This week's violence between Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese in western Xinjiang region is not surprising given the decades of tension. So says, Colin MacKerras, a China analyst who has written extensively about Xinjiang.
“There was a mini-uprising in the southwest of Xinjiang in 1990 that was put down very quickly, but it seemed to remain under the surface," explains Professor MacKerras of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.
"There were also disturbances in 1997 in the northwest of Xinjiang near the border with Kazakhstan," says Griffin. "Then, last year, there were quite serious ones in connection with the (Beijing) Olympic Games.”
More than 150 people were killed and hundreds more hurt or arrested in violence since Sunday.
Australia says tensions increased last month after rumors swept through a toy factory in Guangdong that two male Uighurs raped two Chinese women.
The rumors, he says, were checked out by the police, but could not be proven. Nonetheless, ensuing violence left two people dead.
The tensions are fueled, he says, by the inability of many ethnic Uighurs to find jobs. The Uighurs believe their culture is under attack by Han immigration, he explains. The Han currently make up about 43% of the population of Xinjiang.
The Beijing government tends to dismiss such tensions as the result of terrorism or outside agitators MacKerras says. “Now I think the stirring up from outside does occur, but to put it all on that, to overlook the very genuine tensions that exist in Xinjiang is very misguided.”
The Han are China's dominant ethnic group and include the leadership in Beijing and many regional authorities. Chinese authorities have accused the Uighurs of seeking independence for Xinjiang.
The region borders a number of Central Asian states with large Muslim populations, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
The Uighurs say the government exaggerates the threat of an independence movement in order to justify its control.