Xinjiang nationalism challenges Beijing’s alternative national vision

Guest post by Christopher Skutnik

Amid stories of missing airplanes, transnational warfare, and deadly diseases, a somewhat less visceral part of the world has been sporadically popping up in the headlines of national news agencies.xinjiangChina Flag Icon

Xinjiang (officially the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) is China’s westernmost and remotest province, and has been bubbling over amidst reports of social unrest, terrorism, ethnic strife and more – reports that evoke memories of Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, or perhaps Chechen separatism in the 1990s.

The latest challenge to befall Xinjiang occurred on August 4, in the form of an attack that the Chinese media labeled as terrorism, allegedly perpetrated by Uighur separatists. Nearly 100 people were killed during the violent demonstrations, including 35 Han Chinese killed and 59 of the alleged terrorists shot dead by police.

Sadly, this is not the first time that violence in Xinjiang has resulted in large-scale bloodshed: in 2009, the provincial capital of Ürümqi experienced a very severe riot that resulted in 197 deaths and 1,721 non-fatal injuries.

Despite these statistics, the area’s violent past, and accusations of terrorist conspiracies, you might be forgiven for wondering why there’s so much unrest in the first place.


In short, the issue revolves around differences between the ethnically Han Chinese regional government and the local Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who are predominantly Muslim and whose history extends over a thousand years. (As a modern term for the Turkic-speaking descendants of the Uighur Khaganate, which dates back to the 9th century, the term “Uighur” dates to around the 1920s.)

The current tensions between the Uighurs and the Chinese central government can be conveniently folded under the aegis of ethnic nationalism — they are similar to the tensions between Tibet and China, who share ethno-religious differences, and less so than the Taiwan and China, who hold essential political differences.

Among other issues, advocates charge the Beijing-friendly Xinjiang government with limiting Uighur use of their native Turkic language, preventing Uighur Muslims from publicly practicing their faith, prohibiting Arabic from being taught in schools, enacting minimum-age laws regarding mosque attendance, and preventing their wearing of religious garb.

Furthermore, four days after the August 4 attack, the regional government restricted the wearing of veils and long beards, and disallowed students and government workers from fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. And just last week, Beijing’s Disney-fied efforts at assimilation included the elevation of Princess Fragrant — the Han version of a major Xinjiang heroine.

These are perfect examples of why some of the larger bouts of violence have struck the region; for example, larger riots like the ones in summer 2009 began as protests against ethnic discrimination for the aforementioned reasons, and flashed to fury after the protesters accused the police of using excessive force.

But some of the latest attacks appear to be directed inward, targeting officials that the separatists charge with colluding against an illegitimate government. Imam Jume Tahir, of the Id Kah Mosque is one such casualty: The New York Times notes that “[t]he imam was a divisive figure among Uighurs because he was seen by some as a supporter of policies imposed by the central and regional governments, which are run by [the] Han.” This attack, and the subsequent arrest of the 18-year-old alleged assailant, illustrate that, as is often the case with revolutionary movements, violence can explode in all directions, including against what outsiders might believe to be the revolutionary’s own peers.

An interesting backdrop to these contemporary problems lies in historical resentment that older Uighurs remember as a personal matter. For a brief time in the early 20th century, an independent, sovereign Uighur state actually existed twice — from 1933 to 1934, the Turkic-Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan flashed into (and out of) existence, and it again appeared between 1944 and 1949, with the ephemeral reign of the East Turkestan Republic.

Fanning the flames of anger over perceived indiscretions against Uighur identity are the historical efforts of the respective Chinese and Xinjiang governments to augment their influence in the province. As in Tibet, since the 1950s[1] China encouraged a mass migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang. For example, approximately 220,000 Han Chinese lived in Xinjiang in 1949, while nearly 8.4 million live there as of 2010. Xinjiang’s ethnic breakdown today is now 43.6% Uighur, 40.6% Han, 8.3% Kazakh, and 7.5% other ethnicities.

Eşref Yalınkılıçlı argued recently in Daily Sabah that, despite the writing on the wall the anthropomorphized flag-planting by the Han Chinese has not been tempered with much caution:

Seemingly, there is a euphemism in official Chinese rhetoric even if the constitutional framework asserts that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is closer to the concept of civic nation. In reality…[the] CCP elites promote Sinification processes. These imply Hanification (“Hanren,” the Han people, the biggest ethno-national majority at approximately 90 percent of the population) in the Chinese context and refer to acculturation, assimilation and the exclusion of other ethnic groups of the PRC. In other words, nationalism is still a blurry concept both for the Chinese state and society and its functional-pragmatic usage in minority affairs has always triggered ethnic nationalism(s) in modern China.

The regional government’s proclamations of a large influx of development and financial activity in the region also underscores the disparities between the Han and the Uighur people. While Xinjiang’s GDP grew 272.5% between 2004 and 2011, many Uighurs contend that the influx of income and aid has been channeled primarily towards the Han colonists, including public transportation projects, (connecting rich urban centers to one another) educational opportunities for their children, (with the wealthier Han Chinese having access to better, more expensive schools) or general living standards (again, urban Han communities getting greater access to wealth).

While China periodically announces the dangers of terrorists in Xinjiang and missions to wipe them out, they would be wise to consider taking lessons from Northern Ireland, South Africa, the United States, and anywhere else that has suffered from schisms between institutionalized first- and second-class citizens. Preventing Xinjiang’s indigenous Uighur population group from feeling persecuted for their religious choices, sequestered from better opportunities in jobs or education, isolated from their heritage, and most of all, afraid of an encroachment on their cultural values will more easily ameliorate a local push towards separatist based warfare against China’s Separate government or extremism cloaked in religious vindication.

Christopher Skutnik is an Academic Staff Member at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received his MA in International Relations from Northeastern University.

[1] Britannica Educational Publishing, “The Geography of China: Sacred and Historic Places.”

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