China fiddles: While Xinjiang burns | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 31, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

China fiddles: While Xinjiang burns

China fiddles: While Xinjiang burns

The far Western province of China known as Xinjiang is a huge swathe of land the size of Great Britain, France, Germany and Spain combined. If it was an independent country it would be the world's 16th largest. Xinjiang occupies 1/6th of the total land area of China but according to records from 2000, the province has 1.5% of China's population. The total number of people there is 8.4 million. There are two major ethnic groups residing there- the Han Chinese and the Muslim Uyghurs. The Chinese claim that Xinjiang was a part of China since 60 B.C. However only in the last century did it become Chinese-speaking.

The province possesses some of China's largest natural gas and oil reserves. 'It is strategically situated as a distributor of these resources to energy hungry Central Asia and surrounding Chinese provinces.' Relations between the two ethnic groups have been tense over the years. The Chinese government is keen to pacify ethnic tensions given its geo-economic position. The present Chinese President Xi Jingping is taking deep interest in controlling violence and ethnic clashes. He has instituted Communist party control and oversight of the Chinese security apparatus, with a much reduced role of Central politics and Law commission. However in spite of this shift, the Government response has been swinging between soft and hard policies. The soft approach is characterized by the activities of the Chinese Islamic Association, which focuses in maintaining and upkeep of mosques. There are about 20,000 mosques today in Xinjiang. The hard approach is to increase the presence of the security apparatus as well as reeducate and reform religious leaders, The Chinese government is keen to see that 'radicalization' of religion do not take hold and they are not able to forge connections between themselves and the remaining 21 million Muslims now inhabiting other parts of China.

China is also apprehensive that the recent violence perpetrated by Muslim Uyghur extremists are not in any way influenced by outsiders from Pakistan, Turkey and even Syria. This leads to China sidestepping the main cause of ethnic tension and flip-flopping over the ever increasing violence in Xinjiang and the repression that is going on.

Now what is the root cause of ethnic tensions between the Han Chinese and Uyghur Muslims? Presently Chinese state policies tend to limit religious practices there. Government employees are 'forbidden' to wear Islamic scarves and coverings. Even Muslim men are not allowed to wear their traditional caps. Muslims are not allowed to fast during Ramadan. Young people below the age of 18 are not allowed to enter mosques. It is reported that the Holy Quran is allowed to be read in fixed Government schools. There can be no teaching of the Quran in private.

But there are other serious reasons behind ethnic tension in Xinjiang. There exists a deep socio economic disparity between the two ethnic groups. A Han is paid a much higher salary than a Uyghur for the same job. So the Han occupy most of the high paying occupations which also commands higher status. This unequal access to the labor market creates disparity in determining residential locations too. So there is hardly any attempt at economic and political integration. So each day new reasons for ethnic tensions are created.

Such disparities and tensions have created space for what is known as 'East Turkestan Independence Movement' (ETIM). It advocates for an independent, self governing East Turkestan, in the autonomous region of Xinjiang in China. Since the Uyghurs are being forced to assimilate to a Han Chinese way of life, they are increasingly threatened by the spread of Han Chinese culture in Xinjiang. School instruction is now in Mandarin (Han Chinese language). At the same time, millions of Han Chinese have been allowed to settle in Xinjiang. Because of this, the Uyghurs are resisting and propagating the creation of a separate East Turkestan entity.

There are of course strong arguments against East Turkestan independence. China has a historic claim on modern day Xinjiang for two thousand years. The Uyghur people came into Xinjiang after the collapse of the Orkon Uyghur kingdom based in modern day Mongolia around 842 A.D. So China suspects that the independence movement is secretly supported and funded by outside powers who wish to weaken China.

It may be pointed out that the historical native land of the Uyghurs is not the whole of Xinjiang but only the Tarim Basin. The capital of Xinjiang , Urumqi, is also not Uyghur but originally belonged to the Han and the Hui (another Muslim group ).It is also not true that only 5 % of the population of Xinjiang in 1949 was Han and the rest 95 % was Uyghur. In fact, they forget about the presence of the Mongols, Kazakhs, Uzbek, Manchu and the Hui people in Xinjiang.

Keeping the above facts in mind, the Uyghur dilemma which has led to a political impasse needs to be resolved by addressing its real causes. The Chinese government need to open up the spaces in which the culture and religious conviction of Uyghurs could be expressed. As Beijing closes the spaces and reverts to oppression of Uyghurs it has allowed the power of Uyghur nationalism to grow. Each day violence and mayhem is increasing in frequency. They must instead be encouraged to think about self government under Chinese sovereignty. The fires need to be doused and the Chinese Government must start dialogue with the Uyghurs and find out ways for peaceful co-existence. Here the Islamic world must come forward to assist China in her effort.


The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current issues.

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