Posted on | augustus 2, 2011 | 2 Comments
In recent days there has been renewed violence in the troubled northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang only two weeks after Chinese security forces killed 18 people following a riot in which hostages were taken. The riot in the town of Hotan on July 18th took place almost two years after the region was engulfed in widespread unrest known as the Urümqi riots. Approximately the size of Alaska or Western Europe, the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang is both the largest region of China and comparatively sparsely populated. It is also home to China’s largest Muslim population, the ethnic Uyghur who while a plurality only constitute a majority of the population in the western and southwestern areas of the region. Like the much more famous case of Tibet, Xinjiang has been on the outer fringes of Chinese control for centuries, its fortunes waxing and waning in an inverse relationship with the strength or weakness of successive Chinese regimes. This briefly culminated in the short-lived, and ill-fated ‘independence’ of three northern districts of modern Xinjiang under a Soviet-backed Chinese warlord in November 1944 that came to an end with the creation of the Peoples Republic of China.
Like Tibet much of the ethnic violence in recent years has been a result both of Beijing’s continuing hard-line approach towards ‘splitist’ tendencies and Uyghur opposition to the officially sanctioned, and indeed supported, migration of Han Chinese into the region. The latter is the result of the ‘Go West’, or ‘Chinese Western Development’ program that was launched by then-Premier Zhu Rhongji in 2000 in order to alleviate the growing economic division between the eastern maritime board and the rest of the country. While the Western provinces of China constitute over 70 per cent of the area of Mainland China they contain less than a third of the country’s population of 1.3 billion. Massive infrastructure projects including highways and rail lines were largely designed according to Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights to “bind Xinjiang more closely to the rest of the PRC.” While the Chinese government denies that its policies are designed to promote demographic change the proportion of Xinjiang’s population that is Han Chinese has risen from approximately 5 per cent in the 1940s to around 40 per cent today.
Beijing’s policy toward ‘restive’ regions like Xinjiang has been one utterly and completely dedicated to an iron-like grip by central government. Religious expression is fiercely repressed and in the aftermath of September 11th the Chinese government has frequently exaggerated the threat of Islamic violence, linking for example the East Turkestan Independence Movement with Al-Qaeda, to justify their repression of social and political unrest. In 2008 for example Amnesty International accused the Chinese government of using the War on Terror “to justify harsh repression of ethnic Uyghurs”. For the Uyghurs the continued inflow of ethnic Han Chinese threatens their distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity and threatens to make them eventually a minority in the region as a whole.
Beijing’s overall approach is utterly dominated by a fierce determination to avoid what it frequently refers to ‘Splitist’ tendencies. This attitude is informed by a reading of history that views accommodation with ethnic and religious minorities as undermining China from within, alongside an international system dominated by powers that seek to weaken China by providing external support to such movements. The weakness of China, according to this historical world-view, resulted in the loss of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan during the ‘century of shame’, and thus the strength and unity of modern China is paramount to the country’s national security and continued economic and political rise. Nowhere is this attitude more absurdly visible than in the regime’s refusal to countenance separate time zones despite the fact that the country crosses five of these.
The danger of Beijing’s approach to Xinjiang is that in its refusal to tolerate real autonomy for the ethnic Uyghurs it risks fanning Islamic radicalization. Ironically as the Chinese government has covertly pursued a monolingual and monocultural policy to counter the growing restiveness of the local population, and in pursuit of national security, Islam and Uyghur identity are becoming ever more synonymous. As in so many areas of policy the impulse to control, censor, and repress only fans the flames of protest, dissent and dissatisfaction. Sometimes what is thought to be a Pandora’s box can instead be a powder keg waiting to explode.
AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: jason.abbott [at] louisville.edu