Mob Violence and the Rule of Law in Urumchi

A blog entry to do justice to this story would take more time than I have available.  However, I want to help bring attention to the present situation in Urumchi.  This area  is inhabited by nomadic, Muslim peoples  who are not ethnically Han Chinese but rather of Turkic descent.  China incorporates this territory, which is south of Russia and west of Mongolia, as part of its Xinjiang Province (which roughly translates from Mandarin as "new frontier".) 

Just as in another high plateau location, ethnic peoples feel their culture is being systematically eliminated.  Most recently, Chinese announced plans to demolish the old town of Kashgar, which is a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site and a hub of the overland silk road.  Kashgar was a filming location for The Kite Runner.   Ethnic Uyghur receive special privileges from the government, but they are also restricted in the practice of their religion, and the central government encourages Han Chinese to relocate to Xinjiang.  Just as in other places which have not traditionally been dominated by Han Chinese, the Han are resented by locals and at the same time the Han resent the locals for their special privileges.  To make matters worse, any time the local / indigenous people express discontent and / or riot, rather than acknowledge the kernel of truth that seeds their discontent, the government portrays them as irrational, ungrateful, violent separatists intent on damaging innocent Han.  This further fuels the seeds of hatred by Han against the ethnic group.  In China, hatred easily leads to mob violence. 

Mob violence is a chronic issue.  When citizens are angry, they often react violently.  For instance, in Guanxxi Province a few years ago, police cars were overturned, public officials assaulted, and offices burned, by people angry over enforcement of China’s one child policy.  In another incident, widespread violence directed against Japanese broke out after a Japanese exchange student at a university jokingly performed a dance which  Han Chinese found insulting.  When factory workers are disgruntled, they often turn to violence against management.  In part, this is due to lack of legal remedies for redress of grievances. 

The human tendency toward mob behavior is not limited to China.  One of my first cases as a criminal lawyer had to do with "lynching".  While the average American associates "lynching" with racial violence in the American deep South, this is a misconception.  Lynching, in fact, is the legal term which refers to any violence by a mob.  The first legal cases involving lynching arose out of the English War of the Roses.  The Anglo-American legal response to this natural, human tendency is to use a carrot and stick approach to build public reliance on legal mechanisms for redress of grievances.  Participation in lynching (mob violence) is a serious crime in and of itself, but from the time of the Anglo Saxon kings, every effort has been made to persuade the public that it can rely on the legal system for redress of wrongs.  Fundamentally, when the public is persuaded that it can rely on the legal system for justice, then the public will accept that avenue and forgo the natural impulse toward immediate and more or less indiscriminate violence. 

That same level of trust of the government systems of redress seem to be lacking in China.  Last week, it was rumored in a distant province (Guangdong) that ethnic Uyghurs had raped two Han Chinese women with impunity.  I am not aware of all the details of the tit-for-tat blow by blow events, but violence ensued.  At some point, a photo was circulated showing a pile of bodies of ethnic Ughyurs surrounded by police.   Violence begets violence.  This was the spark which was then fanned by rumors, distrust, lack of legal means of redress for wrongs, years of misleading news information into a conflagration. 

On the morning of July 6th, I was informed by a friend that due to riots in Xinjiang Province, Google and much of the internet had been shut down.  Clamping down on information makes it much easier to control the news.  By doing so, witnesses are prevented from reporting, images don’t get circulated, and popular opinion is much easier to control.   Then I noticed more specific reporting by the N.Y. Times ( to read article click here  )  that riots had broken out in Urumchi.   That afternoon, I read FB status update from ethic U friend sent via cell phone: "UYGHURLAR, stay inside, lock your doors!! Uyghur girls killed with their heads hung on the streets. Mass killings happening outside–let’s all pray for this t[ ]".  The message ends there.  I understand that at this time cell phone service as well as internet has been knocked out.  Indeed, most forms of communication are now blocked in an effort to reduce the ability of the mob to organize as well as to stop the spread of information generally.  New York Times and Al Jazeera English are both reporting that government riot troops are having to cordon off the Ughyr areas of the city Urumchi in order to prevent Han Chinese from going in to sack that area of the city.  It’s reported that the Han Chinese are armed with batons and clubs. 

Much is made by westerners, including myself, over relative lack of freedom of the press in China.  The Chinese response to this criticism, generally speaking, is that information must be controlled in order to prevent the type of mob violence we see in this instance.  I believe I have written earlier entries in my blog about the fact that Chinese students are not taught how to sift, decipher, and evaluate the credibility of news as gleaned from various sources.  (Unfortunately, this critique is not limited to non-Western countries, as any look at the "Fox News" channel and the popularity of Rush Limbaugh among uneducated Americans attests.)  The Chinese viewpoint is reinforced by instances of mass mob violence, as here. 

On the other hand, this mob violence has been fueled by years of government response to the Ughyur situation which oversimplifies and justifies a predetermined, governmental policy which does not take into account or adequately address the conflicting and real reasons for ethnic tension.  Further, governmental controlled media has oversimplified and vilified, thus adding to the well of anger and feeling that grievances are not adequately addressed. 

The real solution, I propose, would be rule of law, without propaganda, without oversimplification, without generalization, and without corruption.  And with adequate means of redress for injustice.  Only then, will the population be willing to accept legal redress in place of do-it-yourself "justice". 

*Update:  Today (July 18 2009) I read in the NY Times  (  "’The absence of an independent legal system is the party’s biggest
mistake, because when people can’t take their grievances to the courts,
they take them to the streets,’ said Nicholas Bequelin, an Asia
researcher for Human Rights Watch."  I’m glad to see someone agrees with me!  🙂  



Filed under News and politics

2 responses to “Mob Violence and the Rule of Law in Urumchi

  1. Max

    Then what\’s your point on earth? In my opinion, at present the stabilization is the most important, to minimize the loss and keep the local society in the normal order. The Xinjiang witness in Uighur are knowing what are happening there and the truth will be uncovered, soon or later. Just what you suggested, "All I can suggest is to accept as truth only information from first hand sources which are known for truthfulness". But at least, now we could see those news photos from CCTV or NY times.Just like what you said, "This area is claimed by China, but it historically has not been part of China. It is inhabited by nomadic, Muslim peoples who are not ethnically Han Chinese(people) but rather of Turkic descent". But as far as i know, most Shinjang area historically has been part of China(You mean the earlier time?) since the west Han dynasty(about BC 60 or earlier). Firstly it called Xiyu. And it\’s invaded from time to time. In A.D. 1757, Emperor Qianlong finally named it Xinjiang according to the meaning"native land, freshly(new) return" after reoccupying the native land. Further more, it\’s unreasonable to only single Han Chinese because all those 56 peoples liveing there there are Chinese people, right?But, so far, at least 156 ordinary people are killed, more than 1,000 ordinary people are injured and things such as cars and buildings are lighted. Who will be responsible the event? Maybe my english is poor now. But, it\’s the fact.

  2. Alex

    Hi Max, thanks for your thoughtful comment and especially for making the history of the area more clear. I substantially revised the blog entry after you wrote, so that my "point" has shifted slightly away from "access to information" and more to "redress for grievances".

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