What Should China Do About The Uighurs?

The New York Times
July 8, 2009, 2:42 pm
By The Editors

Updated, July 8, 3:45 p.m. | Yan Sun, a political scientist at the CUNY Graduate Center, describes the reaction of her Han Chinese relatives in Xinjiang to the unrest there.

Riots and street protests abated on Wednesday in Xinjiang in the northwest region of China, after government forces lined the streets and arrested the leaders of the unrest. China’s president, Hu Jintao, cut short a stay in Italy for the G-8 meeting to deal with the riots, the worst ethnic violence in China in decades. Officials said they would seek the death sentence against those responsible for fanning the violence between the native Uighur Muslims and the rising population of Han Chinese.

What are the roots of the tensions between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese? As the government cracks down, what dangers does it face as anger continues to simmer on both sides, especially from Uighur separatists?

Chien-peng Chung, political scientist
Stevan Harrell, anthropologist
Yan Sun, political scientist
Rohan Gunaratna, Nanyang Technological University

Pacifying the Uighurs

Chien-peng Chung is associate professor of political science at Lingnan University, in Hong Kong. He is the author of “Domestic Politics: International Bargaining, and China’s Territorial Disputes.”

Although no major incidents were reported on Wednesday, unlike the previous three days, most non-government establishments in Urumqi were closed for the entire day. The streets of Urumqi and other major Xinjiang cities were flooded with truckloads and columns of riot policemen, with soldiers massed along Urumqi’s roadsides and at Xinjiang’s military bases on high alert and ready for immediate deployment. Together with nightly curfews, this is a recommendable strategy to restore and maintain order for the time being.

The Chinese authorities cannot be perceived as favoring either the Han Chinese or the Uighurs as it moves to control the unrest.

With racial tension still in the air, the danger is that a pattern of attacks and counterattacks between armed Uighur and Han Chinese may emerge in the days to come, not only in Xinjiang, but also in large Chinese cities elsewhere. This would be difficult and tricky for government security forces to deal with. If the authorities crack down heavily on the protesting Uighurs, it could be seen as further discrimination against them, since most members of the security forces are Han Chinese. But if the authorities are to be equally or more tough on a Han Chinese mob, perception of official favoritism and appeasement toward minorities could incite further Han-on-Uighur violence everywhere.

It is important for the security forces to be perceived as fair and even-handed in preventing destructive acts or apprehending troublemakers. To calm public sentiments further, people who were arrested in connection with the riots over the past few days should either be quickly charged or released.

Despite allegations by the Chinese government that the protest on July 5 and riots were instigated, directed and organized from overseas, chiefly by the World Uyghur Congress, the authorities should be mindful that it is perfectly imaginable for Uighurs who had some experience with leadership roles in schools, factories, social groups, trade guilds, mosques, the Communist Youth League and even local Communist Party organizations to take the lead in mobilizing marches before allowing the crowds’ emotion to take over.

The arrests of several people on Tuesday in connection with the brawl between Uighurs and Han Chinese workers at the toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong, on June 25, 2009, which led to the deaths of two Uighurs and was believed to have sparked off the July 5 riots, was a good start to pacify Uighur sentiments.

However, other grievances broadly held by Uighurs should be addressed. The perception that economic development in Xinjiang aids Han Chinese at the expense of Uighurs cannot be allowed to continue. The government must look into effectively enforcing existing, and devising more, affirmative action policies to ensure that Uighurs do not feel marginalized. Muslim religious activities in Xinjiang could still be closely monitored for separatist or violent tendencies, but left to operate with minimum overt interference by the authorities.

Communist Party cadres should demonstrate respect for Muslim and other religious customs whenever possible in public. Travel restrictions to overseas destinations for Uighurs should be no different from those for other Chinese nationals.

Governments of countries around China and Xinjiang such as Russia, those of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India have their own problems with ethnic minorities, separatism and violence, so are very unlikely to support any separatist aspirations by Uighur or other ethnic minorities in China, and have in fact been enlisted as active partners in the fight against ethnic separatism, violence and religious fundamentalism. China’s foreign missions in many European countries were pelted with rocks by Uighur demonstrators yesterday, but the governments of these countries will not allow the situation to continue.

Seeing China as a Colonizer

Stevan Harrell, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, has collaborated with minority scholars from China for more than 20 years. He is author of “Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China.”

The 130 million members of China’s 55 officially designated minority groups have all the civil rights of full citizenship, and are even beneficiaries of affirmative action and less stringent birth planning regulations. They are also poorer, less educated, and less represented in Communist Party and government positions than are the majority Han Chinese.

Not all minority groups are the same. Most are citizens of no state but China and have never been independent nations. While all of these groups — which range in size from the Zhuang, with a population of 16 million, and the Hui Muslims, with 10 million, to the Lhoba, with only 3,000 members — have their conflicts with local Han and have at times demonstrated over Chinese state policies and the Han presence in their home areas, they have not developed political separatist movements.

Tibetans and Uighurs think that their nations, though officially viewed as part of China, should rightfully be independent.

The Tibetans and Uighurs (and perhaps the Mongols) are different. They are “minority nationalities,” peoples with historic and contemporary claims to nationhood. Historically, they have sometimes been ruled by a larger East Asian empire, and have sometimes been independent. Despite being officially included as citizens and members of the Chinese nation, many think that their nations are rightfully independent and not part of China.

Recent infusions of financial support from the government to develop their regional economies have not altered that sentiment. Not unlike the the Kikuyu in Kenya or the Bengalis in India, who prospered materially under British rule but were eager to be rid of it, rising standards of living among minority nationalities in China have not diminished their sense that they are an occupied people.

Both the Tibetans and Uighurs would probably choose to be independent of China. But most of them realize that this is almost certainly impossible in the foreseeable future, and many have accommodated to the current system, as do colonized peoples anywhere — they go to school, learn Chinese, migrate to Han areas to work and become local officials. Some even join the Communist Party and rise high in its ranks. But most continue to feel that their land is being held by an outside power.

The Chinese authorities may or may not realize this, but they do not accept it. For them, all minorities are fully — and only — Chinese citizens, and therefore must be loyal to the government and grateful for its largesse. There will never be much gratitude unless China’s leaders grant these groups real regional autonomy, guarantee freedom of religion, curb Han Chinese migration and stop their insulting rhetoric about underdeveloped minorities in need of help. But they won’t. So the unrest and discontent — at times exploding into the violence of the past few days — are bound to continue.

My Han Relatives’ View From Xinjiang

Yan Sun, a native of Sichuan, has lived in the United States since 1985 and been a professor of political science at the City University of New York since 1992. She has also written “A Sichuan Family and Tibet’s Future.”

After arriving at the home of my parents in Chongqing on July 7, I asked my mother how many relatives we still had in Xinjiang and how they were doing lately. Ten families of close relatives, she said, and several more distant ones. Some were born and raised in Xinjiang, but the majority migrated there in the 1960s and 1970s from the Sichuan countryside. The sole reason was to get out of the poor farmland and have a chance at becoming urban residents. They were introduced to Xinjiang by an aunt who was assigned there in the 1950s but had managed to bring her family back to Sichuan in the 1980s.

My relatives mostly see “outside forces” as the main reason for the latest as well as other riots in Xinjiang in recent years.

I scrambled to reach some of them by phone and talk to them candidly about the issues that are often cited in the Western media as responsible for growing ethnic divide and tensions between the Uighur and Han Chinese. Some of my cited reasons took them by surprise; others made them laugh. With their decades of life and work in an austere region, I have little reason to dispute them. As a social scientist, it is fascinating for me to learn about their perspective on the deeper roots of the recent riots. After all, they were supposed to be the very source and targets of local grievance.

Without any need to repeat government accounts to me, my relatives mostly see “outside forces” as the main reason for the latest as well as other riots in Xinjiang in recent years. Citing long-term good friendship with local Muslims, they are hard-pressed to think of divisions serious enough to cause deadly riots. Rather, they claim to have seen outside influences at work from their own experience, e.g., money for underground mosques where mullahs engage in inciting rhetoric, for “terrorist groups” that make explosives and bombs, or for restless Muslim youths who stage trouble on the streets. They also see a pattern of Uighur separatist forces imitating the tactics of Tibetan exiles, namely, phrasing issues in terms that appeal to Western sensibilities, such as religious freedom, cultural and linguistic preservation, ethnic equality or territorial autonomy.

But aren’t there problems in these areas? My relatives were unanimous in their view that state policies are already tilted in favor of local ethnics. Freedom of religion? My relatives see the state restrictions are justifiable: no mosques for those under 18 because they are not mature enough to have good judgment, and no mosque attendance for those holding government jobs. The state does send an (Uighur) official as a liaison with the mosques on a weekly basis, but again this is seen as justifiable since the state funds helped with their construction and to pay the mullahs’ salaries. Why not let them fund on their own? The answer is that outside religious forces would otherwise fund them. Having read about how foreign-financed madrassahs spring up and spread in western Pakistan, I am hard-pressed to pass judgment here.

How about the imposition of Chinese language instruction in schools? This was news to my relatives. They grew up attending separate schools from their Uighur peers, where different languages were used in instruction. Some Uighurs chose to attend Han Chinese schools for career benefits. Only since 2005 has bilingual education been introduced in public schools in Xinjiang. Most technical colleges use Chinese in instruction, because of available resources, while colleges for ethnic nationalities instruct in minority languages. Rather than seeing bilingual education as forced assimilation, my relatives see it as a good skill to have in the job market, because many modern-sector jobs will involve interaction with Han Chinese in and out of Xinjiang. For their part, my Xinjiang cousins speak enough Uighur to communicate with Uighurs on a daily basis, and tell me that they live more like Uighurs than Han Chinese, enjoying mutton more than pork.

What about widened income gaps between Han Chinese and Uighur Muslims in the market economy? My relatives cite different attitudes toward education, achievement and life. This is where some “racist” assessments may be found, if they may be so-called: nomadic traditions do not value sending kids to schools, but rather roaming around or bathing in the sun; nor do they prioritize professional and material pursuits like the Han Chinese, or hard work or long-term planning for this world, but rather satisfaction in the spiritual world, etc. These are the contrasts I have learned in Western social sciences — conflicts between pre-modern and modern values, religious and secular cultures, or an achievement and non-achievement ethic. So it is hard for me to pass judgment here as well except to urge Han Chinese to loosen up and enjoy life a little as our ethnic brothers do.

What about the squeezing of Uighurs in their own native land by growing Han presence? Is that occupation or colonialism? These lines usually shocked my relatives. One aunt, a college professor who spent three decades in Khotan of southern Xinjiang, gave me a history lesson about how Xinjiang came under Chinese control in the Han Dynasty in the 200s B.C. and remained so on and off till the Manchu Dynasty finally consolidated Chinese rule in the 1770s. Xinjiang was loose whenever China was weak internally and its rulers were preoccupied elsewhere.

But successive rulers always reasserted control and sovereignty. Another aunt who had lived in a Tibetan region called the Chinese nation a melting pot of different ethnic groups over millenniums. Citing our own ancestors who had migrated to Sichuan generations back, my mother recalls her grandmother as one with white skin and yellow hair, possible of Turkic origin herself from western China.

Are there government policies on minority regions responsible for increasing ethnic tensions? Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly for someone familiar with America’s ethnic politics), some of my relatives fault the government’s preferential policies for helping to enhance ethnic identity and entitlement for minorities. Uighurs with disciplinary problems or criminal offenses are treated leniently, they say. In matters of employment, appointment and promotion in the public sector, Uighurs may be preferred over (perceived) more qualified Han candidates. “Reverse discrimination” in college admissions and population policies are other areas of Han complaints. While Han Chinese can have only one child, Uighurs receive honorary and monetary rewards for stopping at three, along with yearly bonuses. Whether legitimate or not, such complaints make it difficult for Han Chinese to appreciate Uighur grievances.

Do they think the World Uighur Congress and its exiled leader, Rebiya Radeer, were behind the recent riots? My older relatives from Xinjiang recalled Soviet instigations of Uighur separatism in the 30s and during the cold war, so they said they would not be surprised by any outside support for the W.U.C. or Radeer. Younger relatives point to the U.S. — not the U.S. per se but to the exploitation of U.S. apprehension over anything Beijing does and of U.S. sympathies for any group that Beijing opposes. The real point of staging riots inside China, they assert, is that they enable the exiled groups to survive and thrive. So they expect such riots for years to come.

Terrorists Fan the Flames

Rohan Gunaratna is a professor and head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His books include “Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror.”

Despite efforts by Beijing to restore piece, the simmering tension and sporadic violence between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, the worst in China since 1949, is likely to remain a continuing source of instability and to spread beyond Xinjiang province.

Propaganda by Al Qaeda-trained separatists is driving the hatred and fueling the violence.

The Chinese hard-line approach towards Uighur separatists fails to differentiate among terrorists, supporters and sympathizers. Instead of investing in community engagement initiatives, the Chinese government has detained several thousands of protesters.

The propaganda by the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Uighur separatist group associated with Al Qaeda, is driving the hatred and fueling the violence. The ETIM leadership, located in Waziristan on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, was responsible for a series of bombing both in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.

Having received training, weapons, finance and ideology from Al Qaeda, ETIM members today fight both in tribal Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda-trained ETIM suicide bombers present a growing threat both to coalition forces in Afghanistan and to China. Al Qaeda ideologues have argued that after the defeat of the existing superpower, the U.S. forces, the next enemy of the Muslims will be the multiheaded dragon, a reference to China, the emerging superpower.

In addition to ETIM, a dozen Uighur separatist groups in the U.S., Canada and Europe are radicalizing the Uighur communities in China. Some of these groups have pushed for the release of the Uighur detainees held in Guantanamo Bay.