Author: Ildikó Bellér-Hann, KU
In recent weeks the international media have again been reporting deadly incidents in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwest China.
Although not as dramatic as the violence of 5 July 2009, when almost 200 people died in the region’s capital, Urumqi, these latest events continue a pattern which now dates back over two decades. While the narratives of human rights organisations, Radio Free Asia and the official Chinese media offer hugely diverging accounts, there is agreement that the region has a major unresolved problem.
Numbering almost 10 million, the Uyghur constitute the titular group of Xinjiang, speak a Turkic language and profess Sunni Islam. Most historians agree that this territory was effectively incorporated into the Qing Empire in the 18th century. It experienced considerable political instability in the first half of the 20th century and turbulence of a different kind under socialist rule. Following the collectivisation of land and the Cultural Revolution, when minority rights were often violated, the 1980s witnessed relatively liberal policies. But the pendulum swung back toward repression in Xinjiang after 1990, in spite of the expansion of the socialist market economy nationwide, due to Beijing’s fear of separatism. Uyghurs now feel that their political, economic and social entitlements are not realised equally, when compared to their fellow Chinese citizens, and their intellectuals harbour fears of cultural assimilation.
Policy makers in Beijing consider tensions in Xinjiang to be an internal Chinese affair. Official pronouncements speak about extremism, terrorism and separatism in equal measure. The ‘strike hard’ campaign in 1996 targeted Uyghur ‘splitists’ and, especially following 9/11, tensions are routinely attributed to international terrorism. Violent incidents are now often associated with radical Islam, for example. This connection is encouraged by the well-known fact that a handful of Uyghurs were detained by US authorities at Guantánamo Bay, but is not supported by substantive evidence. While religious freedom is ostensibly granted, many forms of religious expression and worship have been restricted since the 1980s. The vague definition of what constitutes legal or illegal religious activity gives the authorities leeway to interfere arbitrarily. The state tries hard to co-opt imams and other religious specialists, and many graduates of the Theological Academy in Urumqi receive salaries just like other civil servants.
The authorities have acknowledged that reform has widened regional economic differentials and that most interior provinces are dogged by economic backwardness. To tackle these problems, the Great Western Development Strategy was launched in 2000. It has brought a great deal of investment, as well as economic and infrastructural improvement to Xinjiang — but much of this has been accomplished by Han workers, and the overall effect has been to accelerate Han immigration. As a result, the Uyghur see these development policies as a tool in their assimilation and economic marginalisation. Large-scale investment takes place mostly in the northern part of Xinjiang, where mineral wealth is concentrated. These districts already have the largest concentration of Han. Discrimination in the labour market forces many young Uyghur to leave Xinjiang to seek work in China’s coastal provinces. But the recruitment of young men and women, especially in Southern Xinjiang, for work thousands of kilometres away in other parts of China makes little sense to local people, who see Han immigrants finding jobs in lucrative industries in the Uyghur homeland.
The standard reason put forward for these labour-market inequalities is linguistic: few rural Uyghurs are fluent in Mandarin. Accordingly, efforts have been increased to make all Uyghurs competent in the dominant language of their country. But most Uyghurs perceive the program, entitled ‘bilingual education’, as the aggressive promotion of Mandarin, since even in so-called minority schools almost all subjects are now taught in Mandarin. This is an almost complete reversal of the liberal language and cultural policies of the early reform period, which allowed parents to decide whether their children should be educated in a Uyghur- or Chinese-language school up to the age of 18. The Uyghur are frustrated, not only because the possibility of choosing has been eliminated, but also because of the plentiful evidence that discrimination in the labour market does not in fact depend on language at all: even Uyghurs fluent in Mandarin are often overlooked in favour of Han with inferior qualifications.
Many observers consider Beijing’s proclaimed fear of Uyghur separatism to be greatly exaggerated. This is because the vast majority of Uyghurs would be content to live under conditions of meaningful autonomy, in which they enjoy equal access to economic resources and social justice, including freedom of religious and cultural expression. From this perspective, Beijing’s present policies are sure to further antagonise the Uyghur, and Xinjiang is likely to remain a ticking time bomb.
Ildikó Bellér-Hann is Associate Professor at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen (KU).