China's Uighur conundrum
Until now, it has been Beijing that talked up the threat of ethnic separatism in its far north-west region of Xinjiang, while the attitude of most of the Muslim Uighur population has been one of quiet – though unhappy – acceptance of Chinese rule. But the latest outbreak of violence in the regional capital of Urumqi is unprecedented and suggests that Uighur resentment at heavy-handed Chinese policies has begun to boil over.
Until now, it has been Beijing that talked up the threat of ethnic separatism in its far north-west region of Xinjiang, while the attitude of most of the Muslim Uighur population has been one of quiet – though unhappy – acceptance of Chinese rule. But the latest outbreak of violence in the regional capital of Urumqi is unprecedented and suggests that Uighur resentment at heavy-handed Chinese policies has begun to boil over. For Uighurs to challenge the authorities in what has become a largely Chinese city is even more remarkable.
Xinjiang shares with Tibet a history of only intermittent control from Beijing and the misfortune of being seen by the Chinese as a strategic buffer region against its neighbours. There were two short-lived independent "East Turkestan" republics in the 1930s and 1940s – the second under strong Soviet influence. After the 1949 Chinese communist victory, Beijing quickly moved thousands of soldiers to set up paramilitary state farms: Xinjiang became a favoured location for penal centres, and later on for Red Guards who were "sent down to the countryside". After subsequent waves of migration, Han Chinese now make up 40% of the population, not much less than the 47% of Uighurs.
I vividly remember a school playground in Urumqi that I visited in 1978, two years after the Cultural Revolution, where all the Han Chinese played on one side of the yard, and all the Uighurs on the other. The kids were taught in separate classes, and in separate languages. Today, according to a report from Save the Children (pdf), the situation is even worse. It is increasingly difficult for Uighur children to learn their own mother tongue at school; since 2005, Mandarin or "standard" Chinese has become the official language of instruction.
As in Tibet, younger Uighurs hoped to benefit from Chinese economic reforms but became alienated as the major profits went to Han Chinese migrants. University graduates complain that they suffer from job discrimination, while in the rural areas farmers complain that water and other resources are diverted to Chinese settlers. Many Uighurs believe that, as the latest Amnesty briefing puts it, their ethnic identity is being "systematically eroded".
There have been some violent incidents on a smaller scale since the late 1990s, with isolated bombing and riots: Beijing's response, again as in Tibet, has been to step up repression – including hundreds of executions – in a campaign against the alleged "three evils" (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism).
Especially since September 11, Beijing has made the most of the alleged "terrorist threat" in Xinjiang, partly to show the US that China was on board for the war on terror, and also to justify a general crackdown. According to official Chinese media nearly 1,300 people were arrested last year on "three evils" charges. China's demonisation of Uighur dissent has been described by Professor Dru Gladney (an expert on Islam in China) as a case of "scapegoat terrorism".
The core issue – once more as in Tibet – is not so much that the Uighurs want independence. Most say that they are resigned to the reality of Chinese sovereignty, and at best seek a measure of genuine autonomy (Xinjiang is officially an "Autonomous Region" though this means even less than in Tibet). Yet the scenes of Uighur-on-Han violence from Urumqi – allowing for the selective use of images by the Chinese media – suggest that, on the Uighur street, the build-up of ethnic resentment has reached a new and more serious stage. The threat that China half invented may be coming closer to reality.
Two weeks ago Xi Jinping (the rising Communist party star who may one day succeed President Hu Jintao), paid a significant though barely reported visit to Xinjiang. He insisted that the local party should appoint officials who could do a better job of handling ethnic relations. He warned that they should solve the "real difficulties" that Uighurs suffer in housing, food, health, education and employment. It is an important admission, but it should have been made long before.
© 2009 The Guardian