The World from Berlin: 'China Is Acting on an Old Reflex in Urumqi'

It is still not clear exactly what sparked the worst ethnic violence China has seen in years. But German commentators on Tuesday say it highlights the fact that Chinese authorities need to take a different approach to relations with ethnic minorities.

Over the last few days, China has seen the worst ethnic violence in years. Rioting and violence in the Chinese province of Xinjiang has left over 150 people dead, hundreds more injured and thousands under arrest.

Most recent reports indicate that the violent conflicts between the Han Chinese majority and the Uighur ethnic minority in the city of Urumqi are not yet under control. The city is now under the tight supervision of Chinese police and paramilitaries. But while foreign journalists were being given a tour of the city to see the results of rioting, a group of several hundred Uighur women demonstrated nearby, demanding to know where their arrested husbands and sons had been taken. Also seen on the streets of Urumqi have been groups of angry Han Chinese carrying clubs and home made weapons -- so far, most of the dead appear to have been Han Chinese.

The violence, based in the city of Urumqi, apparently started during a relatively peaceful protest by Uighurs on Sunday. They were demanding justice for two Uighur factory workers killed after Han Chinese rampaged through an Uighur worker dormitory in southern China, enraged by reports of an alleged rape of a Han Chinese woman by a group of Uighurs -- these reports were apparently false.

There are conflicting reports as to what happened after the demonstration in Urumqi. The Chinese authorities are blaming Uighur exiles --and in particular the World Uighur Congress, a group of exiles fighting for the minority's rights, founded in Munich in 2004 -- for master minding the rioting that ensued. However representatives of that organization blame the Chinese authorities, saying that violence erupted after a peaceful protest was crushed by local military.

Whatever the cause, the result was extreme inter-ethnic violence, with angry Uighurs beating Han Chinese in the streets, vehicles and businesses being burned. This led to an aggressive response by Chinese authorities which included over a thousand arrests.

International response to the violence has been cautious, with most simply calling for a full investigation into the incident, which is, as yet, not been fully explained. And Germany may have more of a vested interest than most in the events as Munich is home to the largest population of Uighurs outside China. For now German commentators are not calling for any drastic action. A comparison with the events in Tibet last year is inevitable and most are saying that the economic super power must engage in some critical self-analysis around its ongoing issues with ethnic minorities.

Business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Almost a year ago the tanks rolled into Lhasa; last Sunday cars and businesses were burning in Urumqi. The basic problem is that Beijing has never accepted its issues with its ethnic minorities as a political problem. Peking has not tried nearly hard enough to find a mutually acceptable solution. New streets, new businesses, modern apartments and traditional costumes and folk dances do not constitute a successful policy of ethnic integration."

"And this terrible situation in Urumqi only shows -- once again -- how fragile this Chinese super power really is. Suddenly it becomes clear that the idea of 'harmonious business' that Beijing stresses so often, is no more than a propagandistic catchphrase. In reality there are deep rifts right across this country. And how quickly the violence can escalate. Beijing is acting on an old reflex in Urumqi -- the violence is never analyzed, there's no reflection and everything is blamed on outsiders."

"But the young people of Lhasa and Urumqi who were so prepared to use such violence are not being educated by evil puppet masters overseas. They are the results of Peking's long term failure to find any kind of realistic, political solution to issues concerning their ethnic minorities."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"In terms of media coverage, the Chinese government is taking a completely different approach to the one they took last year during the unrest in Tibet. They found themselves on the defensive back then, roundly criticized for their heavy handed and restrictive approach to coverage of the protests in Lhasa. This time around the Beijing-controlled media had already prepared numbers, pictures and background information -- before any of the Western media even knew what was going on. The world's media ended up getting the shocking news -- 140 dead after ethnic violence -- from the Chinese state news agency itself."

"This difference is the result of a directive issued about a year ago by Chinese President Hu Jintao: he told the Chinese media that, in order to beat critics, both at home and abroad, they should set their own agenda when it came to fast-breaking news stories."

"And so the state sanctioned coverage of this massive outbreak of violence curbs any further questions -- even when it's obvious there' still a lot of explaining to do. It is only too clear that ethnic integration in China is experienced differently, by different races. What is also clear is that when those differences are ignored they make for the sort of situation that can explode into violence at any provocation."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Just as they did after the Tibetan protests last year, the Chinese administration has been quick to point the finger. But just as it was in Tibet, the reasons for the violence are not as clear as the propagandists would have us believe. As with any case of political excess, one must point out the difference between the triggers in a situation and the actual, over arching reasons for conflict."

"In this case, the trigger could well have been the racially motivated killing of Uighurs in the Guangdong province. But there must be more to the intensity of the protests that exploded in Urumqi: quite likely, it is the repression of the Uighur people as the Han Chinese seek to become a majority in that area."

"Organized terror -- which is what Beijng claims is going on here -- cannot be responsible for this kind of rage. Massive and violent protests like this breed in the hotbed of political repression and religious intolerance."

The conservative daily Die Welt has German author Hans Christoph Bluch, who visited Xinjiang in May after a year as Writer in Residence in China, give his opinions on conditions in the area:

"Beijing is 5,000 kilometers from Xinjiang but as in all of China, everyone is on Beijing time. School starts at six in the morning, the lessons are all in Chinese and the Uighur speech and culture is being reduced to folklore, just singing and dancing for the tourists. Members of the Communist party and civil servants -- such as teachers and police --are not allowed to attend religious services on Fridays. Massive immigration of Han Chinese, encouraged into the area by financial incentives, mean that slowly but surely the Uighurs are becoming a minority in their own land."

"China is notorious for not being understanding of other cultures. Ethnic minorities have equal rights here but only on paper. Many Han Chinese treat their Uighur brethren with thinly disguised contempt and racist arrogance."

"The proverbial spark that set this violent fire had to do with the unexplained deaths of two Uighur factory workers. The fact that such a spark could set such a blaze in Urumqi, a historically multi-ethnic city in which Chinese, Uighurs, Kazakhs, Russians and Tartars have all lived peacefully together, does not bode well."

Cathrin Schaer, 3 p.m. CET

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