As I was hearing reports Sunday of rioting by Uighurs in northwestern China, I immediately thought of what a Chinese Public Security Bureau official told me on more than one occasion since late last year: We are much more worried about unrest in 2009 than in 2008.
That was an astonishing declaration coming from a security apparatus that was clearly blindsided by the March 2008 riots in Tibet that threatened to mar the Beijing Olympics. But it was a prescient one. The global downturn has only exacerbated the seething economic and social resentments of China's ethnic minorities, and perhaps no minority seethes more at perceived mistreatment by the majority Han Chinese than the mostly Muslim Uighurs of the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang.
Sunday's protest by as many as 1,000 Uighurs reportedly traces back to a brawl in a Guangdong Province toy factory late last month that resulted in the deaths of at least two young Uighur men. State media reported that a disgruntled, unemployed worker had started a false rumor online that six males from Xinjiang had sexually assaulted two girls at the factory.
Uighurs have been on the wrong end of violence previously in Guangdong, where migrants from many regions converge looking for work. In Xinjiang, Uighurs have seen Han Chinese move in and win the better jobs. They have endured government crackdowns supposedly intended to eradicate a violent Uighur separatist threat that human rights groups say is a gross exaggeration and a pretext for discrimination.
But this year, as factory jobs grow scarce, ethnic tensions may spark more protests like Sunday's, and make China's leaders even more nervous. That's one reason why China is so keen on achieving 8% growth and propping up its export sector. The stakes are even higher this year because this Oct.1 is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic; Communist Party leaders are both planning a major celebration and working hard to keep anyone from spoiling it.
Will they succeed? The Public Security Bureau could do little but look on as a factory melee apparently became a spark for protest. The reportedly tough response of security forces in Urumqi Sunday may have put an end to this episode, or it may provoke dangerous escalation. The Chinese leaders themselves must at least be wondering if restive Xinjiang could become the Tibet of 2009.
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