SHANGHAI - The weekend violence that has left 156 people dead and more than 816 injured in Urumqi, capital of northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is the latest example of growing conflicts between China's majority Han ethnic group and ethnic minorities.
At the heart of the escalating problem are China's antiquated policies towards its ethnic minorities - a raft of Marxist measures that are now pleasing neither the ethnic Han, nor the minorities. As China's gargantuan economy has advanced, former leader Mao Zedong's vision of political and economic equality between Han and non-Han has gradually been undermined.
The end result could be seen on the bloody streets of Urumqi.
On Sunday, more than 300 ethnic Uyghurs - mostly Sunni Muslims - staged a protest in Urumqi's People's Square to demand an investigation into a June 26 brawl at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province. Riots began when police began to disperse protesters, soon spreading across the remote city of 2.3 million people.
Groups of rioters broke down guardrails on roads, torched automobiles and beat Han pedestrians. The mob attacked buses and set fire to a hotel near the office building of the Xinjiang Regional Foreign Trade Commission, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. Hundreds of cars, shops and homes were smashed and burned during the violence, Xinhua said.
China Central Television on Monday aired images of Uyghur protesters attacking Han men and women, kicking them on the ground and leaving them dazed and bloodied. Images were shown of smoke billowing from vehicles as rioters overturned police cars and smashed buses.
As of Monday evening, at least 156 people were found dead and more than 800 others injured, including armed police officers, the Xinjiang Public Security Department said. More than 50 dead bodies were found in back streets and alleys, officials said, adding grimly that the toll may rise.
Official statistics did not give any breakdowns to show how many Uyghur protesters were killed. A spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a United States-based organization of pro-independence Uyghurs in exile, told Voice of America that police opened fire on protesters. The Chinese government has blamed the WUC for masterminding the violence,
Xinhua said "the situation was under control" by Monday morning; police had shut down traffic in parts of the city and arrested over 1,000 protesters. Among those detained were at least 10 of the most prominent figures who fanned the unrest on Sunday, the Xinjiang Public Security Department said.
But on Tuesday, over 200 Uyghurs, mostly women, staged a new protest in Urumqi in front of foreign reporters and it was reported that in the afternoon Urumqi Han residents began to counter-attack on Uyghurs. The women demanded the release of their families arrested during Sunday's violence. The foreign reporters had been organized by authorities to visit post-violence scenes, where protesters engaged in a tense stand-off with police, Hong Kong media said.
The Xinjiang government that evening warned that "hostile elements" were plotting to stir up violence in other Xinjiang cities such as Yining and Kashgar.
"We deeply regret the loss of life" in Urumqui, US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said. "We call on all sides for calm and restraint."
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon also called for restraint. He told a press conference on Monday: "Wherever it is happening or has happened the position of the United Nations and the secretary general has been consistent and clear: that all the differences of opinion, whether domestic or international, must be resolved peacefully through dialogue."
According to Xinhua, a government statement claimed the violence was "a pre-empted, organized violent crime. It is instigated and directed from abroad and carried out by outlaws in the country."
In a televised address on Monday morning, Xinjiang governor Nur Bekri accused the WUC led by Rebiya Kadeer - a former businesswoman now living in the United States - of fomenting the violence via telephone and the Internet. "Rebiya had phone conversations with people in China on July 5 in order to incite ... and the Internet was used to orchestrate the incitement," read the statement.
Kadeer's spokesman, Alim Seytoff, told the Associated Press from Washington that the accusations were baseless.
"It's common practice for the Chinese government to accuse Ms Kadeer for any unrest in East Turkestan and His Holiness the Dalai Lama for any unrest in Tibet," he said. East Turkestan is the name of the state Uyghur pro-independence groups and militants wish to create in Xinjiang.
One the exile groups, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, is listed by the Chinese government and the UN as a terrorist organization. The WUC denies any connection with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
The violence in Urumqi echoed last year's unrest in Tibet. In March 2008, a peaceful demonstration of monks in the capital of Lhasa erupted into riots that spread to surrounding areas, leaving at least 22 dead. The Chinese government accused the Dalai Lama of orchestrating the violence. The Dalai Lama denied the charge.
Whether the riots were instigated by pro-independence activists or not, the fact remains that violent conflicts are easily stirred up by the mutual distrust between the Han people and ethnic minorities. Internet rumors were also involved.
The brawl in the Shaoguan factory on June 26 was started by a post on an Internet website that claimed at least two female Han workers were raped by Uyghur migrant workers, many of whom work at the factory.
In response to the allegation, Han workers stormed into dormitories of the Uyghur workers. In the ensuing battle, two Uyghur were killed and many workers from both sides injured, according to local police. Authorities later arrested a Han worker for uploading the rape rumor to stir up trouble.
The end of class-struggle identity The increasingly frequent conflicts between Han and other groups indicate the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) policy toward ethnic minorities has become ineffective in maintaining harmonious relations between peoples.
For the past 60 years, the stated aim of the CCP's policy has been to maintain national unity and stabilize civil society. The communist government considers all ethnic groups to be Chinese, but encourages all ethnic groups, especially minorities, to keep and develop their traditional cultures. The government has even helped minorities with only a spoken language create their own writing system.
The idea that all people in China belong to the "great family of Chinese" is not the invention of the communists. This attitude began with the founding father of modern China, Dr Sun Yat-sen, and was supported by early Chinese enlightenment thinkers such as Liang Qichao and Hu Shih.
In the era of chairman Mao Zedong, the ethnic policy was dictated by his class-struggle doctrine, by which all Han and non-Han working people shared one common identity - socialist labor. The term "labor" meant they were also the owners of the country - constitutionally and ideologically. Capitalists, land owners, serf owners and other "exploiters" - regardless of their ethnic origins - were the enemies.
This policy successfully surpassed ethnic differences and constructed a shared identity for all working people. To an extent, this policy under Mao united all ethnic groups in the "class struggle" against the "oppressors". It also made the former elites of ethnic minorities diehard enemies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The working poor of China's ethnic groups gave much support to the CCP government, and accepted their new socialist identity. Han and non-Han people became equal economically and politically, and the idea of ethnicity was gradually faded out by the idea of class.
The concept of a common class, which gave equality to all people in the same class regardless of their ethnicity, surpassed the idea of ethnic identity and forestalled ethnic conflict.
But when the class-struggle doctrine was practiced to the extreme particularly during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, it gave the Red Guards - consisting of mostly Hans - the ground to attack China's cultural and historical heritage - Han as well as ethnic - in the name of the revolution. These attacks tremendously hurt the feelings of ethnic minorities.
After the Cultural Revolution, apparently as some form of compensation, the Chinese government began to award some privileges and preferences to ethnic minorities.
For example, the tough one-child policy applies only to Han couples. Accordingly, the birth rate and population proportion of the Han are decreasing, compared to other ethnic groups. Meanwhile, privileges have been granted to ethnic minorities for employment and education opportunities. To boost economic growth, the government in recent years has poured much money into ethnic minority areas.
Many Han are upset at what they see as discrimination. In the aftermath of the Shaoguan brawl, Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang visited and consoled the injured Uyghur workers, but allegedly ignored the injured Han workers. This angered the Han workers and increased their suspicion of the government's policy.
Even as ethnic groups, such as the Uyghurs, complain they are being exploited or discriminated by the Han, many Han accuse the government of doing the same. In the end, as China's economy advances, political and economic equality between Han and non-Han is being undermined.
The wealth gap is expanding between the Han, who in general live in rich areas, and those ethnic minorities who live in relatively poorer areas. The economic inequality between different regions is also a case between Han and non-Hans. Although this imbalance of economic development is due to many factors, it's easy for minorities to feel exploited by the Han.
As the influence of Marxism as the dominant ideology is diminishing in China, the sense of political equality is also abating. Today, common people aren't really considered the owners of the country, and laborers are no longer a respected class. Capitalists have become the government's guests of honor.
In China, political equality based on class equality has collapsed. For the past 60 years, this idea of class equality was a basis on which all common people, including minorities, could maintain an identity as one member of the Chinese political community.
Now, the economic and political marginalization of ethnic minorities is destroying the foundation of some ethnic groups' Chinese identity. At the same time, this marginalization is deeply misunderstood by many of the majority Han ethnic group.
The shared identity of the Chinese - as socialist labor - is gradually falling to pieces. The resulting riots in Urumqi may be just the start of something much, much bigger.