China protests: Uyghur people have suffered most from draconian zero-COVID policies but are too terrorised to join in

The Conversation

The latest wave of protests sweeping through China were sparked by the deaths of at least ten people in a fire in a high-rise apartment block in Ürümchi, Xinjiang. Residents were apparently prevented from leaving the building due to the enforcement of ethnically targeted zero-COVID regulations. The region is home to 12 million ethnic Uyghurs, a minority group in China.

Yet, when Uyghur activist Abduweli Ayup tweeted about the protests, he noted that there had been no signs of Uyghurs’ participation, and Uyghur-dominant cities remained silent.

Meanwhile, areas including Ürümchi, Qorla and Künäs counties, dominated by Han Chinese people, who make up around 92% of China’s population, had erupted in protest at the government’s zero-COVID policy.

The impact of years of systematic strategies of Chinese state terror against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims means that those communities have remained deathly quiet in the aftermath of the fire. Meanwhile, Han residents of Xinjiang – the regional stronghold for the Communist party – have confidently come out in force to protest against the hated policy.

Every Uyghur knows that criticism of party policy by a Turkic Muslim will result in being detained and abused in the state’s internment camps or prisons or else coerced into forced labour. In the context of street demonstration, they face a “shoot-to-kill” policy.

A similar disparity was observed in Lhasa in October, where Tibetans were conspicuously absent from the crowds of demonstrators taking to the streets in defiance of zero-COVID restrictions. As in Ürümchi after the fire, the police reaction to Han protests in Lhasa was lenient.

Again, this is a reflection of the way Beijing depends on the Han Chinese population in Tibet to defend its interests. But the glaring discrepancy prompted social media users to suggest that police would have cracked down more harshly had protesters been Tibetan.

The protests following the fire have given Han Chinese citizens a new sense of solidarity with those who died in the “Auspicious Court” (Jixiangyuan) community in Ürümchi. The shared restrictions amid unjustified levels of zero-COVID surveillance and associated restrictions on their freedom were finally relatable. Both were “casualties of authoritarian excess”.

Now, some Chinese netizens have made connections between the fire in Ürümchi and the Guizhou bus crash in which 27 residents died en route to a COVID quarantine facility. They related to the pregnant woman in Chongqing who miscarried when prevented from leaving her compound thanks to zero-COVID. They mourned the toddler in Lanzhou who died from carbon monoxide poisoning after his father was prevented from rushing him through an epidemic checkpoint.

They identified with the residents in Chengdu who found emergency exits in their buildings sealed during a deadly earthquake, the heavily pregnant woman in Xi’an who sat bleeding outside the hospital as she awaited nucleic acid results, and the Inner Mongolian girl whose mother jumped from the 12th floor of a building to escape lockdown.

As multiple users observed: “History keeps repeating itself and it’s the common poor people who pay the price.”

Local officials in Ürümchi held a press conference on November 25, denying that zero-COVID protocols had been in place on the night of the fire and blaming residents for “lacking the capability to protect and rescue themselves”. The reaction on social media was furious. One user wrote: ‘I thought they would come to apologise, instead they came to hold [residents] accountable … It’s all the people’s fault.“

Strained relationship

Yet, until now, how far had the average Han citizen considered themselves to have much in common with the Uyghurs? The answer is very little. This was reflected in the hurt and incomprehension expressed by Uyghur Twitter users in response to the Han reaction. As one noted: “If [a] Uyghur protests, the Chinese government calls us terrorists, extremists, and separatists, and the Han Chinese netizens believe that.”

Another wrote: “If you feel pain, it means you are alive. But if you feel other people’s pain, only then are you a human being.” It was Uyghur, not Han, netizens who posted images of the Uyghur victims of the fire, and of doors bolted shut from the outside.

In 2009, a peaceful protest held in the regional capital Ürümchi against the killing of at least two Uyghur migrant workers by Han co-workers at a factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, turned into a riot. The Chinese authorities responded by targeting Uyghur protestors with disproportionate force. As a result there followed a complete breakdown of trust between Uyghur and Han residents.

Since then, Chinese authorities have increasingly represented Uyghurs to the Han populace as actual or potential “terrorists” or Islamic “extremists”. It’s a divide-and-rule strategy that heightened during the “People’s War on Terror” launched in 2014, and after the implementation of “de-extremification” regulations in 2017.

Yet the inter-ethnic dimension continues to be lost on the international media. Reports have focused on calls in Shanghai for Presdient Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to step down. This has allowed the party to fall back on its mantra of provocation by “foreign hostile forces”, a notion met with suitable derision by protestors.

It is possible that the party will quell the current protests and quietly relax its zero-COVID policy (as it already began to do in Urumchi and Qorla). If it does, then the current protests propelled by Han communities may die away, even as state violence against non-Han groups on China’s peripheries continues.

Alternatively, the CCP may conclude it must continue with that fated policy. For, as a Chinese scholar working in the UK (who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons) pointed out, Xi has staked his political legitimacy upon it. For that scholar, the second option is preferable, since it will ensure that the nationwide protest movement continues to grow.

But for that movement to succeed, the very first step must be for Han citizens to develop an informed empathy, and stand in solidarity, with their persecuted Uyghur, Tibetan, Inner Mongolian and Hongkonger compatriots.

Jo Smith Finley does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.