On March 30, China’s official news agency, Xinhua, announced a new policy aimed at curbing Muslim extremism in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The new policies appear to be aimed at Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority, whose long history of autonomous rule and a distinct ethnic identity continue to create problems for the largely centralized Chinese government.
For the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, repression of religious expression has long been seen as one dimension of a larger government campaign to decrease the influence of the Uyghur ethnic identity. For the Chinese government, the desire to maintain order has often come with good intentions, but often only resulted in exacerbated tensions in the regions.
A Complicated Position
Under the rule of the central Chinese government for hundreds of years, the Uyghurs (a distinct nomadic ethnicity of Turkic origin) of Xinjiang have long exhibited nationalist and separatist tendencies. The region’s most recent expressions of an independent national identity emerged during the chaotic early decades of the twentieth century. On two separate occasions (1933-34 and 1944-49), Xinjiang managed to declare its independence as the “East Turkestan Republic.” Even after Nationalist Chinese forces managed to establish control over the province, their appointed governors often aligned themselves closer to the Soviets over their own government, creating power structures separate from those of the central Chinese government.
As Communist forces consolidated control over mainland China in 1949, the last “East Turkestan Republic” crumbled as Soviet support evaporated. When Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic (PRC) that same year, the newly-centralized government began to give greater attention to the province. In 1956, Mao Tse-Tung warned ominously of how the Chinese had “sowed feelings of estrangement among our various nationalities and bullied the minority peoples.” To that end, China could not be divided by what he described as “Han-Chauvinism”—a term used to describe the historical domination of the Han minority over other regional ethnic groups. The native peoples of Xinjiang constituted one of the small ethnic groups Mao was describing.
The Constitution of the PRC guarantees that all citizens shall enjoy “enjoy freedom of religious belief.” However, the government also prioritizes the need for order, especially in regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, where political instability is a common worry for the authorities. Thus, the very same article declares that “no one shall make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order.” So long as the Uyghurs are seen as a threat to the stability of the Chinese state, expression of cultural identity will be construed by officials as a threat to the government.
Frontiers of Opportunity
Economic development has changed the face of Xinjiang in the last few decades. The segregation between Uyghurs and Hans (the main ethnic group of China) in Urumqi, the capital of the province, has become a symbol of the divide between the two groups. Chinese companies in Xinjiang have displayed hiring practices that reportedly favor ethnic Hans, whose migration to Xinjiang in the last few decades has made them equal in population to the native Uyghurs, and comparatively wealthier. Without assimilation into mainstream Chinese culture, most Uyghurs cannot expect to enjoy the wealth which continues to flow into the province.
On top of rising economic inequality, new educational practices have also led to concerns about the role of education in destroying Uyghur values. As traditional Islamic-oriented education is replaced by more modern forms of education, Islamic identity has become increasingly connected to the Uyghur self-identity. Most recently, China Daily announced that 20,000 predominantly Uyghurs students would be sent to “inland cities” to gain an otherwise national education at multiple levels.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that China’s government does not persecute Islam specifically; the Hui Muslims (ethnic Hans who practice Islam) have been noted for their prosperity in China over the last few decades. Persecution, in fact, would appear to be aimed at the Uyghur ethnic identity itself. With their history as a people separated from the larger Chinese identity, Uyghurs in Xinjiang view increased Chinese involvement in the province with suspicion: in some cases, this contempt for the Chinese government has resulted in acts of terrorism.
The Rise of Terrorism
Terrorist activities have rocked Xinjiang over the last few decades, and show no signs of abating in the near future. The year 2017 started with the deaths of three suspected terrorists in Xinjiang, and Xi Jinping has called China’s Central Asian neighbors to help target ”religious extremism and cyber terrorism.” There is a clear religious dimension to some of the attacks; the Islamic State has released a video where Uyghur members threatened to return home to China with the intent of “shed[ding] blood like rivers.”
President Xi Jinping’s recent call for a “Great Wall of Iron” in response to a continual barrage of terrorist attacks raises the specter of just how serious the conflict has become. In the last few years, vernacular to describe governance over the province has been expanded to include phrases like “security state.” As Chinese officials look to prevent chaos in the province, their approach raises the perennial question regarding state policies on terrorism: Does repression fuel extremism, or does extremism fuel repression? In containing Xinjiang within a “great wall of iron,” the Uyghurs of Xinjiang may be pushed to suffer even more by the Chinese authorities. As they lose their identity to the influence of the East, many Uyghurs may look to an expanding Chinese state with even more disdain.
Owing to the region’s strategic location in Central Asia, many Uyghur extremists can easily travel abroad to train with foreign terrorist organizations. As Muslim extremism becomes increasingly common, Chinese authorities see an expanding state presence in the region as a necessary preventative measure. These actions, in creating a more suppressed atmosphere that in turn emboldens extremism, may be planting the seeds of the very insurrection many fear will never take place.
The preamble to the Chinese constitution declares a need “to promote the common prosperity of all nationalities.” For China’s leaders, the harsh realities of the real world present serious obstacles to this vision. In working to find a balance between security, national unity, and minority rights, certain priorities inevitably become more important than others. In the eyes of exiled Uyghur groups like the World Uyghur Congress (WUS), the Chinese state continues to be seen as a force of brutal repression.
Outside groups like the World Uyghur Congress generally assert Uyghur identity as of Central Asian origin, and culturally distinct from that of China. In a 2010 interview with the Harvard Political Review, Rebiya Kadeer, President of the World Uyghur Congress and a former PRC official, bluntly stated that “Uyghurs are not Chinese,” and dismissed the view that Xinjiang could ever be a part of China. More recently, the World Uyghur Congress has continued to criticize the Chinese government’s approach to fighting terrorism, arguing that the PRC’s current policies are contributing little to actually solving the crisis.
With China showing no signs of giving up Xinjiang, Kadeer’s hopes for a new “East Turkestan Republic” appear unrealistic for the foreseeable future. Even with the WUS adopting the framework of a “nonviolent and peaceful opposition movement,” violence continues to be pervasive throughout the province. The impasse between the PRC and activists like Kadeer demonstrates continued difficulty of cooperation between both sides. For now, violence seems likely to continue on China’s “new frontier.”
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