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China's Xinjiang problem (part 1)

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COMMENTS

10 July 2009 11:14

Michael Clarke is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute. He is a widely published author on Xinjiang and China’s relations with Central Asia.

Xinjiang is arguably more important to China than Tibet. Xinjiang is China’s largest province, endowed with significant oil and gas resources, and acts as both a strategic buffer and gateway to Central Asia, with the province sharing borders with the post-Soviet Central Asian Republics, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Unrest and anti-Chinese sentiment in this strategic region is not new. In the first half the 20th century the major ethnic group in the region, the Uyghur (a Turkic and Muslim people), twice led attempts (in 1933 and 1944) to establish an independent state of 'East Turkestan'. More recently both the 1990s and 2000s have been punctuated by cycles of Uyghur opposition (both non-violent and violent) and government repression.

On the surface the demonstration and subsequent riot of some 3000 Uyghurs in Urumqi (left) on 6 July – that has caused 156 deaths and over 1000 injuries (most Han Chinese) — was caused by events at a toy factory far to the east in Guangdong Province days before. On 26 June some 500 Han Chinese workers turned on around 200 Uyghur migrant co-workers, beating two of them to death and seriously injuring 61, on the basis of a rumour that some Uyghurs had raped Han girls. Reports and images of this violence spread to Xinjiang via the internet, including the posting of a video of the incident on YouTube.

This proved to be the spark for the 6 July demonstration and subsequent violence in which Uyghurs attacked Han Chinese businesses and individual Han Chinese on the streets in scenes reminiscent of events in Tibet last year. Significant numbers of Urumqi’s Han population then took to the streets on 7 July, many of them crudely armed, vandalising Uyghur businesses and attacking Uyghur merchants before being dispersed by security forces.

The Urumqi violence has led to the security forces clamping down hard – arresting over 1400 Uyghur men and imposing a night-time curfew – while officials have blamed US-based exiled Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer for orchestrating the unrest. But the sources of the unrest are much closer to home.

While Guangdong provided the spark, the fuel for the fire was provided by long-term Uyghur resentments generated by Beijing’s approach to Xinjiang.

Since the mid-1990s Beijing has sought to use Xinjiang’s strategic position at the cross-roads of Central Asia to its advantage by investing heavily in infrastructure and oil and gas developments that link the region simultaneously to Central Asia and to China. The logic is that ethnic minority opposition – such as that from the Uyghur — can be assuaged by delivering economic development, which in turn can only be ensured by opening up the region to Central Asia. 

While economic development has surely arrived in Xinjiang, the question remains as to its effects. Economic development and increased government investment have also brought increasing numbers of Han Chinese into Xinjiang. For example, in 1990 37% of Xinjiang’s population was Han, while by 2000 that had risen to nearly 41% (these figures did not account for the significant 'floating population' of seasonal Han migrants). This has raised the spectre of the dilution of the Uyghur in their homeland.

Additionally, there are major economic disparities between Han and ethnic minorities and between urban and rural populations, with the Uyghur tending to make up a large majority of the rural population.

The opening to Central Asia, while benefiting the region economically, is also a source of grave concern for Chinese authorities. Indeed, since the 1990s Beijing has been fixated to the point of obsession on the potential for the spread of radical Islamist ideas from Central Asia and Afghanistan amongst the Uyghur. This has resulted in a heavy-handed approach to religious and cultural expression in Xinjiang including regulation of religious observance and restriction of the use of Uyghur language in schools and universities.

The unrest in China’s 'wild west' highlights not only the disparity between official rhetoric of building a 'harmonious society' and the realities of Han-ethnic minority tension on the ground but also points towards the potential failure of China’s long-term approach to Xinjiang.

Photo by Flickr user chenyingphoto, used under a Creative Commons license.

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