Yelling “national unity” and “love our country” as he carried a heavy metal pipe, Bao Wei was one of hundreds of Han Chinese showing the raw power of Chinese nationalism in Xinjiang’s conflict.
“We are patriots. We are just out here to defend our country,” said Bao, a 22-year-old university student, as he and a group of about 25 ethnic Han roamed the tense streets of Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.
Like thousands of other members of China’s dominant ethnic group, Bao was enraged by weekend rioting by Uighurs, a Muslim minority that has long complained of Chinese repression. At least 156 people died in the violence.
Nationalist feelings, which have surged in recent years in China, have bubbled to the surface in Urumqi’s unrest and become a rallying cry for many Han.
“We will keep the motherland unified even if we have to fight. China is one country,” Bao said.
In similar unrest in Tibet last year, Tibetans who despise Chinese rule attacked and killed Han. But in Urumqi, Chinese security forces that initially focused on protecting Han have had to quickly pivot, pouring in thousands of riot control forces to prevent mobs of Han wreaking vengeance.
Since China’s leaders discarded many tenets of communism three decades ago in their transition to capitalism, authorities have increasingly filled the rhetorical gap with appeals to patriotism.
After last year’s Tibet riots, China’s state-run media and the Internet were aflame with anger over perceived Western bias, and there has been debate among Chinese intellectuals calling for a more assertive China.
“We will not accept these separatists wrecking our national unity,” said Han Yi, an employee with an Urumqi courier company.
Han spoke as he watched a mob of about 200 Han, some holding small Chinese flags, chase several Uighur men on Wednesday, severely beating two of them.
“Do you know Chinese history? Then you know about our 100 years of shame,” he said, using the Chinese term for the century of domination by foreign powers that ended in 1949.
“The great Chinese people will always stand up for themselves from now on,” he said.
Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, said such government tactics were both predictable and dangerous.
“It is throwing oil on the fire,” he said, adding that tension between the two ethnic groups appeared more pronounced among younger, poorer migrants into the city.
“The scapegoating of outside forces does not acknowledge some of the key reasons for anger among the Uighurs,” he said.
Chinese authorities seem to have been caught off-guard by the Han reaction.
In leaflets dropped over the Urumqi hot spots by helicopters this week, Wang Lequan (王樂泉) , the top Chinese official in Xinjiang, appealed specifically to the Han to stay calm.
“If the Han mobilize against innocent Uighur, not only is this wrong, but won’t it also upset all of the ethnic groups?” Wang, who is known for his tough rhetoric against Uighur “separatism,” said in the leaflet.
Even some Han residents of Urumqi expressed concern over the nationalist rhetoric.
“They are calling for unity of the motherland. But right now, everybody just needs to calm down,” said Yi Jing, a Han woman in her early 20s as she watched Wednesday’s mob attacks on Uighurs from a fast-food restaurant.
“Now I don’t think there will ever be unity between the Han and the Uighur,” she said.