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Trouble in Xinjiang

China’s minorities are signalling that they will not put up with policies that favour the Han majority.

China’s inability to offer its (non-Han) minorities an equal and fair stake has been revealed once again in the recent violence in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. If it was Tibet in 2008, it is Xinjiang in 2009. Neither event has shaken Chinese government and party control over the two provinces, but both have surely reminded the government and chinese Communist Party (CCP) that they cannot continue to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that there is no disaffection among the minorities. The conditions in Xinjiang were considered serious enough to compel President and CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao to embarrassingly cut short his participation in the G-8 meetings in Italy earlier this month.

Ethnic violence leading to the deaths of more than 190 people rocked Urumqi on 5 July, when rioters belonging to the predominantly Sunni Islamic Uyghur denomination attacked members
of the Han Chinese in the city. The immediate trigger for the incidents in Urumqi was the violent targeting of Uyghur migrants by Han workers in a factory in the southern Chinese province of
Guangdong on 26 June. Upset by what some Uyghurs felt as Chinese government inaction in bringing the guilty Han workers to justice, protests were staged in Urumqi. The public anger was
transformed into a bloody ethnic riot with Uyghurs attacking the migrant Han Chinese population.

The official reaction of the Chinese government was to blame external forces for these incidents, pointing fingers at a Uyghur separatist leader (of the World Uyghur Congress) based in the
United States. But just as in the Tibetan events last year, the riots in Urumqi must be attributed to resentment among the minority ethnic groups of China’s population against government policies. One such policy is the “Western development” initiative launched in the latter half of the 1990s, which involved the large-scale capital investment in utilisation and extraction of natural resources in an endeavour to economically develop the western regions of China. Simultaneously, there was also an influx of ethnic Han Chinese to partake in the economic benefits of the growth process in these regions, including Xinjiang, a process which the CCP has been silently pleased about since it alters the demographic composition and facilitates control over the minorities. The Han migrants have been able to garner a large share of the employment opportunities. This combined with measures such as teaching of Mandarin in schools in Xinjiang has not gone down well with the Uyghur-speaking people. Thus, despite certain concessions to minorities such as the relaxation of the One-Child policy or other social measures, resentment against Han inmigration, corruption among the ruling elite, lopsided development and perceptions of cultural suppression have seen Uyghurs increasingly turning antipathetic to the Chinese government. This resentment also resonates with the perception of rising inequality and government corruption elsewhere in China.

China’s constitution and its 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law on paper provide ethnic minorities the right to protect, preserve and promote their cultures. The provision for diversity in the constitution and in the autonomy law have not been translated into implementation in Xinjiang (and Tibet), giving rise to open expression of grievances. The Chinese government will be foolish if it persists with its policy of conflating all forms of Uyghur dissent and grievances within “separatism, extremism and terrorism” and if it refuses to adopt a far more commodative
approach basing itself on the stated aims of the constitution. Merely blaming the separatist elements in the Uyghur diaspora for “fomenting” the riots is not going to help resolve the situation.The danger of a Han chauvinist and nationalist reprisal and consequent repression of Xinjiang remains, but thus far the Chinese government, both at the national and at the local levels, has tried to restore normalcy by appealing for calm while bringing those engaged
in murder and violence to justice. The relative freedom and access given to the press (both local and foreign) in covering the events after the 5 July incidents suggests a marked change from the Chinese government response to the incidents in Tibet last year. Beyond the political measures, the CCP and the government have to revisit the capital-intensive growth paradigm which is yielding some benefits to the Han majority but seems to be yielding little to the Uyghurs.

source : Economic and Political Weekly


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