By Matthew Luce – This week’s protests in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region mark a new nadir in already dismal race relations. Xinjiang’s indigenous Turkic Muslim groups have long resented the heavy-handed presence of Han Chinese, who dominate the ruling Communist Party despite making up only a fraction of Xinjiang’s population, in what they see as their homeland. Discontent in the last twenty years boiled over from small-scale violence into massive protests and alleged terrorist attacks, but this week’s incidents in Urumqi and Kashgar were not the first of their kind, nor are they likely to be the last unless there is a significant change of course in Beijing’s ethnic minority policy.
While the roots of the Xinjiang problem stretch back to the Communist takeover in 1949 and their subsequent collectivization and population resettlement efforts, the main driver of unrest is the friction between traditional, relatively disenfranchised Muslim minorities and a national system that encourages secularism, materialism, and cultural conformity. These tensions are inflamed by policies that encourage Han migration to sparsely populated Xinjiang, placing a strain on local culture as well as natural resources in the arid region. The Han population has increased from 6% before Communist occupation to more than 40% today, especially in urban centers like Urumqi, where they form a majority. At the same time, Beijing has instituted policies to encourage a national language and culture and limit religious activity, which many minorities feel threatens their cultural identity.
Beijing pursues these policies in order to “stabilize” Xinjiang, on the logic that sinification brings peace and prosperity to ethnically diverse regions. Unfortunately, the result for local groups is competition from perceived outsiders for land, jobs, and resources, and the erosion of traditional culture in the face of a modern, non-Muslim, and in many ways alien culture. Local indigenous groups, especially Uighurs, who previous to Han immigration made up the majority of Xinjiang’s population, often see the Han as colonists.
At the same time, most Han Chinese consider that they are doing a great service for Xinjiang’s population. They view ethnic minorities as “little brother races” to the Han to be educated and brought up to their level of culture, and stress the economic development that the Han have brought to the region as well as policies that favor minorities, like educational affirmative action and exemptions from one child policy. Han Chinese are frustrated by the perceived backwardness of many minorities and their apparent rejection of the fruits of modernity. The Communist Party perceives that resentment and protest by ethnic minorities stem from malcontent extremists, and so does little to address discontent expressed by moderates. Though Uighurs and other ethnic groups have in many ways profited from increased economic and educational opportunities, they still claim that employment and educational opportunities favor the Han.
The protests this week are the outcome of this conflict in perspective. Peaceful protests turned quickly into mob violence, first as frustrated Uighur youths attacked Han and Han-owned businesses, and later as Han retaliated against Uighurs. Conflicting reports disagree on the number of dead and injured from each side, and the relative proportion.
This was not the first time ethnic tension in China or in Xinjiang resulted in large-scale violence. A clear parallel has already been drawn to the violence in Lhasa last March, but little attention has been paid to similar events carried out by ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs in Xinjiang in 1990 and 1997, both of which resulted in mass arrests and a disputed number of civilian deaths, which may reach into the hundreds. In both cases, information about the events was suppressed and the underlying causes were never investigated.
In order to prevent further violence, more must be done than simply dispersing protests and arresting their leaders. Whether in Xinjiang or Tibet, Chinese government media promote the idea that protests are the work of a radical few whose terrorist instigators send commands from abroad, rather than addressing the legitimate grievances of ethnic minorities. To avoid further outbreaks of violence, leaders in Beijing, Urumqi, and Lhasa must acknowledge that local economic development priorities should differ from national ones. Rapid economic development and labor mobility are only exacerbating tensions, rather than increasing support for the Communist Party as they tend to do in most of China. Beijing should heed calls for greater self-determination in its Western regions, and concede that local traditional cultures and scarce natural resources, especially water and arable land, cannot support the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants from China’s interior every year.
Both sides must be held accountable for the recent violence, but since the Han Chinese wield disproportionately greater power in the region they also bear a greater responsibility for preventing future outbreaks. In the short run, police crackdowns can maintain control, but a “harmonious society,” as the Communist Party puts it, cannot be achieved without addressing deep-rooted cultural grievances.
Matthew Luce is with the Southeast Asia Project at the Stimson Center.