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Confused about the Xinjiang riots? Follow the money.

The unrest is less about Islam and more about economics.

Uighur people shop in the main market of Hetian, in the region of Xinjiang, April 5, 2008. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

SAN FRANCISCO — For Kasim Tuman, a Uighur activist living in California, the explanation for the long-simmering resentment between his people and the Han Chinese that boiled over into deadly ethnic riots in northwest China last week is a matter of two numbers: 6 and 40.

The first is the percentage population of Han Chinese in Xinjiang, the Uighurs’ native province, prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The second is that percentage today.

“The influx of immigrant Han Chinese is so large that Uighurs have become a minority in their own land,” said Tuman, the West Coast coordinator the Uighur American Association.

Beijing’s explanation for last week’s violence is equally simple: It was the work of overseas Uighurs like Tuman — terrorist organizers, the government says, who manipulated their fellow Muslims back home to embark on a bloody rampage.

As columns of Chinese troops maintain a semblance of calm in Urumqi, the provincial capital where at least 156 died and hundreds more were injured in the deadliest episode of ethnic violence in modern Chinese history, attention both in China and abroad has turned to the question of why.

The riots appeared to have grown out of protests over the killing of Uighurs by a mob of Han Chinese factory workers in Guangdong province angry about the rumored rape of two Han Chinese women in the factory. But as with the Rodney King trial and 1992 Los Angeles race riots, the Guangdong incident was a catalyst for the violence, not an explanation for the violence in and of itself.

Tension between Han Chinese and mostly Muslim Uighurs dates back centuries. In recent years, the struggle has come to be seen by some as an issue of religion. This is thanks in large part to the government’s classification of independence-minded Uighurs as terrorists (a shift in rhetoric linked to China’s acquiescence in the George W. Bush’s War on Terror). But observations by scholars, the reactions of regular Han Chinese and the experiences of Uighurs themselves suggest the conflict is less about Islam and more about economics.

The Urumqi riots produced an explosion of indignation inside China itself. As with riots in Tibet in March of 2008, much of the commentary focused on preferential economic policies directed at the region.

“How many other countries treat minorities as favorably as China does?” one YouTube user wrote in Chinese under a video depicting the riots. “Why are some people still unsatisfied? They don’t understand gratitude.”

Since the start of its “Go West” campaign in the year 2000, Beijing has invested tens of billions in Xinjiang in an effort to develop its rich stores of oil (China’s second-largest), uranium, gold and other minerals. Such investment is described in Chinese state media as a boon to Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang — a sort of ethnic minority stimulus plan. While the region’s GDP growth has hovered in the teens, however, the practical benefits to Xinjiang natives have been meager.