has also accused -- has said the Uighurs are separatists, that they want to separate from the Chinese mainland, and that many of them are terrorists. How much truth is there to that charge, those kind of charges?

ALIM SEYTOFF: Yes, the charges are patently false. And with regard to terrorism after 9/11, the Chinese government successfully used and conveniently used the global war on terrorism to label Uighur people's displeasure as terrorism.

Today, the Chinese government even criminalized Uighur thought, what they call a spiritual terrorism. So for any Uighur who writes and speaks out against Chinese government, the Chinese government can basically charge that Uighur as a terrorist, as a separatist, and if that person is religious, can be charged as a religious fundamentalist by the Chinese authorities.

And after 9/11, the Chinese authorities launched so many (inaudible) campaigns. And after last year's Olympics, the Chinese authorities began what they called as life-and-death struggle against the Uighur people.

The Chinese government's response

Minxin Pei
Claremont McKenna College
Relating specifically to this very tragic incident, the Chinese government has claimed that overseas Uighur organizations have masterminded this incident. Of course, we need to see more evidence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I've just been told by our producer that the Chinese president has left the G-8 summit in Europe to head home because of the problems in Xinjiang province.

Minxin Pei, how much evidence does the Chinese government have that the Uighurs are trying to undermine the government, overthrow the government, whatever other charges they've made against them?

MINXIN PEI: Well, there are two parts. First of all, relating specifically to this very tragic incident, the Chinese government has claimed that overseas Uighur organizations have masterminded this incident. Of course, we need to see more evidence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which incident are you referring to?

MINXIN PEI: I mean Sunday's...

JUDY WOODRUFF: What happened on Sunday?

MINXIN PEI: ... bloody riots, yes. But, of course, more generally, the Chinese government also needs to convince the rest of the world that the Uighur population or the Uighurs do have a significant number of people who are intent upon separating from China through violent means.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alim Seytoff, what is it that the Uighurs want? Is there agreement among them about what they want?

ALIM SEYTOFF: Under today's circumstances, under the brutal killing of the Uighurs and some other Han Chinese, this kind of high racial tension, and if you ask an ordinary Uighur, and the majority would probably believe that an independent country is a good idea, because there is no way for...

JUDY WOODRUFF: An independent country?

ALIM SEYTOFF: Country, yes. There is no way for Uighurs to live peacefully and freely, their culture, their language, their way of life, their religion, respect under the current Chinese communist rule. But still -- but we and Mr. Rebiya Kadeer, who the Chinese government accused as instigating this event...

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the Uighur -- she's living in -- considered a leader of one of the organizations you belong to...

ALIM SEYTOFF: She is -- yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... living here in Washington?

ALIM SEYTOFF: Yes, she is a Uighur democratic leader, and she's also the president of the World Uyghur Congress. And we are basically seeking self-determination for the Uighur people, and that's a hope, so that the Uighur people can choose what kind of political destiny they want.

Political possibilities for Uighurs

Alim Seytoff
World Uyghur Congress
If a genuine autonomy, high-level autonomy can be given to the Uighurs, where their ethnicity, their culture, their language, their way of life can be respected, the Uighur people, I'm sure they would accept that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Minxin Pei, how realistic is any of that?

MINXIN PEI: That's not a very realistic aspiration, even though, of course, it's understandable, given the current circumstances, because I think, as long as China stays together as an effectively governed country, the Chinese government will most likely enjoy the support of the majority of the Chinese people.

China is made up of 92 percent of Han majority. The separate Uighur state is a very unlikely outcome. But, of course, the most realistic outcome is a degree of autonomy, self-government, mutual respect, understanding, and also a mutually beneficial economic relationship.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you think that's possible that the Chinese government...

MINXIN PEI: That's possible, with the right policy. That's why I think this tragedy is a wake-up call for the Chinese government. They need to review their past ethnic policies and ask themselves where we need to make changes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that a path that the Uighurs would accept, if that were what the Chinese government moved toward?

ALIM SEYTOFF: If that is exactly what the Chinese government wants to move, that direction, I think Uighur people can be persuaded to accept this kind of solution.

If a genuine autonomy, high-level autonomy can be given to the Uighurs, where their ethnicity, their culture, their language, their way of life can be respected, the Uighur people, I'm sure they would accept that.

But before I agree with this, it is -- in 1955, the Chinese government actually gave the Uighurs Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, but have never implemented autonomy laws. China also gave Tibet autonomy, but never implemented autonomy laws.

So both the Tibetans and the Uighurs do not trust this kind of autonomy talk. Until and unless the Chinese government genuinely comes to the negotiation table and makes these kinds of offers, changes six-decade-long repressive policies in Tibet and East Turkestan, then things may change for the better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We're going to leave it there for tonight and watch it very closely, continue to. Alim Seytoff, Minxin Pei, thank you very much.

ALIM SEYTOFF: Thank you very much.

MINXIN PEI: Thank you.