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Ethnic conflict in China’s Xinjiang: Reasons behind it and proposals for solution

By Emre Tunc Sakaoglu

Since its occupation by China after 1949, there has been discomfort in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (historically known as East Turkestan) with Chinese rule and meddling in the region’s affairs by the central government located 1,600 kilometers to the east. Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hardline policies have further escalated tensions throughout the region. And ostensibly, the iron-fist policy is causing backlash which has the potential to snowball in the coming months. Indeed, in the latest issue of The Economist, the region was described as the “Chechnya of China”, referring to the restless autonomous region in Russia where the local population is up in arms against the central administration.

News of the latest bloodshed caused by civil unrest came from the Kashgar prefecture to the south of Xinjiang, where protests grew rapidly until they were forcefully suppressed by security forces. In a deadly outbreak of violence between July 26 and 28, which led to the deadliest series of events since the 2009 riots in Urumqi, hundreds of Uyghur civilians, including women and children, were killed in cold-blood by Chinese security forces. The unrest is said to have originated from mass reaction to bans on cultural and religious practices. This culminated during the holy month of Ramadan following an “anti-terror campaign” launched in May this year. The media reports that events and house-searches continued until August 2, during which entire neighborhoods were said to be emptied due to mass arrests and killings.[1]

Fanning the flames of extremism

Protests occasionally occur in the region and culminate in bloodshed due to security forces’ harsh interventions. This time however, the reason behind protests was an anti-terror campaign initiated in response to several attacks by assailants of Uyghur origin against Chinese civilians in recent months. Official sources claim that in the last year or so more than 200 people have died in Xinjiang because of widespread unrest and terrorism, making no distinction between the two. The sources trace the roots of the events to individuals, mostly of foreign origin and with links to the outlawed East Turkestan Islamic Movement. It is asserted that these individuals provoke loyal citizens and spread Islamic extremism. But beside foreign influences, which in reality are limited, it is rather the domestic dynamics, intrinsic to the social and political context in Xinjiang, that actually play the leading role in the radicalization of at least a small minority of Uyghurs. It is known that terror attacks against civilians are unspeakable, therefore what motivates a historically tolerant people, or at least a fraction thereof, to commit such violence after centuries of peaceful existence needs to be elaborated more clearly.

Attacking civilians was never the trend among the Uyghur community until the 1990s, when Chinese authorities increased the pressure on moderate masses and started to restrict their lifestyles in a more concentrated manner as part of the final phase of a decades-old policy of assimilating the region and its people. It was especially a result of Beijing’s push for the assimilation of millions of Uyghurs, which was presented under the guise of fighting “terrorism” and “extremism” following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, that radical groups with links to Pakistan and Afghanistan began to gain influence, although still limited, among Uyghur youth. Moreover, because China shares five border-crossings with Pakistan which are all located in the mountainous southwest of the Uyghur region, Islamist militants are able to infiltrate the region and convince alienated Uyghur youth to accompany them to training and indoctrination camps in Pakistan.   

The recent spate of terrorist attacks, which were allegedly committed under the influence of jihadism imported from Xinjiang’s close neighborhood, began in October 2013, when a vehicle that was set ablaze struck a group of civilians near Mao Zedong’s portrait in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in what official sources deemed a suicide attack.  A string of such incidents came to follow. In March 2014, a more severe episode occurred when knife and axe-wielding assailants attacked a train station in the southwestern town of Kunming, killing 29 civilians indiscriminately. Many Chinese refer to the events as “China’s 9/11”. In similar incidents which occurred in Xinjiang, a railway station was bombed in April and a market was bombed by terrorists in May, which led to the deaths of at least 46 people and severe injury of over 200 others in total.

These attacks prompted officials to launch an extensive, region-wide offensive against the local population as a means of collective punishment under the guise of an anti-terror campaign. Sticking with Chinese leaders’ traditional rhetoric on the issue, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered during a conference on Xinjiang in May the establishment of metaphoric “walls made of copper and steel” and “nets spread from the earth to the sky” in order to suppress terrorism. He claims that although Chinese and Uyghurs have always been living together in peace and tranquility, jihadists from Afghanistan and Pakistan are radicalizing the environment. Likewise, Tianshan News, which is the official web portal of the Xinjiang government, recently quoted Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian as stating in a provocative tone that “to fight such evils [terrorism and unrest], we must aim at extermination. To cut weeds, we must dig out the roots.”[2]

Indeed, such a mindset has been dominant for decades in a China where even moderate activists, intellectuals, and well-educated community leaders who are well-integrated within the Chinese society that dare to voice discontent with the central government’s policies even in a restrained manner are mostly thrown into jail or exiled on charges of terrorism. But any kind of nationalist or civil rights movement which is so harshly repressed has the potential of being hijacked by religious extremism, which in turn, according to countless experiences gained all around the world, makes matters worse for all parties involved and creates a black hole in the region. Today, Beijing continues to perceive any kind of peaceful protest originating from home-grown grievances and widespread dissatisfaction with intrusions into Uyghurs’ lifestyle as a sign of global jihadism, and responds harshly. But Beijing’s iron fist policies of not tolerating even a bit of criticism only causes Uyghurs to instead fall prey to foreign propaganda and extremism, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it seems as long as Beijing continues to handle the civil conflict that is going on in Xinjiang in a superficial and security-oriented way, Uyghurs, as well as Han Chinese in the region, will continue to suffer.

Socio-economic context

After the spate of terror attacks, Xi Jinping convened a meeting of high-profile party bosses in Xinjiang in May this year. Although economic and social measures were addressed in the meeting, their extent and content were limited in comparison with the participants’ focus on eradicating terrorism primarily through brute force. Nevertheless, decisions were made including the setting of a quota for state owned enterprises operating in the region to hire at least one fourth of their employees from among ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities. Education is also to be promoted among Uyghurs, with the first full-scale university in southern Xinjiang to be opened in Kashgar soon.  

Such policies are no doubt necessary, but belated and insufficient. Beijing’s continued policy of promoting mass migration of Han Chinese to the region, coupled with official and unofficial discrimination against Uyghurs, has already transformed the region from one in which Uyghurs once constituted the vast majority into a modern colony where Uyghurs are regarded as “hostile natives”. Han Chinese now make up 40% of the 22 million people populating the region, and they’ve monopolized its economy. In fact, the central government’s policy of creating safe-havens (i.e. colonial outposts) for Han Chinese immigrants is one of the major reasons why Uyghurs and Kazakhs, both living in Xinjiang, are the sole peoples in China among whom the proportion of farmers increased between 2000 and 2010. This is in sharp contrast with the Han Chinese who are increasingly making a living in the industry and services sectors. As a result, although the region is developing at a rapid pace and creating employment opportunities for and catalyzing the urbanization of incoming Han Chinese, locals are largely excluded from such a process. This stands in stark contrast to the way Xinjiang’s development is presented by official propaganda.

It is no coincidence that mostly unemployed males who have immigrated to larger towns, where they feel alienated and deprived of opportunities due to economic and cultural discrimination, have fallen into the hands of radicals, especially since the early 1990s when religious extremism gained pace in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The frequency of related terrorist attacks against incoming Han Chinese civilians has increased especially in recent years in parallel with rapid urbanization in Xinjiang, signifying a dangerous trend. It is clear that unjust policies such as the persistent, decade-long promotion of a contemporary form of “colonization” only served to aggravate a deep-rooted ethnic conflict which cannot be resolved through simple, superficial measures.

What to do now?

The continuous and systematicinflow of Han Chinese immigrants is the first of two major reasons, the other being repressive security measures against Uyghurs, causing protracted conflict in the region. Therefore, the region’s inter-ethnic balance should first be preserved. Afterwards, in order to remedy the situation in Xinjiang and curb the channels through which extremism rears its ugly head, the central government should take a set of concrete steps and reconsider its overall policy towards the region. The sticks, by which we mean “security measures”, should be balanced with “carrots”, which correspond to incentives, and in essence, to widespread economic opportunities. In this sense, economic measures are always effective in promoting religious moderation and integration, as marginalized people are mostly among those living in poverty. Coupled with the right welfare and social integration policies, economic opportunity can create a substantial incentive for Uyghur people to put aside ideology and focus on what really matters: making a decent living for themselves and their families. 

In this respect, Beijing should offer more elbow-room to the provincial and sub-provincial governments in Xinjiang and thereby deliver the benefits of development to the Uyghur people as well.Local governments are always more capable in preparing detailed plans considering regional dynamics and local people’s needs than the capital. From an economic perspective, centrally-led resource-extraction projects which disproportionately benefit the eastern regions and Han Chinese settlers can be revamped by projects developed by local governments. In this vein, Beijing, jointly with the provincial government, needs to divert the flow of public spending into sectors in which the region has a comparative advantage and within which Uyghurs can be integrated. Instead of heavily investing in massive infrastructure projects and heavy industry which are irrelevant to local needs, the central government can cooperate with local governments to fund local transportation infrastructure and create a consumer-economy in Xinjiang rather than a centrally-imposed system that only marginalizes locals.

The local government, for its part, can focus development incentives in the southern part of Xinjiang, rather than in the north, which is mostly populated by Han Chinese. In this respect, local governments should concentrate on bringing the benefits of light industry and commerce to smaller settlements in order to avoid the further marginalization of Uyghur youth who are compelled to immigrate to modern cities with no sufficient background. Promoting vocational schools for the Uyghur youth to become competent in such a vibrant economic environment as that of China will also be helpful in this regard.Fiscal and financial policy can also be utilized within the framework of economic measures, supplementing a broader political objective such as the integration of Uyghur people into the economy and the rest of the society. A resource tax reform targeting state oil and natural gas enterprises would be an important first step. The resultant increase in the Xinjiang government’s revenues would boost funds for local, small-scale investments and welfare benefits for Uyghurs. Likewise, micro-loans can be provided by local banks to local people and enterprises. Consumer credits can also be encouraged to help improve the standard of living of the Uyghur people and fix their fates to the overall development of China.

In terms of the social and education policies, affirmative action through the implementation of quotas and campaigns in employment, education, and healthcare services can serve as an efficient tool in the short-run to integrate Uyghurs into the regional economy and social life of Xinjiang. Also, since official channels for religious education are limited and highly politicized, the minds of the youth are easily hijacked by internationally-linked radical groups and through under-the-counter indoctrination. Therefore, instead of blocking all the official channels for religious education and practice, establishing and promoting widespread participation in officially-sponsored schools, academies, and faculties which focus on religious education would be helpful in avoiding the spread of radicalism. While doing this, the government should refrain from overly-politicizing the curricula and political meddling with the institutions’ autonomy. To take it a step further, it would be optimal to have moderate Uyghur people who are not party members in charge of these institutions during the initial phases in order to avoid alienating locals.

Finally, the few Muslim nations which have leverage over China, such as the Gulf countries due to their rich oil resources, can exert pressure on China to protect fellow Muslims in Xinjiang. Moreover, increased communication and transportation links with Turkey, which is a predominantly Muslim and Turkic nation, can help to break the Uyghurs’ relative isolation from the rest of the world. After the decades of ethnic conflict and grievances accumulated by both sides, there is no doubt that it will be difficult to mend the relations between the Uyghur people and Beijing, even with the support of the international community. But as the old saying goes, a fault confessed is half redressed. If Beijing can put aside overly-nationalistic prejudices and show some generosity after admitting the failure of its current policy-line, Uyghur people will finally begin to hope for a better future; hence they will be motivated to live in peace instead of risking their lives bristled with rage at continued injustice. 

 ————

[1] Emre Tunç Sakaoğlu, “‘Collective punishment’ of Uyghurs Continues as Beijing Covers up Evidence of Massacre – Exile Leader,” Journal of Turkish Weekly, August 12, 2014, accessed August 12, 2014, http://www.turkishweekly.net/news/170180/-collective-punishment-of-uyghurs-continues-as-beijing-covers-up-evidence-of-massacre-exile-leader.html.

[2] “Ethnic Unrest: Spreading the Net,” The Economist, August 9-15, 2010, 46.

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The Journal of Turkish Weekly

JTW is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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