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Uighurs and China's Xinjiang Region

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Preeti Bhattacharji
Council on Foreign Relations
Friday, August 1, 2008; 9:20 AM

Introduction

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), a territory in western China, accounts for one-sixth of China's land and is home to about 20 million people from thirteen major ethnic groups. The largest of these groups is the Uighurs [PRON: WEE-gurs], a predominantly Muslim community with ties to Central Asia. Some Uighurs call China's presence in Xinjiang a form of imperialism, and they stepped up calls for independence -- sometimes violently -- in the 1990s through separatist groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The Chinese government has reacted by promoting the migration of China's ethnic majority, the Han, to Xinjiang. Beijing has also strengthened economic ties with the area and tried to cut off potential sources of separatist support from neighboring states that are linguistically and ethnically linked with the Uighurs.

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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 Turkestan (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. But 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.

Some Uighurs, nostalgic for Xinjiang's intermittent periods of independence, call for the recreation of a Uighur state. "The Central Asian Uighurs know a great deal about the two East Turkestan periods of sovereign rule, and they reflect on that quite frequently," says Dru C. Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College. Many of these Uighurs say China colonized the area in 1949. But in its first white paper on Xinjiang, the Chinese government said Xinjiang had been an "inseparable part of the unitary multi-ethnic Chinese nation" since the Western Han Dynasty, which ruled from 206 BC 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 giving it special economic zones, subsidizing local cotton farmers, and overhauling its tax system. In August 1991, the Xinjiang government launched the Tarim Basin Project (World Bank) 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 an article for The China Quarterly, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch says 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 continues to develop Xinjiang in campaigns called "Open up the West" and "Go West." These economic programs have been relatively successful: Xinjiang has become one of the wealthiest parts of China."If you look at the general per capita income of Xinjiang as a region, it's higher than all of China's except for the southeast coast," says Gladney. International development bodies like the Asian Development Bank say that despite Xinjiang's growth, there are high levels of inequality (PDF) in the area. But the Chinese government has launched a series of programs to alleviate poverty in Xinjiang, and in March 2008, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized harmonious development of the region in a government report.

Han Migration

Growing job opportunities in Xinjiang have lured a steady stream 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 experts say the local Han population has risen from approximately 5 percent in the 1940s to approximately 40 percent today. These migrants work in a variety of industries, both low tech and high tech, and have transformed Xinjiang's landscape. In June 2008, the BBC produced a photo report called Life in Urumqi, which said Xinjiang's capital had recently witnessed "the arrival of shopping centres, tower blocks, department stores and highways."

In its 2007 annual report to the U.S. Congress, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China said the Chinese government "provides incentives for migration to the region from elsewhere in China, in the name of recruiting talent and promoting stability" (PDF). Since imperial times, the Chinese government has tried to settle Han on the outskirts of China to integrate the Chinese periphery. But the Communist Party says its policies in Xinjiang are designed to promote economic development, not demographic change. Xinjiang's influx of migrants has fueled Uighur discontent as Han and Uighurs compete over limited jobs and natural resources.


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