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Uighurs and China's Xinjiang Region

Author: Preeti Bhattacharji
Updated: May 29, 2012

Introduction

XUAR (Xinxiang Uighur Autonomous Region), or East Turkistan, is a territory in western China that accounts for one-sixth of China's land and is home to about twenty million people from thirteen major ethnic groups, the largest of which (more than eight million) is the Uighurs [PRON: WEE-gurs], a predominantly Muslim community with ties to Central Asia. The Uyghur American Association (UAA) says that East Turkistan is a part of Central Asia, not of China. Some Uighurs call China's presence in Xinjiang a form of imperialism, and there have been movements for independence since the1990s through separatist groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), inflamed in part by large migrations of Han Chinese to the region.

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In February 2012, at least a dozen people died after being attacked on the street by Muslims armed with knives near Kashgar, the western part of Xinxiang located near China's border with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. After the Chinese government said the men involved had links to terrorists in Pakistan, a Chinese woman was also killed in Pakistan in what was considered a retaliatory attack. China claims the rioters were trained in Pakistan and has asked Pakistan to take "credible measures" to safeguard its citizens. XUAR shares borders with five Muslim countries--Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan--which seems to be a Chinese concern. The China-Pakistan relationship in particular has been strained by the recent killings, and questions about China's traditional friendship with Pakistan are rising.

Intermittent Independence

Since the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Xinjiang has enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy. Turkic rebels in Xinjiang declared independence in October 1933 and created the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan (also known as the Republic of Uighuristan or the First East Turkistan Republic). The following year, the Republic of China reabsorbed the region. In 1944, factions within Xinjiang again declared independence, this time under the auspices of the Soviet Union, and created the Second East Turkistan Republic.

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took over the territory and declared it a Chinese province. In October 1955, Xinjiang became classified as an "autonomous region" of the People's Republic of China. The Chinese government in its white paper on Xinjiang says Xinjiang had been an "inseparable part of the unitary multi-ethnic Chinese nation" since the Western Han Dynasty, which ruled from 206 BCE to 24 AD.

Economic Development

Xinjiang's wealth hinges on its vast mineral and oil deposits. In the early 1990s, Beijing decided to spur Xinjiang's growth by creating special economic zones, subsidizing local cotton farmers, and overhauling its tax system. In August 1991, the Xinjiang government launched the Tarim Basin Project to increase agricultural output. During this period, Beijing invested in the region's infrastructure, building massive projects like the Tarim Desert Highway and a rail link to western Xinjiang. In a 2000 article for the China Journal, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said these projects were designed to literally "bind Xinjiang more closely to the rest of the PRC."

Since 1954, China has also used the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) to build agricultural settlements in China's western periphery. Locally known as the Bingtuan, the XPCC is charged with cultivating and guarding the Chinese frontier. To achieve this mission, the corps has its own security organs, including an armed police force and militia. Over the past fifty years, the XPCC has attracted a steady stream of migrant workers to Xinjiang. Beijing started developing Xinjiang in campaigns called "Open up the West" and "Go West" through a policy introduced in 2000 to globally promote China's less known and less developed regions.

Discovery of oil in Xinjiang brought international attention and foreign delegations to the region. Joshua Kurlantzick in a Foreign Affairs article says Beijing, worried about losing its influence there, "ramped up its own plans to develop western China as a bridge to Central Asia"; these plans included increasing the movement of ethnic Han migrants, who make up the majority of China's population, into Xinjiang.

In 2010, the Chinese Communist Party met to discuss economic development of the Xinjiang, and outlined a five year roadmap that was supposed to "leapfrog development" and create lasting stability. However, a 2012 report on China from Human Rights Watch says the plan will likely further alienate the region's ethnic population.

Han Migration and Ethnic Tension

The increasing number of jobs in Xinjiang has meant rising levels of migrant workers to the region, many of whom are ethnically Han. The Chinese government does not count the number of workers that travel to Xinjiang, but reports say the Han population has risen dramatically, from 6.7 percent (220,000) in 1949 to 40 percent (8.4 million) in 2008. According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), the Chinese government "provides incentives for migration to the region from elsewhere in China, in the name of recruiting talent and promoting stability" (PDF).

The Communist Party says its policies in Xinjiang are designed to promote economic development, not demographic change. But as Han migrants pour into Xinjiang, many Uighurs have come to resent the strain they place on limited resources like land and water. In 2006, Human Rights in China said population growth in Xinjiang had transformed the local environment, leading to "reduced human access to clean water (PDF) and fertile soil for drinking, irrigation and agriculture." More recently, the region has been upset by government plans to raze the oldest part of the ancient Uighur city of Kashgar and resettle residents in newer buildings. Uighurs believe is it another attempt to destroy their culture to make more room for the Han, but the government argues the changes are needed to protect against earthquakes.

Ethnic tension is fanned by economic disparity: The Han tend to be wealthier than the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Some experts say the wage gap is the result of discriminatory hiring practices. The CECC reported in 2006 that the XPCC reserved approximately 800 of 840 civil servant job openings for Han. This policy was changed in 2011, however, and the XPCC "left almost all positions unreserved by ethnicity." But the 2011 CECC says both government and private sectors had discriminatory hiring practices against the Uighurs and also denied them religious rights such as observing Ramadan and allowing Muslim men to wear beards and women to wear veils.

According to Bequelin, Uighurs are also upset by what they consider Chinese attempts to "refashion their cultural and religious identity." In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Rebiyah Kadeer, who heads the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) based in Germany, condemned China for its "fierce repression of religious expression" and "its intolerance for any expression of discontent." Beijing officials respond to these accusations by saying they respect China's ethnic minorities and have improved the quality of life for Uighurs by raising economic, public health, and education levels in Xinjiang.

However, in July 2009, ethnic tensions between the Han and Uighur communities were exposed to the international community after severe riots between the two groups and police forces erupted in Urumqi, XUAR's capital. The riots were reportedly sparked by a Uighur protest over the ethnically motivated killing of two Uighur workers in the southern province of Guangdong. According to Chinese media, 197 people were killed, more than 1,600 were injured, and 718 people were detained. According to the BBC, about twenty-five people were sentenced to death in 2010 over those killings. Xinhua news agency said the riots were masterminded by Kadeer. Amnesty International notes that even after two years since the unrest, the Chinese government tries to silence those speaking out on abuses; three Uighur website managers were sentenced to several years in prison for "endangering state security."

Since then, there have been a number of violent outbreaks, and the region remains one China's most unstable. In May 2012, about 200 ethnic Uighurs from around the world (Telegraph) gathered in Japan for a five-day meeting to press their case for independence. The meeting was harshly condemned by China and created diplomatic tensions with Japan (AsahiShimbun).

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

During the 1990s, Uighur separatist groups in Xinjiang began frequent attacks against the Chinese government. The most famous of these groups was the ETIM, labeled as a terrorist organization by China, the United States, and the UN Security Council. China claims the group has links to al-Qaeda and says that they were trained in jihadi terror camps in Pakistan to launch attacks in Urumqi. Reports say Pakistani officials have also admitted that the militants in western China have ties to the Pakistani Taliban and other militants in northwestern Pakistani regions along the Afghan border. Pakistan, a close ally, has assured China of full support to contain terrorism in China. Concern about Uighur terrorism flared in August 2008--just days before the Beijing Olympics--when two men attacked a military police unit (NYT) in Xinjiang, killing sixteen.

The Chinese government has taken steps to combat both separatists and terrorists in its western province and monitors religious activity in the region to keep religious leaders from spreading separatist views. Since September 11, 2001, China has raised international awareness of Uighur-related terrorism and linked its actions to the Bush administration's so-called war on terror.

But many experts say China exaggerates the danger posed by Uighur terrorists. While China has accused the Uighurs of plotting thousands of attacks, Andrew J. Nathan, a China expert at Columbia University, says, "You have to be very suspicious of those numbers."

Some experts, including Bequelin, say China's anti-separatist campaign provokes resentment, which can lead to more terrorism. But others say China's counterterrorism measures have been somewhat successful. A review of U.S. State Department documents shows a decrease in Uighur-related terrorism since the end of the 1990s. ETIM, classified as a terrorist organization during the Bush administration, is not listed as Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) anymore in the list updated in January 2012.

A 2010 report from the Congressional Research Service examines U.S.-China cooperation on counterterrorism, noting that tensions remain over handling Uighurs. The United States refused to hand over five Uighurs who had been captured by U.S. forces in Pakistan in 2001, despite Chinese calls to do so. After their release from Guantanamo Bay in May 2006, the Uighurs were instead transferred to Albania. In June 2009, four Uighurs who had been detained at Guantanamo were resettled in Bermuda.

Thirteen other Uighur detainees, said to be resettled in Palau, have not yet been resettled or returned to China. Though a U.S. district court ordered their release, the ruling was overturned by a U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled that the district court "did not have the power to override immigration laws and force the executive branch to release foreigners into the United States." The issue is further complicated as the Congress passed legislation to prevent the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the United States.

Tough Neighborhood

Xinjiang shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, some of which have minority communities of Uighurs. Because of the Uighurs' cultural ties to its neighbors, China has been concerned that Central Asian states may back a separatist movement in Xinjiang. To keep Central Asian states from fomenting trouble in Xinjiang, China has cultivated close diplomatic ties with its neighbors, most notably through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. According to Bequelin, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was created "to ensure the support of Central Asian states" and to "prevent any emergence of linkages between Uighur communities in these countries and Xinjiang."

Many experts believe China's diplomatic efforts have been successful. Adam Segal, CFR senior fellow for China studies, says China's neighbors "are now fighting their own Muslim fundamentalist groups," which makes them more sympathetic to China's plight. According to the U.S. State Department, Uzbekistan extradited a Canadian citizen of Uighur ethnicity to China in August 2006, where he was convicted for alleged involvement in ETIM activities. Nathan says cases like these are evidence that China's neighbors are cooperating with China's anti-secessionist policies.

None of China's neighbors have expressed support for the Uighurs, but the region's porous borders still worry Chinese officials. In the 1980s and 1990s, many Uighurs traveled into Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they were exposed to Islamic extremism. "Some enrolled in madrassas, some enrolled with [the anti-Taliban opposition force] the Northern Alliance, some enrolled with the Taliban, some enrolled with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," says Bequelin. Chinese officials worry that militants who slip in and out of Xinjiang can promote anti-state activity, which is why they have vowed to crack down what they call as three evil forces in Xinsjiang--separatism, extremism, and terrorism. In late January 2012, XUAR authorities announced a plan (NYT) to beef up security by recruiting eight thousand police officers.

Further Reading

This 2011 Economist article argues that China's turbulent west is unlikely to be calmed by plans for economic development, noting that for every poster touting economic development, there are signs of social and religious oppression.

Smithsonian magazine looks at China's plans for the city of Kashgar.

This 2010 report from researchers in Singapore looks at China's attempt to economically modernize (PDF) the region following the Communist Party's first ever Central Work Conference on Xinjiang, as well as the challenges the plan faces.

Prerana Marasini contributed to this report.

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