Managing the Xinjiang problem

Bordering Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia, Xinjiang dominates the northwest corner of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Harsh geography has left the region relatively isolated, with the Altay Mountains in the north, the Kunlun Mountains in the south, and one-third of a million square kilometres of desert known as the Taklimakan in the south-west. The sparsely populated Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) – the formal administrative designation for Xinjiang since 1 October 1955 – is home to the Uygur people, the largest ethnic group in the region and one of the 55 ethnic minority groups officially recognised by the PRC government. Xinjiang has been host to a Uyghur independence movement since before the founding of the PRC; tensions in the region periodically erupt into violence. The approach of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) towards the management of the XUAR has changed over the last 15 years in response to the challenges the Party faces in the region. 

Developing the west

The economic growth that has occurred since the launch in the early 1980s by Deng Xiaoping of the policies of liberalisation and opening up has been concentrated primarily in the more densely populated eastern coastal cities; a substantial gap exists between the per capita GDP in the east and that in the west. In an attempt to bridge this gap, Jiang Zemin launched the ‘Develop the West’ campaign in 2000 to improve economic conditions in the relatively impoverished western regions of the country. But the improvement in economic opportunity was accompanied by an increase in migration by members of China’s majority Han ethnic group, who moved west to follow these opportunities.

The migration of large numbers of Han Chinese has inflamed the long-standing ethnic tensions in the XUAR. Since the founding of the PRC to the end of the last decade the proportion of Han residents in Xinjiang has risen from 6% to 38%, and is likely to continue to rise due to the liberalisation of the hukou requirements in the region as Beijing aims to further increase Han migration to the XUAR. 

Why does Beijing want to continue to push for further increases in Han migration to the XUAR if it is already a source of tension? One of the reasons is that Han migration helps to support the local bingtuan. The bingtuan is a state-owned and managed organisation operating in the XUAR that accounts for around one-fifth of the GDP of the province. The bingtuan play a dual role in the region: on the one hand, it is an economic establishment; on the other it is one of the ways that Beijing works to cement the Han – and the CCP – as a major part of the landscape within the region. That a largely autonomous and overwhelmingly Han dominated community plays such an increasingly dominant role in the economy and society of the XUAR is unsurprisingly a cause of resentment within the local Uyghur community.

“China’s 9-11”

At times the resentment of some members of the Uyghur community against the Han in Xinjiang has exploded into violence. The worst outbreak in recent years was in July 2009, when widespread rioting rocked the capital Urumqi. By the end of a week of clashes at least 156 people were killed and 1,080 were injured. Beijing responded by shutting off long distance telephone, SMS, and Internet services to the region. Although phone and SMS services returned relatively quickly, Internet access remained extremely limited for 10 months. The aim of the CCP might have been to limit communication to prevent the spread of messages encouraging further violence, but isolating the region so severely would have in itself likely been a source of further tensions.

The violence resulting from tensions between Uyghur and Han has not been contained within the XUAR. An attack at Kunming Railway Station in March 2014 by a group armed with knives and swords left 29 dead and 143 wounded. The attack, which was blamed by the CCP on Uyghur separatists, was described by the Global Times – a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, which is owned by the CCP – as “China’s ‘9-11’”. The vice president of the Red Cross Society of China, Wang Haijing, said that the Society was providing those affected by the incident with counselling by borrowing “experience from the practices of our U.S. counterpart after the 9/11 tragedy.” The Kunming attack followed a high profile car crash at Tiananmen Square in Beijing four months prior, in which five people died and 38 were injured after a car allegedly carrying Uyghur terrorists smashed through a safety barrier and onto a crowd on the sidewalk. Both the Kunming and Tiananmen Square attacks were such high profile events that it was almost inevitable that the CCP would respond.

But the response to the worsening of the relationship between Uyghur and Han will likely further exacerbate the tensions between the two groups. The CCP has decided to take a less tolerant approach to the management of cultural differences in the region. Stores and restaurants in the mostly Muslim township of Laskuy in Hotan country were issued with notices that they were required to advertise and sell alcohol and tobacco “in order to provide greater convenience to the public”. This follows the reinstatement in mid-2014 of bans on civil servants and students fasting during Ramadan, bans on people with beards and Islamic veils on public buses in the city of Karamay in northern XUAR, and a ban approved by the regional government on the wearing of Islamic veils and full-body coverings in Urumqi.

And the public propaganda regarding the management of the region has been found wanting. For example, in a reflective piece published in 2014 by Xinhua, writers Cao Bin and Du Gang expressed the view that although the disconnection of Internet services in Urumqi following the riots in 2009 was a hindrance to some it was something of a blessing to others. Yes, it caused difficulties for families trying to enrol their children in overseas colleges, but the outage also encouraged residents to socialise, go to karaoke bars together, and rent videos from “video shops that had been on the verge of extinction”. This is a remarkably insensitive view to take publicly of action that cut off many of the region’s 21 million inhabitants from contact with the rest of China – and indeed the rest of the world.

Conflicting priorities

When considering the actions and reactions of the CCP to the challenges posed by the management of the XUAR, it is clear that there are two competing aspects at play. On the one hand, for 15 years it has been CCP policy to invest in the economic development of western China, including the XUAR, in order to close the gap in wealth between the residents in the underdeveloped and sparsely developed western regions, and the highly developed and relatively prosperous eastern coastal cities like Tianjin, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. It has also been the goal of the CCP to secure the place of China’s Han majority within the XUAR by encouraging migration through policies like the relaxation of hukou requirements.  

But the efforts of Beijing to develop and integrate the XUAR with the rest of China, and specifically with the Han majority, has further ramped up tensions within the region. In the early years of the PRC, the CCP took a relatively tolerant approach to the management of ethnic minority issues, one that was broadly respectful of the cultural norms of the country’s minority groups. The actions taken by the CCP in recent years in response to the tensions in the XUAR – the banning the practice of Islamic traditions such as the wearing of veils and beards, and prohibitions of the selling of alcohol – will surely only serve to increase tensions in the region even further. Unless CCP policy were to change tack, it is difficult to see there being a peaceful and lasting resolution to the conflict between the Uyghur and the CCP, and the Han more generally.


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