A degree of calm has apparently been restored in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, after unrest last week that, even according to official Chinese figures, left 184 dead. But the world’s media continue their reticence about the nature and underlying causes of that unrest.

The preferred description for the clashes has been “ethnic tension”. The BBC headed one of last week’s stories with “Ethnic tensions taboo in China“; Michael Sainsbury, in a very sensible piece in this morning’s Australian, refers to “obvious ethnic and religious tensions in Xinjiang.”

But the “ethnic tension” meme, while not literally inaccurate, is grossly misleading; it conjures up the impression of two groups of people who just happen to find themselves on the same chunk of territory — like, for example, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia — and leaves out the context of how they got there.

The Han Chinese in Xinjiang are recent arrivals — the vast majority since the start of communist rule in 1949. They represent a deliberate policy of colonisation by an imperial government: much like the Javanese in West Papua, Russians in the Baltic states, or the French in Algeria. The Uighurs are not engaged in some context-free ethnic rivalry; they are protesting against the threat of becoming a minority in their own land.

According to Wikipedia’s table from the 2000 Chinese census, Uighurs and other Turkic groups (mostly Kazakhs) still amount to 54% of Xinjiang’s population. But in the more developed urban areas in the north the Chinese predominate: 75% in Urumqi, 78% in Karamay, 94% in Shihezi.

That doesn’t mean colonisation is irreversible. Twenty years ago the Latvians were in a similar position vis-a-vis Russian colonists, but still made a success of independence: the majority of the Russians either accepted Latvian citizenship or went home and while tensions remain they seem manageable.

Time, however, is clearly working against the Uighurs, lending urgency to their struggle. But the fundamental issue is self-determination, not ethnicity — just as to describe Ireland’s centuries-long struggle to free itself from British rule as “ethnic conflict” would be true but unilluminating.

None of this justifies terrorism as a political tactic — if indeed that is a fair description of what some Uighurs might have engaged in. Nor does it cast doubt on the genuineness of the Chinese belief that they have been a civilising influence, and are ruling the Uighurs for their own good — a belief that finds a ready audience with anti-Muslim paranoia in some parts of the west.

While the Uighurs might look to the happier precedents of anti-imperial struggle in Ireland and Algeria, the Chinese see themselves more like the European colonists in Australia or the Americas. The next few years could decide which path Xinjiang follows.