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Politics

Ten years after Xinjiang riots, China pushes growth story

Beijing focuses on wine and power projects as critics blast Uighur detentions

Chinese paramilitary police in riot gear stand outside a mosque in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in July 2009.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- The 10th anniversary of deadly riots in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region on Friday highlights dueling narratives of what has transpired there since, with the government touting anti-poverty programs and swift economic growth while the U.S. and Europe accuse Beijing of human rights abuses in "re-education camps."

On July 5, 2009, Han Chinese and predominantly Muslim Uighurs began a series of violent clashes in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi. The Chinese government says 197 people were killed.

On Monday, in the run-up to the anniversary, the state-run Xinhua News Agency ran a story headlined, "How about wine from the grape production region of Xinjiang?" The government has worked out a wine industry development plan to help alleviate poverty, aiming to increase local production to 10 billion yuan ($1.45 billion) by 2025. The plan also calls for promoting tourism, restaurants and other businesses.

Beijing is pushing infrastructure improvements in the region as well. On June 19, Premier Li Keqiang stressed the need to accelerate the buildup of electric grids in Uighur and other deprived areas. The goal is to complete upgrading the grids in rural areas one year ahead of schedule.

Beijing boasts that Xinjiang has already achieved annual economic growth of 8.5% on average.

But there is another side to the story -- one in which China has cracked down on separatists in Xinjiang and imposed strict controls there, positioning the region as a "core interest" alongside Tibet and Taiwan. One expert on Chinese history said the country's leaders fear that a push for independence in Xinjiang would spread to Tibet and Inner Mongolia and threaten the government.

The riots in 2009 marked the biggest outbreak of ethnic violence under the Communist Party's reign. A few years later, in May 2014, suicide bombers struck a market in Urumqi, killing about 40 people and injuring more than 90.

The attack was blamed on Uighur assailants and China's leadership pledged to address terrorism with "special measures."

Since then, a huge number of surveillance cameras have been installed around Urumqi, while slogans such as "Love for Party and Love for Country" have been put up in mosques.

The U.S. and Europe, meanwhile, say China has detained Uighurs and other religious minorities in camps within the region.

The Chinese government used to deny the presence of the camps but recognized them as "vocational training centers" in a regulatory amendment in October 2018. The centers are supposed to provide "ideological education" and Chinese-language instruction, ostensibly for improving employment prospects and stamping out extremism.

But in its 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom, released in June, the U.S. Department of State raised grave concerns over China's detention policy, claiming that more than 2 million Muslims such as Uighurs were detained. It cited reports that detainees are subjected "to forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity." It also noted "reports of deaths among detainees."

To draw attention to their cause, Uighur Muslims and others staged a protest against China on June 28 in Osaka, where Chinese President Xi Jinping was attending the Group of 20 summit. The 10th anniversary of the riots is another reminder of an issue that continues to pose a challenge for Beijing.

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