Uighur Uprising: continued signs of instability along the frontier

The street fighting in Urumqi and Kashgar indicate how much remains unresolved in the relations of power in Central Asia, that is, along the frontier of the former Soviet Union. And also the evident power of the new technology to enable collectivities to organize and coordinate in defiance of central power. The demonstrations in Iran have exposed the raw power that undergirds the system in place there. It is natural to wonder if the Uighur learned how to put it together by reading about the opposition movement in Iran. Could copy-cat movements develop elsewhere? We hear of tensions brewing elsewhere along the old Soviet border, that is, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Georgia. However it was done in Xinjiang, it is not over. Here is the NYTime report. RLC

July 8, 2009
New Protests in Western China After Deadly Clashes

URUMQI, China — Rival protesters took to the streets again on Tuesday, defying Chinese government efforts to lock down this regional capital of 2.3 million people and other cities across its western desert region after bloody clashes between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese.

The fighting, which erupted Sunday evening, left at least 156 people dead and more than 1,000 injured, according to the state news agency.

Police fired tear gas on Tuesday at Han Chinese protesters armed with clubs, lead pipes, shovels and hoes, news reports said. Earlier, in an attempt to contain China’s worst ethnic violence in decades, the authorities imposed curfews, cut off cellphone and Internet services and sent armed police officers into neighborhoods.

The official Xinhua news agency said an overnight curfew would again be imposed here on Tuesday night.

Despite the authorities efforts to bring the situation under control, hundreds of Uighur protesters defied the police, crashing a state-run tour of the riot scene for foreign and Chinese journalists.

A wailing crowd of women, joined later by scores of Uighur men, marched down a wide avenue Tuesday with raised fists and tearfully demanded that the police release Uighur men who they said had been seized from their homes after Sunday’s violence. Some women waved the identification cards of men who had been detained.

As journalists watched, the demonstrators smashed the windshield of a police car and several police officers drew their pistols before the entire crowd was encircled by officers and paramilitary troops in riot gear.

“A lot of ordinary people were taken away by the police,” a protester named Qimanguli, a 13-year-old girl clad in a white T-shirt and a black headscarf, said, crying. She said her 19-year-old brother had been detained on Monday, long after the riots had ended.

The initial confrontation later ebbed to a tense standoff between about 100 protesters, mostly women, some carrying infants, and riot police in black body armor and helmets, tear-gas launchers at the ready, in a Uighur neighborhood pocked with burned-out homes and an automobile sales lot torched during the Sunday riots.

But soon afterward, news reports said, hundreds of Han Chinese threw rocks and smashed shops owned by Uighurs, ignoring police who appealed to them over loudspeakers to disperse. At one point, some 300 Han Chinese marchers seemed to be heading toward a mosque, only to face clouds of tear gas, news reports said. And at one point, rival groups of protesters clashed until riot police moved in to set up a barrier between them, cheered on by Han Chinese protesters, Reuters reported.

The bloodshed here, along with the Tibetan uprising last year, shows the extent of racial hostility that still pervades much of western China, fueled partly by economic disparity and by government attempts to restrict religious and political activity by minority groups.

The rioting, which began as a peaceful protest calling for a full government inquiry into an earlier brawl between Uighurs and Han Chinese at a factory in southern China, took place in the heart of Xinjiang, an oil-rich desert region where Uighurs are the largest ethnic group but are ruled by the Han, the dominant ethnic group in the country.

Protests spread Monday to the heavily guarded town of Kashgar, on China’s western border, as 200 to 300 people chanting “God is great” and “Release the people” confronted riot police officers about 5:30 p.m. in front of the city’s yellow-walled Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China. They quickly dispersed when officers began arresting people, one resident said.

Internet social platforms and chat programs appeared to have unified Uighurs in anger over the way Chinese officials had handled the earlier brawl, which took place in late June thousands of miles away in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. There, Han workers rampaged through a Uighur dormitory, killing at least two Uighurs and injuring many others, according to the state news agency, Xinhua. Police officers later arrested a resentful former factory worker who had ignited the fight by spreading a rumor that six Uighur men had raped two Han women at the site, Xinhua reported.

But photographs that appeared online after the battle showed people standing around a pile of corpses, leading many Uighurs to believe that the government was playing down the number of dead Uighurs. One Uighur student said the photographs began showing up on many Web sites about one week ago. Government censors repeatedly tried to delete them, but to no avail, he said.

“Uighurs posted it again and again in order to let more people know the truth, because how painful is it that the government does bald-faced injustice to Uighur people?” said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the government.

A call for protests spread on Web sites and QQ, the most popular instant-messaging program in China, despite government efforts to block online discussion of the feud.

By Tuesday morning, more than 36 hours after the start of the protest, the police had detained more than 1,400 suspects, according to Xinhua. More than 200 shops and 14 homes had been destroyed in Urumqi, and 261 motor vehicles, mostly buses, had been burned, Xinhua reported, citing Liu Yaohua, the regional police chief.

Police officers operated checkpoints on roads throughout Xinjiang on Monday. People at major hotels said they had no Internet access. Most people in the city could not use cellphones.

At the local airport, five scrawny, young men wearing black, bulletproof vests and helmets stood outside the terminal, holding batons. The roadways leading into the city center were empty early on Tuesday, except for parked squad cars and clusters of armored personnel carriers and olive military trucks brimming with paramilitary troops. An all-night curfew had been imposed.

Residents described the central bazaar in the Uighur enclave, where much of the rioting took place, as littered with the charred hulks of buses and cars. An American teacher in Urumqi, Adam Grode, and another foreigner said they had heard gunfire long after nightfall Sunday.

Xinhua did not give a breakdown of the 156 deaths, and it was unclear how many of them were protesters and how many were other civilians or police officers. There were no independent estimates of the number of the death toll. At least 1,000 people were described as having protested.

Photographs online and video on state television showed injured people lying in the streets, not far from overturned vehicles that had been set ablaze. Government officials gave journalists in Urumqi a disc with a video showing bodies strewn in the streets.

The officials also released a statement that laid the blame directly on Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman and human rights advocate who had been imprisoned in China and now lives in Washington. It said the World Uighur Congress, a group led by “the splittist” Ms. Kadeer, “directly ignited, plotted and directed the violence using the Shaoguan incident in Guangdong.” The statement said bloggers first began calling for the protest on Saturday night and also used QQ and online bulletin boards to organize a rally at People’s Square and South Gate in the Uighur quarter of Urumqi.

The World Uighur Congress rejected the accusations and said that it condemned “in the strongest possible terms the brutal crackdown of a peaceful protest of young Uighurs.” The group said in a statement on Monday that Uighurs had been subject to reprisals not only from Chinese security forces but also from Han Chinese civilians who attacked homes, workplaces or dormitories after the riots on Monday.

The violence on Sunday dwarfed in scale assaults on security forces last year in Xinjiang. It was deadlier, too, than any of the bombings, riots and protests that swept through the region in the 1990s and that led to a government clampdown.

Uighurs make up about half of the 20 million people in Xinjiang but are a minority in Urumqi, where Han Chinese dominate. The Chinese government has encouraged Han migration to many parts of Xinjiang, and Uighurs say that the Han tend to get the better jobs in Urumqi. The government also maintains tight control on the practice of Islam, which many Uighurs cite as a source of frustration.

But an ethnic Han woman who lives in an apartment near the central bazaar said in a telephone interview that the government should show no sympathy toward the malcontents.

“What they should do is crack down with a lot of force at first, so the situation doesn’t get worse, so it doesn’t drag out like in Tibet,” she said after insisting on anonymity. “Their mind is very simple. If you crack down on one, you’ll scare all of them. The government should come down harder.”

Michael Wines, Jonathan Ansfield and Xiyun Yang contributed reporting from Beijing, and David Barboza from Shanghai. Huang Yuanxi contributed research from Beijing, and Chen Yang from Shanghai.

1953: What American’s don’t know and Iranians can’t forget.

Most Americans are proud of their “free press” and their history of great humanitarian achievements, but they are surprisingly ignorant of their own history – at least of the sordid activities of their government, some of them successfully veiled from their own “free press.” As a result, like every other people the Americans have a selective memory of the past. Currently there seems to be a return to stories of World War II, which is recalled as the last “good war” in which Americans participated. What we forget – or in fact, for most Americans, we never knew ‒ are some of the unseemly ventures of our government in other countries. One of those unseemly ventures was what the CIA did in 1953 in Iran: they overturned a duly elected government led by a very popular Prime Minister, Muhammed Mussadegh, by paying goons to create an appearance of public disorder so that Muhammad Reza Shah could be installed as an American client.

In fact, most of us had no idea; the act only became known many years later – at least to Americans; the Iranians came to know it very quickly, and were soon deeply resentful of it. [The tale is well told in Stephen Kinzer’s book, All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.] This affair has loomed in the Iranian public imagination ever since. It was a major factor in the massive revolt against the Shah in 1978 that eventually brought Khomeini to power. The Iranian people supposed that the Americans were behind the abuses – beatings, executions, intimidations, especially by the secret service agency known as SAVAK ‒ that became increasingly common in the 1970s. And the supposition was right, for indeed the Americans had trained SAVAK and funded the Iranian military that kept the Shah in power.

That memory, the sense that America messes with Iran’s internal affairs, is still alive. This is the reason why the Obama administration dares not take sides in the current struggle in Iran, for merely by expressing support for the opposition it will delegitimize it, turn it into ‒ again ‒ a seeming attempt of the American government to overturn a “duly elected” administration. Or at least “duly elected” as the Iranian administration wants everyone to believe but that many now doubt, judging from the demonstrations of outrage in at least the Iranian cities. And now the country’s highest electoral authority, the Guardian Council, admits that the “votes collected in 50 cities surpass the number of people eligible to cast ballots in those areas.” [http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2009/06/iran-independent-study-indicates-irregularities-in-election-results.html].

The government would like nothing better than to pin the opposition on American meddling. And accordingly the opposition most urgently desires to avoid any evidence of contamination by American support.

So the dance by all sides – Khameinei and the Iranian administration, the Mousavi-led opposition, the Americans, even the Europeans ‒ has been carefully calibrated in terms of that grotesque unseemly event of the past. As always, the past poisons the present, in this case a past that most Americans never knew and virtually all Iranians will never forget.

Susan Boyle, icon of the private imagination

As I mentioned yesterday, attempts to formulate why and how Susan Boyle’s performance captures the imagination will continue. The question reaches fundamental issues of our understanding of ourselves, our experience as human beings. What makes anthropology fun and deeply rewarding is the sense that we are in some sense probing the essential qualities of humanity — whatever that is, whatever we mean by it. So the struggle of so many to explain why they cry, why they keep coming back to the same event, to watch the same performance, over and over again, displays the sense of mystery deeply embedded within us. These special bursts of public discussion about such a person, such an event, an icon created in a single episode, reveal what resides within us: a continuous rumination over who we are; we are ever seeking to grasp ourselves. What is this peculiar creature, the human being? Creative, inventive, generous, and also cruel, intolerant, self-serving, bitter. All this I can only surmise — for knowing no one else I have to extrapolate from my own private world. I presume that everyone else like me carries on this internal struggle to understand, manipulating the tools of imagining that are available, the kinds of things we always use to think with: words, gestures, objects. The anthropological task, I take it, is to monitor whatever extrinsic evidences of that internal calque we can find in others. These overt forms are the devices through which the anthropologist gains access to personal mysteries, private experiences — elements of the human condition that are usually inaccessible. But when, as in the reactions to Susan Boyle, intense personal feelings burst forth in tears that astonish, we discover dimensions of the human moral sensibility that most of us are unprepared to find in ourselves. That makes Susan Boyle a special event as well as a special human being.

COLETTE DOUGLAS HOME, in The Herald, “The beauty that matters is always on the inside,” has the finest formulation on the reasons why Susan Boyle is a cultural phenomenon. Click on the title above for a link to the full statement, but here I reproduce a few statements that well capture some of the reasons that Susan Boyle has become an icon of the moral sensibility of so many.

“[O]nly the pretty are expected to achieve. Not only do you have to be physically appealing to deserve fame; it seems you now have to be good-looking to merit everyday common respect. If, like Susan (and like millions more), you are plump, middle-aged and too poor or too unworldly to follow fashion or have a good hairdresser, you are a non-person. . . .

But then ridicule is nothing new in Susan Boyle’s life. She is a veteran of abuse. She was starved of oxygen at birth and has learning difficulties as a result. At school she was slow and had frizzy hair. She was bullied, mostly verbally. . . .

She didn’t have boyfriends, is a stranger to romance and has never been kissed. . . . . Singing was her life-raft.

She lived with her parents in a four-bedroom council house and, when her father died a decade ago, she cared for her mother and sang in the church choir. . . . and being a carer isn’t a glamorous life, as the hundreds of thousands who do that most valuable of jobs will testify. . . .

But [her frumpiness] is often evidence of a life lived selflessly; of a person so focused on the needs of another that they have lost sight of themselves.

. . . Susan Boyle’s mother encouraged her to sing. She wanted her to enter Britain’s Got Talent. But the shy Susan hasn’t been able to sing at all since her mother’s death two years ago. She wasn’t sure how her voice would emerge after so long a silence. Happily, it survived its rest.

. . . . Susan is a reminder that it’s time we all looked a little deeper. She has lived an obscure but important life. She has been a companionable and caring daughter. It’s people like her who are the unseen glue in society; the ones who day in and day out put themselves last. . . .

Susan has been forgiven her looks and been given respect because of her talent. She should always have received it because of the calibre of her character.

Susan Boyle and the power of the moral imagination

Every once in a while great cultural moment happens. Iconic displays of the human imagination seem always to be unpredictable. But when they happen they reveal something about ourselves to ourselves. The Elian Gonzales affair was such a moment. Simply by arriving on the shores of Florida, alone, his mother and others lost at sea as they desperately fled Cuba in a fragile sea craft, Elian provided nothing more than his own presence into which people from many persuasions could invest their opinions about the Cuban question. A child who had essentially nothing to do with it other than his own person, became the focus of an intense public furor. [See Marshall Sahlins, Apologies to Thucydides]

Such a moment has just happened again, only this time it is a little different. A few days ago a 47 year old woman appeared on a talent show in Britain. Someone described her as fumpy. She wore her best dress, something worn earlier to a nephew’s wedding. She had fixed her hair herself. And she came on stage to sing. The hosts and the audience were kind enough, but pervading the whole scenario was a palpable doubt, even condescension, about this woman. She was a pathetic figure, vulnerable. This was an aggressive audience, expressive; they were ready to drive a performer off the stage. The hosts, the talent judges, were clearly dubious. One of the judges asked this woman her name and where she was from. She was Susan Boyle from a small town — well, a collection of villages, she said. Then he asked what her ambition was. She wanted to be singer. Who would she like to be like?, he asked. Like Elaine Paige. It was easy to regard this woman as tragically unaware of her own limitations, with aspirations that surpassed her ability. And she was now on stage, on TV. Before a huge audience. Here was a disaster in the making. This would be difficult to watch.

She chose to sing Fantine’s song, “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables, when Fantine was left alone, unemployed and destitute.

Her first note changed everything. The audience was electrified. As she sang they began to cheer. One of the judges, Amanda Holden [whom I earlier called “a gorgeous blond”; decide for yourself — certainly not “frumpy” like the woman on stage], folded her hands and held them up to her face, as if hoping desperately, praying, for this woman not to stumble. Everyone seemed to be rooting for her. Some people wept. This is what she sang:

There was a time when men were kind
When their voices were soft
And their words inviting
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting
There was a time
Then it all went wrong

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame

He slept a summer by my side
He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride
But he was gone when autumn came

And still I dream he’ll come to me
That we will live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

When she was finished the judges were ecstatic. One of them said that at first everyone had been laughing at her but no one was laughing now. Amanda Holden said it was a wonderful moment for her because she knew that everyone there had been against Susan. Susan Boyle was showered with praise.

That was on April 11. On April 15, 2009, when you google “Susan Boyle singer” it gives you 132,000 sites. The clip of her performance, seven minutes, has been watched over 3 ½ million times.

Here is an event that so embodied something profoundly, even personally, gripping for thousands of people that the seven minute clip on UTube is being watched over and over again, by the same people. Susan Boyle’s moment on stage objectifies something buried in the psyche, something in the human moral imagination. The discussion of how and what that could be will be going on for weeks.

Here is one instance:
On popwatch [http://popwatch.ew.com/popwatch/2009/04/susan-boyle-why.html] Lisa Schwarzbaum writes that she is still crying. She plays the YouTube clip over and over again. And she asks herself what every anthropologist should ask: why are you listening again and again? And why are you crying? She proposes an answer, at least for herself: “In our pop-minded culture so slavishly obsessed with packaging — the right face, the right clothes, the right attitudes, the right Facebook posts — the unpackaged artistic power of the unstyled, un-hip, un-kissed Ms. Boyle let me feel, for the duration of one blazing showstopping ballad, the meaning of human grace. She pierced my defenses. She reordered the measure of beauty. And I had no idea until tears sprang how desperately I need that corrective . . .”

Buried within the human psyche are feelings, yearnings, anxieties too deep for words, usually. Only sometimes do we see it in ourselves. Always it is something outside ourselves that touches us, somehow, where we feel most deeply. At such moments we remember that we are humans — not mere living creatures, but human beings, profoundly and deeply shaped by a moral sensibility so powerful that it breaks through our inhibitions; it can burst out, explode into public view, to our own astonishment. And sometimes that objective form — a person, an event, an object, a song — embodies deeply felt sensibilities for a lot of us at once, so that we discover how much we share in our private worlds, worlds otherwise inaccessible to anyone one else. It becomes a social event, so we can all rejoice, and weep, together.