Learning the Wrong Lessons in Xinjiang

July 2009, Urumqi, Xinjiang

The violence that occurred in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region in western China, on July 5, 2009 was both shocking and predictable. It was predictable because there had been several clashes between Uyghurs (the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in the region) and the authorities during the previous year near Kashgar, on the border with Tajikistan. These underlined the persistence of the tensions in the region and made some larger incident seem inevitable.

What made the violence in Urumqi shocking was not just the large numbers that died after the police put down a protest over the killing of several factory workers—officially around 200 people, though this figure, like much else, is disputed—but also the retaliatory violence that evening and the following day. There are many eyewitness reports of Uyghurs targeting Han civilians and vice versa. While there had previously been a tendency to conflate the authorities with Han Chinese (the ethnic majority in China), these attacks were indicative of a profound deterioration in Han-Uyghur relations.

Four years later, what are the prospects for further unrest in Xinjiang? In as much as anything in China (or elsewhere) can be said to follow a pattern, there have arguably been broad similarities between the causes of, and responses to, the Urumqi protests and previous ones in Xinjiang.

Both the Baren uprising in 1990 and the protests in Ghulja in 1997 took place against a background of general resentment against government policies in Xinjiang, but they were sparked by specific concerns: Baren was a response to family planning policies in the region; the Ghulja protests were driven by the arrests (and in many cases, deaths) of young Uyghur men who opposed the banning of meshreps (a traditional cultural event that features poetry and music). Both were met with mass arrests, executions, and increased surveillance of Uyghurs. In neither case was there any official acknowledgement that Uyghurs might have valid grievances that needed to be addressed. Instead, both incidents were attributed to foreign-sponsored separatists (which after 9/11 fell under the category of “terrorism”).

In a similar fashion, the 2009 Urumqi protests were triggered by the killings of Uyghur migrant workers at a factory in Shaoguan. As in previous years, the response was a security crackdown. There was a massive influx of police, army, and paramilitary forces into the city that carried out extensive house-to-house searches and made thousands of arrests. They patrolled the streets of Urumqi and other cities for months (when I visited Urumqi and Ghulja in April 2010, they were still marching through the streets and sitting in sandbag emplacements). Internet access was cut off throughout the province and further restrictions were imposed on Uyghur cultural and religious affairs. Almost 17,000 high-definition surveillance cameras were subsequently installed in Urumqi.

Xinjiang is one of China’s poorest provinces, with high rates of unemployment, especially among Uyghurs. But while proposed economic measures will aid the economy of the province, they may actually exacerbate the economic disparities between Han and Uyghur.

Such measures suggest that one of the lessons learned by the authorities is that the problems in Xinjiang were essentially a security issue. By this reasoning, once the province reaches a certain level of policing and surveillance there will be virtually no chance of any major protest occurring, and if it does, it will be easy to quash. A similar strategy has been deployed in Lhasa, Tibet, where there have been very few incidents since major protests in 2008.

The fact that there have been a number of violent incidents since 2009 (including a bombing in Aksu in 2010, and killings in Kashgar in 2011 and also this year) might seem to disprove the efficacy of this approach, but in all of these cases it’s far from clear who was killing who, and why. Some of these incidents may have been local disputes with no political or ethnic component.

The other lesson the government seemed to have learned from 2009 was that unrest in Xinjiang has an economic component. While official blame for the Urumqi protests was put on the weary trinity of “extremism, separatism, and terrorism,” the government also announced in May 2010 that Xinjiang would be subject to a general stimulus package that would boost infrastructure and trade, with the aim of raising the per capita GDP in the province to the national average within five years.

On the face of it, this should have been welcome news—Xinjiang is one of China’s poorest provinces, with high rates of unemployment, especially among Uyghurs. The problem is that while the measures will aid the economy of the province, they may actually exacerbate the economic disparities between Han and Uyghur.

Reza Hasmath argues persuasively in a recent paper that Uyghurs are over-represented in poorly paid, low-status jobs and have a lower level of urbanization than Han. The stimulus package is mainly aimed at industry and communications and is thus unlikely to benefit the sectors in which Uyghurs work to the same degree. An additional factor is that the state farms (bingtuan), which have preferential access to land and resources in Xinjiang, almost exclusively employ Han and are resented by many Uyghurs. The stimulus package particularly singled out the bingtuan as targets of investment.

It’s easy to weave all this into a neat narrative of an authoritarian state trying to crush a beleaguered minority, but Hasmath rightly offers an alternative version, one that places the economic challenges of the present in the broader context of China’s shift to a market economy. Many Uyghurs lost their state jobs and have struggled to find jobs in the private sector, partly because these enterprises are often run by Han migrants from other provinces. (Without wishing to downplay the racism, ethnic discrimination, and general bad feeling that often exist between Han and Uyghur, with respect to the question of hiring practices it’s worth mentioning that there is probably just as much intra-ethnic discrimination among Han Chinese. There are many stories of factories refusing to hire workers from particular provinces, often Anhui and Guizhou, due to their alleged bad qualities).

Obviously, it would be economically reductive to suggest that the correct economic stimulus program would entirely heal relations between Uyghurs and the government: there are many other reasons for Uyghur resentment, ranging from birth control policies, religious repression, the removal of Uyghur as a language of education, and the destruction or suppression of many aspects of Uyghur culture and heritage (not least the destruction of Kashgar’s old city).

But a more nuanced program that considered the specific disadvantages of Uyghurs might have gone some way to promoting “harmony,” that concept most beloved of the Chinese state. As long as the socioeconomic gap exists between Uyghur and Han, there is sure to be further unrest. Just last week, there were reports of an attack on a police station near Turpan.


Nick Holdstock is the author of The Tree That Bleeds, a book about life in Xinjiang. You can read his work at www.nickholdstock.com.

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