Uyghurs in Xinjiang: Causes of resistance and perspectives for future unrest (updated version)

5. Aug 2008

Henriette Kristensen MA Student, Institute of Political Science, Aarhus university and NIAS research assistant ([email protected])

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September 19, 2000


Since the beginning of the 1990s riots and unrest staged by Uyghurs, the largest Muslim minority in China’s far northwestern province, Xinjiang, to protest against Chinese rule have gained increased attention. In 1997 the unrest even spread to the capital Beijing, where a bus explosion staged by Uyghurs killed two and injured at least a handful people, andless than a week before the Olympics the police in Kashgar, a historical centre of Uyghur resistance in Xinjiang, was attacked. Following 9/11 China started to refer to the Uyghurs as “terrorists”, and when preparing for the Olympics Beijing identified “separatists” pushing for independence of Xinjiang as the main threat to the Games. The question is however why Uyghurs in Xinjiang oppose Chinese rule, and what their capacity for taking actions against the Chinese authorities in the future is?

1) Causes of resistance: Culture, economy and politics

The Uyghurs today account for almost half of Xinjiang’s population. Despite of this, Han Chinese or Uyghurs loyal to Beijing largely control Xinjiang, and Uyghurs perceive themselves as culturally, economically and politically marginalized. This seems to be the primary sources of the Uyghur’s dissatisfaction with Chinese rule.

The Chinese authorities have taken measures to assimilate Uyghur culture in Xinjiang, most notably Uyghur religious traditions and language. Uyghurs are Sunni Muslims and they have strong traditions for the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism. Generally, the Uyghurs do not adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, but since the 1980s Xinjang has experienced an Islamic revival. This revival has collided with an intensified crackdown from the Chinese authorities on Muslims in Xinjiang, as they have strengthened official control over the Islamic clergy (for example through training and reeducation campaigns), enforced registration of religious institutions, closed down mosques, banned certain religious practices and arrested religious leaders accused of being “unpatriotic” and “subversive”. A vital part of this crackdown has been the “Strike Hard” campaign (yanda) launched nation-wide from 1996, and in Xinjiang directed against “the three forces” (separatists, terrorists, and religious extremists). To counter the influence of Uyghur cultural traditions in Xinjiang, Beijing has among others promoted a state-controlled version of Islam in the province, e.g. by requiring that the Islamic clergy in major mosques are state-employees and controlling Islamic education. Linguistically the Uyghurs also differ significantly from the Han Chinese, as the Uyghur language belongs to the Turkic family and is closely related to Uzbek. At first glance Beijing takes a conciliatory stance towards the Uyghur language – for example it is adopted as an official language in Xinjiang, and publication of nationality books, nationality broadcasting etc. is supported by law. In reality however, the Chinese authorities have strived to promote Mandarin (Putonghua). An example of this is the education system, where universities in Xinjiang since 2002 have been required to teach all courses except language and culture classes exclusively in Putonghua. In 2004 measures were taken to introduce similar polices in elementary and middle schools. Beijing has also through frequent language reforms impacted sentiments of a common Turkic identity among the Uyghurs. On the one hand, the revival of an Arabic-based script in Xinjiang in the 1980s strengthened feelings of a common Uyghur identity. On the other hand, the frequent language reforms have introduced divisions between different generations of Uyghurs, and linguistically alienated the Uyghurs from the Central Asian states, where a Latin-based script has generally replaced the modified Cyrillic alphabet after independence.

Uyghurs in Xinjiang are also generally less well-off than Han in the province. Traditionally, Xinjiang has been one of the least developed regions in China, but since the 1990s massive investments have been channeled into the province – a trend that accelerated in 2000 when the campaign to “Open Up the West” (xibu da kaifa) was launched. The investments have however, mainly benefited the Han population in Xinjiang, not the Uyghurs, as the investment strategy has focused on extracting Xinjiang’s large reserves of natural- and mineral resources, promoting Xinjiang as a key producer of cotton and improving the region’s poor transportation network. This economic strategy has not only resulted in an influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang (in 1949 approximately 6% of Xinjiang’s population was Han Chinese, today the number is around 40%), but has also proved disadvantageous for the Uyghurs. Firstly, economic disparities between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in Xinjiang are significant, as Han Chinese populate the urbanized relatively well-off northern Xinjiang, whereas the rural southern Xinjiang where most of the Uyghurs live is less well-off. One explanation for this is that investments are primarily allocated to e.g. the oil and gas industry owned by Han Chinese and mainly employing Han Chinese. Secondly, the Uyghurs feel “exploited” by Beijing, as the state gets most of the revenues from Xinjiang’s vast energy reserves, and its oil and gas is consumed by China’s coastal cities. Thirdly, Beijing has a tight control of Xinjiang’s economy through e.g. the energy sector and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) – a Han structure formally established in 1954 to absorb demobilized members of Guomindang and People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Today many Han Chinese in the province are members of XPCC, and the institution – which is directly under control of the State Council – has substantial influence over Xinjiang’s economy.

Finally, Uyghurs perceive themselves as being politically marginalized. Beijing has given preferences to minorities when filling state leadership positions in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs in these positions (for example the current Xinjiang chairman Nur Bekri and his predecessor Ismail Tiliwaldi) are however often trained in Han Chinese institutions, and their success depends on support from prominent Han leaders. In addition, the power center in Chinese politics – the Chinese Communist Party – has not introduced preferential policies for minorities, and even though the situation has improved, Uyghurs are underrepresented in the Communist Party. This is illustrated by the fact that the de facto leader of Xinjiang, the 1st Secretary of the Xinjiang Communist Party, has since the end of the 1970s continuously been a Han.


2) The potential for future Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang?

Turning to the question of perspectives for future unrest staged by Uyghurs, it is clear that tensions in Xinjiang are deep-rooted. The Chinese leadership has taken steps to address grievances experienced by Uyghurs by introducing economic reforms, affirmative action programs etc., but the results have been mixed – and in some respect polices such as the Campaign to Open Up the West and the Strike Hard Ca
mpaign have actually exacerbated – not alleviated – the Uyghur’s grievances. Another factor encouraging protests among Uyghurs is that they have a historical tradition for resisting Chinese rule – China did not get genuine control over Xinjiang until the 18th century, and the Uyghurs established short-lived independent rules in the 1860s and again twice in the 1930s and 1940s. A third factor facilitating collective action by Uyghurs is Islam. Even though the Uyghurs do not adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, Islam plays a unifying role for the Uyghurs, and Sufism which has strong roots in Xinjiang seems to be particularly well-suited for underground Islam. Finally, external events have inspired the Uyghurs to resist Chinese rule. Especially the break-up of the USSR was important, as the Uyghurs were suddenly the only major Turkic nationality without its own state with the new-found independence of the Turkic states in Central Asia. Also, Islamic movements with whom the Uyghurs have close historical, cultural and linguistic ties have emerged in Central Asia (for example Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), serving as a source of inspiration for the Uyghurs and (at least according to the Chinese authorities) providing support to them.

At the same time however, a number of factors significantly impede the Uyghur’s capacity to oppose Chinese rule. First and foremost, the Uyghurs have historically never been united – instead of identifying as Uyghurs, they have traditionally identified with the oasis town from which their family traces its origin. In addition, Islam’s role as a unifying vehicle for Uyghur resistance is hampered by the fact that the Uyghurs traditionally adhered to a relative moderate version of Islam. This also puts into question the extent to which the Uyghurs identify with other Islamic movements in the region. Finally, even though China’s policy in Xinjiang has produced mixed results, it has in some respects reduced the capacity for Uyghur resistance – for example, the economic policy has eroded social ties among the Uyghurs, and pan-Turkism has been reduced by language reforms.

Assessing the likelihood of Uyghur resistance against the Chinese authorities in the future is thus complex. Tensions in Xinjiang are indeed deep-rooted, and actions by Uyghurs directed against Chinese rule can be expected to continue in the years to come. However, disunity is a historical problem among the Uyghurs, and even though their protests pose challenges to the Chinese leadership it does not put the future rule of the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang into question.

Recommended reading:

Bovingdon, Gardner (2002), Strangers in Their Own Land: The Politics of Uyghur Identity in

            Chinese Central Asia, Ph.d. dissertation Cornell University

Dillon, Michael (2004), Xinjiang – China’s Muslim Far Northwest, Routhledge

Rudelson, Justin Jon (1997), Oasis Identities – Uyghur Nationalism Along China’s Silk Road,

Columbia University Press

Starr, S. Frederick (2004), Xinjiang – China’s Muslim Borderland, M.E. Sharpe