Many feared that the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong would end with a crackdown reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when the Chinese army crushed a peaceful student occupation of central Beijing and killed hundreds or even thousands of people in the process.
This speculation, and the global attention to Hong Kong, ignores a crucial piece of context: The Chinese government already killed scores of demonstrators in a single incident earlier this year. And it did so under circumstances that are the exact opposite of the situation in Hong Kong — far from the prying eyes of the international media, in a distant and peripheral part of the country that’s home to a restive minority group with a whole different set of grievances against Beijing.
In early August, the president of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress claimed that at least 2,000 members of China’s Uyghur minority had been killed the previous month in and around Elishku, a town in China’s far west. China’s 12 million Uyghurs are Muslims who speak a language related to Turkish and who enjoy few civil, national, political, or religious rights under China’s nationalistic and authoritarian system.
Beijing eventually admitted to killing 96 people in the incident, but did not allow any international or independent media or human rights monitors into the area. The incident took place in a very remote area; the violence likely involved police opening fire on demonstrators, rather than tanks or heavy vehicles.
There were riots in the Uyghur city of Urumqi in 2009, and Uyghur separatists are responsible for various acts of terrorism throughout China, like a March 2014 knife attack at a train station in Kunming that left over 30 people dead. The incidents that have been met with increased levels of oppression. The alleged massacre in Elishku came as the result of a local, semi-spontaneous march on a police station in the township, according to Radio Free Asia.
A few photographs of the unrest ended up on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, some of them depicting bloodstained streets and burned-out vehicles. They were quickly deleted. No one outside of China has publicly verified what happened in Elishku, but experts won’t dismiss the possibility of a significant death toll with witnesses telling Radio Free Asia that it’s possible over 1,000 people were killed.
“In my opinion, the truth lies somewhere in between what state media says and what diaspora groups like the World Uyghur Congress say,” Thomas Nelson, an observer of Uyghur affairs and editor of the Uyghur Update newsletter, told Business Insider by email. “But with a discrepancy as large as this one, where you have one side say less than 100 deaths and the other saying more than 2,000, there’s still the potential for a frighteningly large number of casualties.”
In September, Nelson wrote that a series of security incidents in China’s west had caused an uptick in the possibility of a future state-led mass killing incident targeted at Uyghurs, based on the conclusions of the Early Warning Project’s expert opinion pool.
Henryk Szadziewski, senior researcher for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told Business Insider it was difficult to confirm the Elishku incident’s death toll, thanks to Beijing’s obstruction of any independent monitors. But he added that Beijing is currently pivoting its priorities in Uyghur territory towards more security-oriented policies.
“What we’ve seen in the past year is a shift among the central leadership for policies in the region away from the emphasis on development,” Szadziewski told Business Insider. He said that Chinese president Xi Jinping made “a key statement” in January emphasising that security would be Beijing’s top priority in the west, after years of attempting to pacify the region through large-scale government building projects.
Since July, China has imprisoned major Uyghur civil society figures, most notably a prominent rights advocate and scholar who was sentenced to life in prison in late September. “It’s a very clear signal that the government won’t tolerate opposition to its ethnic policies,” Szadziewski said.
Which is a reminder of just how unique an event the Hong Kong protests have been.
In a cosmopolitan center of international finance, Beijing has had to carefully tread around its handling of mass dissent. It wants to impose its will on a restive population without having to resort to measures that could tarnish China’s image or risk a further escalation.
Out in the hinterlands, the Beijing government can essentially do whatever it wants. Despite the global media attention on Hong Kong, the government has a free hand in how it deals with dissent in much of the world’s most populous country — even if it involves killing on a massive scale.
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