Violence between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese flared up again on the fourth anniversary of the killing of 200 in the July 2009 Urumqi riots in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. Tensions between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese have existed ever since the People’s Liberation Army marched into the territory 64 years ago. In the most recent clashes 35 were left dead when trouble broke out on June 26th 2013 as authorities say they attempted to deal with knife-wielding mobs on 100 motorbikes who attacked a government building and a police station in the town of Lukqun.
Xinjiang is four times bigger than Germany but only has 22 million inhabitants. Muslims have historically lived East Turkistan ever since the Mongols quest to conquer the world was ended by the Muslims after which many Mongols embraced Islam. The province became populated by Muslims who also came from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Muslim Uighurs make up approximately 45% of the region’s population but have always been subject to discrimination and political violence by Han Chinese who once only accounted for 6% of Xingjian population. However, Beijing promoted a large scale migration of Han Chinese settlers as part of an ongoing policy to support the remote and under-developed regions of Xinjiang and Tibet who now equate to some 39% of the population, but in reality this migration has been an effort dilute the ethnic concentration of Muslims and reverse their majority status.
Beijing has attempted to create ethnic harmony by holding events and educating the locals to integrate with the influx of Han Chinese, but their strategy has done nothing but marginalise the locals further exacerbating the problem. The reason for this is due to the economic incentives given to the Han settlers who have managed to dominate the local economy and gain influence over the political architecture of the country creating disparities in the social status of minorities and containing them from the same economic opportunities.
Willy Lam a Chinese professor at the University of Honk Kong highlighted the Chinese strategy, he said “authorities in many Uighur-dominated towns have also forbidden Muslims to practice Ramadan and other religious rites. The teaching of Muslim religion and the Uighur language has consistently been cut in high schools and universities.” The economist also reported that the authorities have been persuading Uighur men not to grow long beards and women not to wear the Islamic clothing. The religious differences between the inhabitants have created antagonism towards the way Chinese governments have been dealing with the situation who have been giving preferential access to government loans, and job training schemes in order for the Han Chinese to curtail any long term influence by the religious people who have lived there for centuries.
Xinjiang like Tibet has long served China with commerce routes known as Silk Road routes which have been used by various dynasties of the past to maintain a grip between Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. In the past these routes have been used to supply China with commodities reducing the need for naval routes due to the vibrancy of Western land routes. However the modern era led China to focus on naval routes on its vast seas which created booming ports in Shanghai and Qingdao. The problem now however is the patrolling of U.S forces who are managing their current U.S Asia Pacific strategy to get a foot into the energy markets. This has made the naval routes vulnerable and thus an alternative option is to go back to the old days of the Silk Roads routes which will allow China to transport oil and natural gas via its pipelines to the China coast securely. Xinjiang is thus of significant importance to China due to the Silk Road routes lying inextricably in the North West of the country.
Whilst China’s economic rise gains much media headlines, its internal failures are given little airtime. Internally most of China’s regions remain poor and many face significant tensions due to the massive misdistribution of wealth. With the influx of Han Chinese migrants to dilute other ethnicities, we are likely to see more hardened use of authority in order to create social cohesion.