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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 41, September 26, 2009

China and Xinjiang

Saturday 26 September 2009, by Shankari Sundararaman


As China approaches the 60th anniversary of Communist rule, the issues that have challenged its internal consolidation are once again taking centrestage. While the country has been showing remarkable economic progress and has also taken on a regional leadership role, in terms of balancing its internal problems China will remain a critical region to watch. Barely two months after the outbreak of ethnic violence in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, another spate of violence that erupted lately brings the focus on Xinjiang once again.

In July, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region witnessed intense clashes between ethnic Uighurs and the Chinese Han population, in which 184 people were killed. The trigger was the murder of an Uighur national working in a factory by a Han Chinese. The clashes that broke out between the two communities brought the capital, Urumqi, to a virtual halt. What is significant is that it actually resulted in the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, leaving the Group of Eight (G-8) summit and returning from Italy to address the deteriorating situation in the region.

In the wake of these clashes, the Chinese Government placed Xinjiang under heavy police controls to ensure that violence didn’t erupt in the region again. Despite these controls, last week’s violence in the region once again points to the vulnerability of the internal situation in Xinjiang province. China was quick to place the blame for the July clashes on inflammatory speeches made by the leader of the World Uighur Congress, Rebiya Kadeer. Exiled and in the United States, Ms Kadeer heads the separatist demand and leads the call for recognition of Uighur nationalism.

In a bizarre incident, in the first half of this month the province witnessed a series of attacks where groups used syringes to attack their victims. Some reports even claimed that the syringes were allegedly filled with HIV-positive blood. According to reports from the state-run news agencies, nearly 476 people were treated for injuries from hypodermic needles. The victims are all from different ethnic communities. The attacks occurred at a time when the Chinese Government is sponsoring an international trade fair at Urumqi, which is being touted as a possible region for foreign investment. The protesters stridently demanded the resignation of the local Communist Party leadership under Wang Lequan, who is seen as a hardliner and a close associate of President Hu Jintao.

At the heart of the Uighur unrest are both ethnic factors and economic issues. China’s government has been calling for ethnic unity and economic development of Xinjiang province. However, there is a huge ethnic divide in the region that has become even more intransigent by the Chinese Government’s policy of encouraging the influx of Han Chinese into the region. Added to this is the deep-rooted sentiment that the region’s local Uighurs have been marginalised and deprived of their share of the local resources. And that the benefits have gone to the Han Chinese who have been given priority in terms of jobs and business opportunities.


Ethnically the Uighurs belong to Turkic origin and are predominantly followers of Islam. The region lies in the northwestern parts of China and borders Mongolia and the Central Asian states. The region for much of its history has been an independent region of East Turkestan, which had Soviet support. It was incorporated into the Chinese state in 1949, at the time of the Communist revolution. At that time it had a majority Uighur population. Over the last 60 years, however, the region’s demographic patterns have altered as a result of the Han influx.

The Chinese encouraged a “go west” policy, which allowed the dominant ethnic community to move to regions where there were ethnic minorities. Several phases of Han migration to the Xinjiang region took place. Critically, this challenged both the local identities and impinged upon issues of resource sharing and the availability of job opportunities.

There are critical issues on which the Uighurs have been clamouring for change. First is with regard to the issue of political representation—even though it is an autonomous region, there is very little political participation from among the Uighurs. Most of the administrative and economic bodies do not have adequate representation by the Uighurs. Second, in terms of employment, the steady influx of Han Chinese has reduced the opportunities for the local population, which is one of their main demands. Third, in terms of education, too, the use of Mandarin as the medium of instruction in government schools has led to an undermining of local traditions and the native language. This has led to some tough choices in terms of choosing between native and government schools. Job opportunities are more forthcoming for those who have been given training in Mandarin. The flip side is that decreased job opportunities in the region are forcing several ethnic Uighurs to move out of their homes in search of employment. Fourth, the region is extremely rich in natural resources. Both in oil deposits and in minerals, the region is one of the richest. Much of the region’s wealth has been directed towards the growth that China is pushing for. As a result, the region itself remains improverished. This uneven distribution of wealth between the Centre and the province will have a critical impact in the years to come.

In the aftermath of the latest incidents, the Chinese Government has been quick to state that it can competently handle issues relating to social stability and national unity. One of the issues as far as the Uighur movement is concerned is that China has been able to effectively use its diplomatic skills to propagate that the Islamic Uighur community is linked to groups like the Al-Qaeda in the post-September 11 scenario. This has been one the factors that has allowed for the Uighur movement to get much less attention than it actually deserves. With the growing emphasis on terror linkages with Islamic communities in the region, China has been able to divert attention from problems of internal consolidation. Unlike the case of Tibet, the Uighur problem has received less international attention because of its alleged linkages with terror groups. This too has made the Chinese policy in the region go largely unnoticed. And given the manner in which China is changing the social landscape in both Tibet and Xinjiang, there is serious concern that Xinjiang may slip into a state where the currently perceived links to terror groups may, in fact, become a reality.

(Courtesy: The Asian Age)

Dr Shankari Sudararaman is an Associate Professor of South-East Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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