Ending ethnic tension in Xinjiang. By Yiyi Lu


Violence in China’s northwest region of Xinjiang has attracted worldwide attention in the past few weeks. With 192 dead and over 1,721 injured, the scale of violence is among the most severe in decades. While the impact of some Uighurs’ demands for independence cannot be dismissed entirely, the biggest factors behind the rising tension between the Chinese government and the ethnic Uighurs are socio-economic and demographic.
The autonomous Xinjiang region currently has a population of 21 million, of which approximately nine million are Muslim Uighurs and eight million are Hans. There are also 45 other ethnic groups, but their numbers are comparatively small.
Although the different ethnic groups in Xinjiang have shared a common, peaceful history over long periods of time, ethnic tension has increased in recent years.
In 1949, Hans accounted for less than seven per cent of Xinjiang’s population – compared to almost 40 per cent today. The Han population is concentrated in urban centres such as Urumqi, Shihezi and Karamay, where living standards are generally much higher than in the countryside.
In an effort to boost economic development in recent years, Beijing has poured more money into infrastructure projects in Xinjiang, such as new railway lines, roads and airports.
Ironically, this investment has intensified ethnic tension, as Uighurs complain that the new jobs created by these projects have mostly benefited Hans, as the infrastructure projects are undertaken by state companies that prefer to hire Han Chinese. And although Beijing stresses that the number of ethnic minority officials in the government has increased by 300,000 in the past 50 years, with a proportional number of positions filled by Uighurs, they feel this has not provided greater autonomy from Beijing which they seek.
Meanwhile the Han population, which transferred to Xinjiang in successive movements from 1949 onward, also feels deprived. Many of them have long resented the preferential treatment reserved for Uighurs, such as quota systems for university education opportunities, as well as the differential application of the family planning policy that allows Uighur families to have more than one child, a policy initiated by the Chinese government to protect the minorities in China.
Identity-based factors for the recent ethnic violence cannot be discarded.
The Chinese government has not had an accommodating stance toward ethnic minority groups seeking independence – Tibet being the best-known example.
Moreover, Uighur separatist organisations with bases in neighbouring Afghanistan have carried out a series of bombings and assassinations in China. This has led Beijing to implement a harsh domestic response and develop policies that follow contemporary Western counter-terrorism efforts. Most recently, Beijing has blamed Uighur exile groups based in Western countries for instigating the violence.
Ultimately, for Uighurs and Hans to live peacefully together, the legitimate complaints of both groups must be addressed. Political, social and economic realities have led to this conflict, meaning that sound policies in these areas can also provide a solution. As a start, Beijing’s development policies should be more balanced. For instance, the Chinese government must address unemployment through targeted programmes that increase Uighur employment rates, and implement policies that raise the income of Uighurs in rural areas.
Uighurs and Hans also need to understand the other’s perspective. As the majority group in China, the Hans bear a greater responsibility for maintaining positive ethnic relations. Only a few days ago, a mass text message signed by a Han Chinese was sent to mobile phones across the country saying that he was going to eat in a halal (food permissible according to Islamic law) restaurant and buy a Uighur author's book so he could better understand their perspective. If every Han and Uighur could take a positive step like this, it would be the kind of beginning needed to rebuild trust through constructive dialogue.


* Yiyi Lu is a research fellow at the China Policy Institute at Nottingham University and an associate fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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