The first wave of Uyghur actions in Urumqi on Sunday evening brought at least a thousand people, mostly young Uyghur men, probably members of Urumqi’s small middle class, into the streets. They occupied public spaces and shouted, “God is great!” Over 150 perished, with some journalists estimating around 30 Uyghurs and 120 members of other ethnic groups. Over 1400 have since been detained by police.
Tuesday morning, hundreds of Uyghurs staged a protest in downtown Urumqi just as Chinese authorities were taking journalists on a “tour” of the Uyghur neighborhood. Many claimed to be the mothers, wives, and sisters of the detained young Uyghurs, and they wailed for their kin. They waved the ID cards of the detained men. In the end, around a hundred found themselves cornered in a burned-out part of south Urumqi, surrounded by riot police with clubs and guns drawn.
The footage and photographs of this event have produced what will doubtless be enduring images of the most violent public conflict in the PRC since the Tian’anmen Square demonstrations in 1989. A young woman with a ponytail and a soccer jersey, a member of a proud generation of Uyghur girls, waved her finger in the helmeted faces of the People’s Armed Police. The “Tian’anmen” photograph of this event, however, is this picture, which has appeared in various forms on the front pages of Al Jazeera and Hürriyet and in the galleries of The New York Times, The Guardian, and goodness knows where else:
The same woman appears in a video clip from The Guardian, in which the Armed Police tanks before her… actually seem to be backing away.
This is not the quiet stillness with which an anonymous man stood before a tank on Tian’anmen Square, though the photographs make it look like it is. This is a different image, one that speaks of a hidden fury, a constant authority and power in the hands of tradition. This is an image that will appeal powerfully to the Muslim world. This picture tells a story of brave boys who righteously stood up, as young men do, and who were punished by non-Muslim occupiers. The image is a mother, the keeper of tradition, the one who educates religious and ethnic values and traditions into her children, looking out for those children, missing them, coming to find them when they have lost their way. Here, she chides and scolds the men who have taken her son away, and, in their stillness, they seem to fear her.
In reality, their commander certainly told them to hold their fire, to contain, not to attack. With media cameras all around, with tensions already extremely high, this was no time even to make arrests.
Furthermore, cracking down on a crowd of women, children, and old men would delegitimize police action. Anyone familiar with the politics of ethnic representation in Xinjiang will tell you: Minority groups are overwhelmingly represented in the media by women, children, and old men. Minority men are threatening to the majority, which can easily accept them as perpetrators of murder and mass destruction.
Politically, this seems extremely auspicious for the world’s awareness of Uyghur political, legal, and cultural issues. The initial riots could be dismissed as action by only a thousand or so people fitting a slim demographic in Urumqi: under 30, male, educated. Now we see everyone else: over 30, female, uneducated, religious, etc. If someone planned this entire event, then it was certainly very, very well staged. In the media, Uyghurs look unified, with the exception of the many Uyghur police officers working to halt the action. (I am not precluding, by the way, the possibility that this is more than a Uyghur protest! I have not seen any mention to the contrary, though I would be unsurprised to find at least Uzbeks and Tatars in the mix.)
I would note that the people in the videos of today’s Uyghur protests, especially the women, were almost all wearing headscarves. Uyghur women in Urumqi do not generally wear headscarves, though they almost universally own one or two for certain religious and social occasions. Those women who did not had their hair up, generally in pigtails, a modest style for young Uyghur women, à la Rebiya Kadeer. There are several possible reasons for this.
First, it could be that, in the aftermath of Sunday’s protest, the police rounded up not only many suspected participants, but any religious men they could find. That was the demographic that participated in the mäshräp groups, the government’s repression of which helped spark the Ghulja riots in 1997. This is the group that the government feels least able to co-opt, that it most wants to “educate,” as Urumqi Party Chairman Li Zhi threatened to do to demonstrators. As such, the women may be wearing headscarves anyway. The size of the demonstration also suggests that this was organized through preexisting social ties, as through the more religiously observant Uyghur community. Even if the participants were not necessarily religious, they would still identify as Muslims, making the headscarf a very visible symbol of unity, as well as difference from Han Chinese. I wonder if Uyghurs in Urumqi might begin more frequently to demonstrate their ethnicity and religion in their outward appearance.
Alternatively, if someone politically savvy planned this action, then they may have actually called on female participants to wear headscarves. The image of a crowd of apparently traditional Muslims facing down what looks like a faceless army of Chinese can draw on over a billion sympathizers. The concern here is that, while peaceful and charitable international Islamic organizations may pay more attention to the region, so will violent organizations that may see Xinjiang as a higher-profile arena than it previously was.
The last few days in Urumqi have produced a startling amount of both imagery and coverage from media outlets around the world. This is the moment, it seems, when Xinjiang may cease to be a journalistic oddity and exoticism and join, for better or for worse, the stock list of “restive” regions.
This piece was co-written with New Dominion author Sherin.
Hürriyet: Sincan’da dehşet fotoğrafları
7 July 2009, Al Jazeera: Troops deployed in Uighur city
7 July 2009, The Guardian: Riots in Urumqi, China
7 July 2009, The New York Times: New Protests in Western China After Deadly Clashes
7 July 2009, The New York Times: Another Media Tour Goes Very, Very Badly for Chinese Authorities
Melissa K. Chan, Al Jazeera reporter in Urumqi