By Tristan Abbott
Escalations in violence coupled with increased attention to radical nationalist violence have brought the Uighur minority in China to international attention in the last couple of years. Instances of extreme violence in 2013 and 2014 by Uighur extremists in Xinjiang have not only garnered this international attention, but also the extreme focus of the Chinese government. With this rise in violence has come a significant shift in relations between the government in Beijing and Uighur population. For example, in Shaoguan, Guandong, a brawl broke out in June of 2009 that led to one of the more deadly riots in modern China. In the aftermath of this brawl, large Uighur protests broke out, leading to the most deadly confrontation between Uighurs and the Chinese government, the Urumqi riots.
Both the Chinese government and Uighur groups have had a role in this violence. Uighur’s claim that extreme government action and control in Xinjiang have forced their hand, while the central government claims that nationalistic tendencies and terror-based tactics by some Uighurs have necessitated their actions. From the government’s point of view, Uighur unrest poses a twofold threat: Uighur nationalists pose a significant threat to Chinese sovereignty in Xinjiang, and unrest in Xinjiang presents serious border integrity issues.
From their end, Uighurs claim that uneven economic distribution in congruence with religious persecution prompted by the state have forced them to react violently. The perceived or real persecution of minority religions has forced many Uighurs to either migrate to other countries or establish more radical opposition to the Chinese government such as pushing for the establishment of an autonomous East Turkistan. For example, in 1962, the Chinese government suppressed a revolt of over ten thousand Uighurs, which caused over 60,000 Uighurs to flee across the border and seek relief in Kazakhstan.
The state of minorities
While Han Chinese are the majority within China, there are a number of minority groups that play a significant role both in its economic and geopolitical make-up. Besides the majority Han Chinese, fifty-five minority nationalities have been identified and officially recognized by the Chinese government. A 1980 census revealed that at that time, the minority population amounted to more than 55,197,000 (6.7%) of Chinas total population. The 2010 census shows that the Uighur population was composed of 10.5 million people, as opposed to the Han majority, which was at 1.2 billion (National Bureau of Statistics of China).
One point by which the Uighur minority stands out in China is religion, a constant source of conflict between Uighurs and the Chinese government. The term ‘Uighur’ was officially associated with Islam in 1935, even though Uighurs had adopted Islam sometime between the 15th and 17th centuries. In 1935, the Chinese Nationalist party officially categorized the Uighurs as an “ethnic group of oasis-dwelling Muslims in the Tarim basin”. While there are certain aspects of Islam that are debated within Uighur culture, Islam is an inherent and bonding aspect of Uighur identity. Even non-practicing Uighurs often identify themselves as Muslim, often believing that they must be Muslim simply because they are Uighur.
Coupled with these strong and long-lasting ties to a religious identity, state policy towards religious activity has produced great amounts of tension. Marxist notions of state-sponsored atheism that have been adopted by the Chinese government make it difficult for the government to accept religious activity, especially activity that they perceive as producing unrest. The Chinese government, in fearing that Islam might feed ethnic nationalism and a separatist movement, began to severely limit the political and religious practices of the Muslim Uighurs in the 1980s and 1990s.
Adding to this conflict, the lands that minorities, and Uighurs in particular, inhabit in China holds strategic and economic significance. Specifically, both the size and location of these lands render them of great importance to the Chinese government. An example of this can be seen in the sheer size of these lands: traditional minority people’s homelands occupy over 65 percent of the total Chinese territory.
Even more importantly, minority occupied lands embody a large percentage of the border regions of China, occupying up to 90 percent of China’s borders. This positioning renders them extremely valuable to the Chinese government in terms of national security and border integrity. As if that wasn’t enough of a reason for the government to place a high level of value in these areas, they also have a tendency to be resource-rich. Petroleum in particular is often found in these regions, rendering them economically valuable to the government in Beijing.
Looking specifically at Xinjiang, all of the factors that spark the interest of the state can be seen. The traditional home of the Uighur’s, Xinjiang is the largest region within China. It lies on the far western border of the country, bordering a staggering eight countries – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. As such, its geographic location alone makes it valuable to the Chinese government in terms of border integrity. This becomes more importance when realizing the desire of the Chinese government to maintain strict control of its borders. In addition to this, oil from Kazakhstan flows through Xinjiang on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
The combination of a minority population that displays independent nationalistic tendencies and practices a different religion than the majority while occupying a very important patch of land has fueled tensions in Xinxiang and throughout China. The actions of the Chinese government then, can be seen as attempts not only to control a portion of their population, but also to maintain the integrity of its borders. As such, the government has reacted more violently and with more force than they usually would when facing a minority population presenting cultural differences.
Tristan Abbott is a graduate student at the University of Utah, working on his Masters in International Affairs and Global Enterprise.