By Simon Denyer
China is offering cash rewards for interracial marriages in its troubled Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang, according to news reports, mirroring a policy now being promoted in Tibet.
President Xi Jinping has responded to ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet with a familiar strategy: putting in place suffocating security controls and promising significant investment in development and infrastructure, the moves buttressed by the continued migration of China’s majority Han people into both regions.
But Xi has also shifted policy toward a concept of “inter-ethnic fusion,” according to James Leibold, an expert on China's ethnic policies who teaches at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. That is a move away from China’s long-standing idea of “separate but equal” ethnicities and toward a more American-style concept of a melting pot — or, in Xi’s own words, the binding together of China’s ethnic groups as tightly as the seeds in a pomegranate.
As well as encouraging more Han people to come to Xinjiang, Xi has said that he wants to see more of Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighur people move to other parts of China. Now, according to Washington-based Radio Free Asia, officials want to use marriage to bind the two communities closer together.
In some Xinjiang districts, officials are piloting a scheme to offer annual cash payouts to couples who marry from Aug. 21 onward, provided one is Han Chinese and the other is a member of a minority ethnic group, RFA reported. Mixed-race couples will also enjoy privileged access to housing, medical care and education for their children, officials said.
Dilxat Raxit, a Munich-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), an exiled pressure group, condemned the move. "They are using marriage as a means to achieve Beijing's political ends,” he told RFA, adding that such marriages are rare and unlikely to succeed. "The Turkic culture of the Uighurs and Han culture is different in almost every way, and Uighurs basically don't marry Han Chinese.”
Indeed, research published by the China Academy of Social Sciences in 2012 showed low and falling levels of marriage between Han and Uighur people over recent decades, reflecting both rising mutual antagonism and growing efforts by Uighurs to preserve their religion and culture in the face of the mass migration of the Han people into Xinjiang.
According to the 2000 census, only 1.05 percent of Uighur marriages were with members of another ethnic group, the lowest ratio among all of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnicities.
In 1949, when the Communist Party swept to power in China, Han Chinese made up less than 7 percent of Xinjiang’s population: today, that number stands at 40 percent. Uighurs, at 43 percent, are a minority in the region, with other, mainly Muslim ethnic groups making up the remainder.
Ethnic riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in 2009 left more than 200 people dead. In the wake of that violence, ordinary people from both communities swapped apartments to cement a division of the city into Han north and Uighur south, creating a situation in which many Han taxi drivers refuse to pick up Uighur passengers and folks barely venture past the city’s undeclared dividing line, residents say.
Leibold warns that Xi’s new policy — along with stronger grass-roots surveillance and efforts to prevent women from wearing veils — is only likely to spark more competition between ethnic groups and more conflict, thanks to “deep-seated racism and cultural misunderstanding.”
“What is keeping the lid on the violence now is that the two communities are largely segregated,” he said. “The ‘melting-pot’ route is going to be paved with a lot of blood in my opinion.”
In Tibet in recent weeks, officials have ordered a run of stories in newspapers promoting mixed marriages. The government has also been offering favorable treatment to such couples and their children for years.
In a report published last month celebrating such policies, the Communist Party’s research office in Tibet said mixed marriages have increased annually by double-digit percentages for five years, from 666 couples in 2008 to 4,795 couples in 2013.