Behind the Xinjiang Violence

March 9, 2012
By Ross Anthony

A resurgence of violence in the Xinjiang region in the past couple of weeks, in which at least dozen people have been killed, highlights the continued failure of Chinese policy within this region of western China. The attacks, which occurred in Kashgar Prefecture, echo the much larger ethnic riots in the region’s capital city, Urumqi in July 2009, in which 196 people were murdered in a single day. Like the Urumqi riots, the latest events saw Turkic Muslim Uyghurs indiscriminately killing Han Chinese. The precise cause of the riots isn’t yet publicly known, however broader political and economic factors contributing to the violence are now quite well understood.

In 1940, the Han Chinese population constituted 6 percent of Xinjiang’s total population (with Uyghurs making up over 80 percent). Today, the Han population constitutes roughly 50 percent. This population shift was initially due to socialist state projects bent on “developing the west”. Since the 1990s, following China’s economic liberalization, the Han population has increased dramatically: millions of Han migrants, freed from the socialist-era household registration system that pinned them to a single geographic location, now come to the region in droves, seeking better economic prospects.

Xinjiang, like many other regions in western China, is plagued by the stigma of being left behind, as eastern coastal provinces enjoy stratospheric growth. Hence, provincial governments, themselves competing against each other, often privilege economic growth over all else. Within Xinjiang this is manifest in an all-out drive to attract Chinese companies from the eastern provinces to invest in far-flung regions such as Xinjiang. In order to encourage investment, the government does not in any way oblige such companies to employ Uyghurs. These corporations often bring Han Chinese laborers with them or hire laborers already living in Xinjiang.

This makes sense if you are a Chinese company establishing a presence in far-flung regions of China: all employees speak the same language, eat the same food and live in the same dormitories. If forced to employ local Muslims, these companies face a much greater challenge in terms of catering to local cultural sensitivities, and they have to deal with potential inter-ethnic hostilities.

While such a lack of affirmative action may lead to greater Chinese investment in Xinjiang, this is counter-balanced by spectacular acts of inter-ethnic violence, which scare away much needed investment. For instance, following the Urumqi riots of 2009, property prices in the city plummeted and tourism, vital to the region’s economy, took a nosedive. Thus, even from the perspective of the Xinjiang regional government, the no-bars-held approach to outsider investment has itself disrupted economic growth. It’s for this reason that if the government is serious about maintaining stability in the region it should consider obliging coastal Chinese companies to employ a certain percentage of local Uyghurs when setting up their businesses in Xinjiang.

Both Chinese and western media have a tendency to associate violence in Xinjiang with Muslim extremism. However, it only takes a few days in conversation with Uyghurs to discover that the main grievance (political repression aside) is that it’s incredibly difficult to find work. But this is only half the story. The full grievance goes something like this: “It is incredibly difficult to find work if you are a Uyghur; look at all these Han Chinese coming here from elsewhere, all prosperous, all making money!” Now, to the degree this is the case (and there is evidence to suggest it is), it isn’t difficult to see how such widespread perception of Han Chinese advantage leads to deep-seated hatred of their presence.

While much of the violence in the region in recent years may be cast in the language of religious extremism and ethno-separatism, the facts often suggest that the violence is frequently ignited by very practical grievances. For example, the Urumqi Riots were triggered by the belief that the police didn’t intervene to stop Chinese killing Uyghurs in an inter-ethnic dispute in a toy factory in Guangdong. I wouldn’t be surprised if it emerges that the causes of the recent violence in the Kashgar region can be traced back to an incident involving the perception of a Han Chinese comparative advantage.

By seriously committing themselves to providing the Uyghur population with better employment prospects, the government can kill two birds with one stone. First, such a move would serve to diminish the perception that new Han arrivals in Xinjiang quickly become gloriously wealthy while Uyghurs remain poor. Second, the more Uyghurs are engaged in gainful employment within their own territory, the more they have to lose when faced with the option of turning to violence. Some of the worst of the rioting carried out in Urumqi in 2009 was undertaken by young, disenfranchised Uyghurs with a great deal of pent up rage and few prospects of economic prosperity.

To be fair, particularly following the 2009 riots, the state has taken modest steps to rectify the situation. Wang Lequan, the widely disliked hardliner Communist Party boss, was promptly replaced with the younger, more conciliatory Zhang Chunxian. Since then, greater tax windfalls from oil production (Xinjiang possesses an estimated 30 percent of China’s reserves) have been allocated to local government and billions of renminbi have been earmarked for development projects in rural areas, including the building of schools, hospitals and the construction of earthquake-proof houses. But contrary to the arguments of many nationalists who defend the Chinese presence in Xinjiang by touting increases in the likes of life-expectancy and education, we shouldn’t confuse development with legitimacy. The government has spent the last 60 years developing Xingjian – and are politically none the better for it. Until such development is unwaveringly pressed into the service of producing an Uyghur populace capable of competing economically on par with Han, we can expect more of the kind of violence seen recently.

In comparison to the present trouble, Xinjiang has experienced far greater periods of violence during the Qing dynasty and the Republican period. Unlike now, however, these earlier bouts of unrest often occurred during periods of large-scale political turmoil when state presence was weak in the region. Today, the Chinese state is strong, national sentiment is robust and economic growth is unprecedented. Within this context, the intractable problems in regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang pose a serious challenge to this general bill of good health. Although the government frequently boasts of successful policy implementation in these regions, it’s clear that such policies have failed. It will take great courage on the part of officials to make a U-turn, but the future of Greater China may depend on it.

Ross Anthony recently completed a Ph.D at the University of Cambridge that focused on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of Western China and spent over a year conducting research in the region.

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