Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Playing the Long Game: Unrest and Changing Demography in Xinjiang

Playing the Long Game: Unrest and Changing Demography in Xinjiang

The latest bout of violence between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese erupted in Lukqun, a township in China’s far western province called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.  There, about 35 people died last week when, according to Chinese accounts, Uighur protesters attacked a police station, a local government building, and a construction site—all symbols associated with the Han Chinese.  In April a similar incident occurred near Kashi (or Kashgar), Xinjiang’s second largest city; 21 people died.  In fact, almost every other year since the 1990s, Xinjiang has experienced at least one incident in which a dozen or more people are killed.  The most notable case in recent memory happened in 2009 when 197 people perished in ethnic strife that engulfed the provincial capital of Urumqi.


With such recurring violence, little wonder that tensions between the two ethnic groups in the region run high.  Even so, Han Chinese have continued to migrate to Xinjiang since the 1950s.  At first, they came as part of official Chinese government efforts to build a reliable local workforce and defend the country’s western borders.  But since the 1990s, many Han Chinese have willingly moved to the region to take advantage of the economic opportunities created by government spending on infrastructure and commercial investment in the energy and mining industries.  As a result, the province’s cities have boomed and new towns have sprouted from the grasslands that ring the Taklimakan Desert.

So many Han Chinese have migrated to the region that many Muslim Uighurs fear that they could soon become a minority in their ancestral homeland.  Chinese censuses chronicle the rise in Xinjiang’s Han Chinese population from 6 percent in 1945 to 40 percent in 1980.  And though the proportion of Han Chinese living in the region has held fairly steady since then, the population of Xinjiang has risen dramatically, from 13 million to over 21 million.  Plus, one must add the tens of thousands of Han Chinese who travel to the region in search of seasonal or temporary work.  Historically, the vast majority of the Han Chinese in Xinjiang dwelled in its northern part, where most of the energy and mining industries are clustered, while the vast majority of the Uighurs lived in the largely agricultural southern expanse.  But since the new railway to Kashi was completed in 2000, ever more Han Chinese have settled in not only Urumqi, but also southern areas once dominated by Uighurs.  Aware of the new tensions that would be raised, Chinese leaders have focused on economic development as the central way to pacify the local population.

Just one month ago, Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the powerful Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, went on a fact-finding tour of Xinjiang in the wake of April’s unrest.  He travelled extensively across the province, visiting Uighur villages as well as settlements of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC).  The quasi-military XPCC has long been Beijing’s vehicle for Han Chinese migration and instrument of control in Xinjiang.  Apart from its farming and industrial work, it maintains a well-armed militia capable of containing local unrest.  When Yu addressed a regiment of the XPCC’s 4th Division, he urged its members to interact with minority groups to locally resolve differences.  Then, he said, provincial authorities could take full advantage of Beijing’s support to further the region’s economic development and ultimately curb the “three evil forces” at work there: separatism, extremism, and terrorism.

Certainly Beijing has encouraged massive investment in the region.  That investment has produced double-digit economic growth in the province over the last decade; even as growth in China’s eastern provinces has flagged.  Both ethnic groups have been made better off.  But Uighurs continue to fare relatively worse than their new Han Chinese neighbors, who reap the biggest rewards from the Uighurs’ native lands.  Moreover, many of these new residents of Xinjiang have chosen to live in segregated communities, particularly in Uighur-dominated areas.  Entirely new Han Chinese towns have popped up adjacent to existing Uighur ones.  Together with often stringent surveillance of Uighur communities and the perception of Chinese contempt for Muslim practices, such separation has fueled resentment among many Uighurs.  They feel that they are gradually losing not only their lands and autonomy, but also their identity.

With such underlying tensions, it is of little surprise that unrest periodically flares up in Xinjiang.  Despite Beijing’s assertions that international separatist organizations are behind the violence, most of the unrest has been local, sparked by local events like an execution or a police roundup of suspected militants.  In any case, Beijing’s hold on the region remains as firm as ever.  While some have roundly criticized the government’s heavy-handed crackdowns on the Uighur population—such as the three-month long “strike hard” campaign in 2011 that entailed 24-hour police patrols, identity checks, and searches of people and vehicles—as being unproductive, they do underscore Beijing’s determination to do whatever it takes to subdue local dissent.  Altogether, the XPCC, the People’s Armed Police, and ultimately the Chinese military—arrayed as they are across the province and made increasingly responsive with new transportation links—remain well positioned to contain any recurring violence, unless of course China itself is thrown into crisis.