What is at the heart of the present problems in Xinjiang?

The persistent problem has been that many Uighurs perceive themselves to be marginal to mainstream China. My knowledge of Xinjiang began as a consultant in 2001 to the State Council of China and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In the published Bank report on the “Go West” development strategy I noted that with the arrival of many Han migrants local Uighurs increasingly felt threatened. The final report on the “2020 Policy” recommended that this perception might be addressed by involving more Uighur representatives in the highest levels of decision making at the regional and national level in China.

Who are the Uighurs?

The Uighurs are a minority “nationality” in China and are defined as such by the government of China. Their language is a Turkic language and they are Sunni Muslims who have strong Sufi traditions.

But it was not always so. Until the late Tang dynasty, the Uighurs were not based in Xinjiang, they were located mainly in Mongolia where a short lived Uighur empire adopted Manichaeism as the state religion. At that time, the Uighurs were allies of the Chinese empire in the latter’s fight against a great rebellion that rocked Tang China from 755 to 763.

When the Uighur empire collapsed in 840 CE, many Uighurs migrated southwards and westwards into what is now called Xinjiang. As Islam spread across Central Asia the Uighurs converted to Islam. But even today, Islamic culture is highly syncretic and includes elements of earlier belief systems — shamanism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism etc. A liberal, tolerant form of Islam typifies the Uighurs. This is reflected in daily life and the dress of women who are not typically veiled but might wear a short scarf.

Are they based in any other areas of China?

The Uighurs live mainly in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of the far northwest of China, although small colonies have sprung up in the large cities of the eastern seaboard especially in Beijing and Shanghai. In eastern China, many Uighurs are employed in restaurants, other service industries and to a lesser extent in manufacturing.

Some large Uighur merchants/manufacturers based in Xinjiang run enterprises on the eastern seaboard and engage in cross border trade with central Asia, Pakistan and Russia — a policy encouraged by the Chinese government. Many Uighur merchants have reported that in contrast to the Chinese government’s support for their trade, the governments of Central Asia and Russia have been less sympathetic.

Has there been conflict in this part of China before now?

The current situation is different from the conflicts of the past, where religion and questions of Uighur identity were paramount. Before 9/11 Xinjiang also experienced violence instigated by “insurgents” or “terrorists”. In particular, in April 1990 there was a violent, but short-lived, uprising against the authorities probably based on jihadist thinking.

Since 9/11 there has been less violence than before, but there has been a growing perception amongst Uighurs that they are not playing a major role in regional and national decision making. The reduced levels of violence — the general trend of the last decade till now — does not mean that there is less frustration.

Why do the Uighurs have a problem with the rise in Han migration? Who are the Han?

The Uighurs’ perception is that Han migration threatens their previous cultural and economic dominance of Xinjiang. Since Mao’s revolution, the proportion of Uighurs in Xinjiang has declined and the proportion of Han has risen greatly. There are some 10 million Uighur in Xinjiang but they are now only about 45% of the total population — only slightly more than the Han population.

The Han is the name given to the dominant Chinese nationality in China. By national standards, Han migration into Xinjiang is very small. During the last 15 years perhaps 150 million Han peasants have migrated from rural China into the Chinese cities on the eastern seaboard. Han migration into Xinjiang is tiny by comparison.

The problem is that Uighurs believe that they are economically at a disadvantage now compared to what they had in 1949 — they feel this despite rising living standards amongst them and declining poverty.

Why do the Uighurs think that the Chinese have been unsympathetic to their culture?

This is a very complex issue. The Uighur themselves are not a homogenous group of people and there is a great debate amongst them about the nature of the interaction between the Uighur communities and the Han communities. For example, a majority of Uighurs prefer to send their children to Uighur language schools. Uighur TV and Uighur radio have also dominated the life of the Uighur communities in Xinjiang.

However, this also means that on graduating from high school many talented Uighurs do not have a sufficient command of the Han language (called Mandarin in the west) to enter mainstream Han speaking universities or highly desirable professions. This language problem then creates a relative lack of Uighurs in the highest echelons of Xinjiang and Chinese society and this in turn feeds perceptions of Uighur disadvantage.

So what is the solution? There need to be educational reforms that (a) give Uighurs higher language competencies in Han while retaining their Uighur cultural institutions and (b) encourage Han people to study Uighur language so that there was a better appreciation of Uighur culture in the general Chinese community. Feelings of cultural superiority on both sides need to be replaced by better education.

Why has this violent unrest broken out now?

The current violence is said to be in response to an incident in a toy factory on the other side of China, in Guangdong Province. Except for minimal information of this kind, I am not aware of any report or private communication that explains in any detailed or reliable way what is going on in Xinjiang at the moment.

Whatever the immediate causes of this violence, there are underlying structural problems in Xinjiang. The authorities need to enact public policy responses that can go a considerable way to alleviating the Uighurs’ sense of frustration and marginalisation.

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