The Uyghurs : The Periphery Moves

, by René Wadlow

The Uyghurs : The Periphery Moves

The abrupt departure of the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, from the G8 Summit in Italy is a sign that the Chinese leadership considers the unrest in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to be such that a collective decision of the ruling circle was necessary. The first decision was the classic one of increasing the number of police and soldiers, of arresting people, and of blaming outside forces for having created the unrest.

But longer term measures are needed and might be taken. However such longer-term reforms or modification of policies cannot be taken without agreement among the small number of people in the ruling circle. Thus there was the need for the presence of the President Hu Jintao.

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Tibet Autonomous Region, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region are the Western Periphery of the Chinese State, and are all inhabited by minority nationalities unable to make decisions or exercise any significant legislative or administrative powers in these communities. The policies of the Central Government toward the three areas have been the same, spelt out by President Hu Jintao as the ’three inseparables’ in a May 2005 speech to the State Ethnic Affairs Commission. His arguments revolve around three basic ideas:

1) Giving absolute priority to economic development, portrayed as the ’key’ to solving all of China’s problems and the most important task that justifies the Communist Party’s exercise of power;

2) Reaffirming the importance of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the rule of the party in minority areas;

3) Consolidating ethnic cohesion to ensure the ’great revival of the Chinese nation’.

He further recommended four steps to strengthen and impose the Party’s leadership in ethnic areas:

1) Recruiting more cadres;

2) Re-enforcing political theory and patriotic education;

3) Strengthening grassroots-level Party organizations in minority areas;

4) Using pragmatism to implement policy.

However, there are inherent contradictions between the aims and the means. These contradictions lead to frustrations which can break out in violence as well as unforeseen consequences. Let us look briefly at the economic and social contradictions:

Expanded economic activities: How are the benefits to be shared? Xinjiang is to be a prime area for the Western Development Strategy proposed in 2000. The area is rich in natural resources, both minerals and oil. The area is under-populated (some seven million people) in contrast to the coastal and central areas of China. To facilitate economic development, migration to the area from Central China has been encouraged, with special benefits, especially higher salaries. The majority of these new migrants are what are considered ’Han Chinese’ - that is, they are non-Uyghurs. The idea that the Han are of a common racial stock is an ideological myth developed in the years prior to the 1911 end of the Qing Dynasty as popular Darwinism spread from Europe with the concepts of evolution and races. The ’we are all Han’ was utilized during the Republican period of Sun Yatsen and Chiang Kai-shek but also carried on by the Communist government. Thus the current use by the government that 93 percent of the population are ’Han’ and seven percent are members of some 54 other nationalities. The myth ends up with the minorities considering most everyone else as ’Han’ and therefore a target when frustrations boil over.

In Xinjiang, there has also been an increase of the Hui Muslim Chinese, often small businessmen and traders who serve as go-betweens among the Han and the Uyghurs. There is a wide-spread belief among the Uyghurs that the Han receive the bulk of the benefits of economic development. Not only are the natural resources developed for other parts of China where there is industry, but it is also the local Han who benefit most from the local economy with higher salaries.

Since the Party is important in the control of economic affairs and Party members ’help their own’, the fact that there are few Uyghurs in Party positions increases their disadvantages. Urban ’modernization’ has led to the destruction of old Uyghur-style homes and streets and the creation of Chinese-style urban areas, though the building have a touch of what Chinese planners consider ’Uyghur styles’. Most of the Uyghurs consider that their culture is being ’folklorized’ - that is, removed from its original context and cut off from its broader cultural signification.

To make matters more complex, Uyghur culture is heavily influenced by the Sufi Islam of Central Asia - that is an Islam not centered on Mosques and the legalistic forms of Islam but rather an Islam influenced by local ’wise men’ with ceremonies carried out in homes and organized through Sufi orders. As long as the Soviet Union controlled Central Asia, there was relatively little danger of cross-frontier contacts. Now that Central Asia has independent, relatively weak States, there is much more cross-frontier contact. Uyghur is related to the Kyrgyz language, and the Sufi orders are found throughout Central Asia. There is also relatively easy passage from Xinjiang to Pakistan where young Uyghurs go to learn English. When they return and want jobs as English teachers, they are not given such jobs and so increasingly set up private religious schools on the model of Pakistan’s madrassahs.

The Chinese authorities call all forms of opposition ’terrorism’ or ’potential terrorism’ and have joined the post-September 2001 anti-terrorist campaigns to justify generalized police surveillance.

With over-all Chinese economic development, Uyghurs have gone to other parts of China to find work in factories or as small traders. Thus, most Chinese cities have an Uyghur quarter where Uyghurs live and their social organizations follow relatively traditional lines. The demonstrations broke out on 5 July in Urumqi, the capital, over the treatment of Uyghur workers in southern China.

On 5 July, a protest march of some 1000 people had been organized by Uyghurs to demand a full government investigation of a brawl between Uyghur and Han workers in a toy factory in Guangdong Province on 25 June during which two Uyghurs were beaten to death and some 118 injured when an Uyghur dorm for workers was attacked while the police and others just looked on. A rumour had been spread that six Uyghur men had raped two Han women at the work site. The fact that neither the police nor Han workers had tried to stop the mob entering the dorm was cited as an example of the wide-spread discrimination against Uyghurs.

The protest march in Urumqi was broken up by the police and the military which led some of the protesters to attack Han shops and bystanders. Urumqui is now some 70 per cent non-Uyghur and has been segregated into ethnic districts. The following day, informal bands of Han Chinese armed with sticks and knives attacked the Uyghur quarters, though heavy police and military forces now try to keep people apart.

The police and army control has been instituted in most of the other Xinjiang cities. Protests are considered as criminal activity and not as signs of socio-economic contradictions. It is too early to know if the protests will move the Chinese ruling elite to take a more careful look at the Western Periphery. For the moment, the government’s response has been to attack the ’three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism’ and to warn that, as Li Zhi, the Party boss in Urumqi has said, ’To those who have committed crimes with cruel means, we will execute them.’

However, some of the Chinese leadership may be able to ’read the hand writing on the wall’ and to call for a real examination of the socio-economic contradictions arising from the Western Development Strategy.

Image: Urumqi July 2009, source:

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