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Why China's ethnic riots help the Communist Party

Official media depicted the country's dominant Han as victims, a useful unifier in a down economy.

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Just as the new mantra in Washington is "Never let a crisis go to waste," so too did Beijing's leaders find an opportunity this week to take advantage of the ethnic riots between the country's dominant Han and the Muslim minority Uighurs.

Amid disturbing images of protesters killing each other – with more than 150 killed – China Central Television made sure to highlight those scenes in which the Han were victims of attacks by Uighurs. Official images also showed crowds of local Han welcoming truckloads of security forces and denouncing "foreign" influence.

And to make sure millions of overseas Han hear of such attacks, the government allowed foreign media into Urumqi, the capital of China's far western Xinjiang region and the traditional homeland of the Uighurs. Messages of outrage from the overseas groups were then reported in the heavily controlled press.

This is a notable shift from ethnic riots in Tibet last year, when the foreign press was barred from the Himalayan region and China's media played down attacks on local Han by Tibetans.

Perhaps one reason for this difference is that the Han are becoming more restless as the economy worsens. Protests are rising as jobs disappear. China's ruling Communist Party may have decided to try to unify them with scenes of Han as victims.

Keeping the Han majority unified is critical to the party staying in power. Even though they make up 90 percent of China's 1.3 billion population, the Han have stark linguistic and cultural differences among themselves. And China has a long history of rebellions between the various Han groups, such as the Cantonese and Fujianese.

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