Two people died and 50 more were injured in a riot in northern China at the end of last month, according to on-scene observers. Authorities in the village of Taoshan, in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, triggered the unrest by starting to tear down a newly renovated mosque on December 30th. Villagers defended their place of worship with clubs and shovels but were overwhelmed by about a thousand riot police. Officials deny reports of fatalities. An 80-year-old woman was said to be among the dead.
The disturbance follows an incident, hundreds of miles away near the border with India and Pakistan, in which police close to the city of Hotan claim they killed seven and wounded four “violent terrorists” at the end of last month. The authorities maintain that the dead and wounded were kidnappers—part of a “terror gang” that killed one officer while injuring another. Local inhabitants say the dead and wounded were in fact refugees fleeing the country and that police have detained children, at least one of whom is seven years old.
Hotan is in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, what many Uighurs call East Turkestan, the name of a short-lived republic founded in 1944. In recent years, there have been fatalities in what appears to be increasingly frequent instances of rebellion in the areas of China inhabited by the Uighurs, Turkic people ethnically distinct from the Hui.
Why is China scarred by Muslim unrest at this time? The Uighurs have never given up the idea of their own homeland or their desire for freedom from the Han, the dominant ethnic group of the People’s Republic, and Chinese authorities have managed to brand them as extremists. Unfortunately, many foreigners—and foreign governments—have accepted Beijing’s arguments.
Yet the fresh disturbances in Taoshan unmask Beijing. The Hui, up to now, have been peaceful and content, evidently willing to be assimilated into the fabric of the People’s Republic. The Taoshan villagers, for instance, have “Chinese” names and are indistinguishable from Han Chinese, and in this part of Ningxia there has been no known history of Muslim unrest in decades.
The Ningxia authorities, however, have not been content to let the Hui alone. There would have been no unrest in Taoshan had officials not destroyed the mosque. Unfortunately, Beijing demands that Muslims abandon their religion. That is true for the Hui of Ningxia and the Uighurs of Xinjiang. Uighurs are denied the basic rights to learn Islam and practice it free of state interference.
The truth is that Beijing officials have no one to blame but themselves. They—not extremists or terrorists—are creating Muslim unrest in China, from Taoshan to Hotan.