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Culture Clash: Ethnic Unrest in Xinjiang

With anti-Islamic sentiment on the rise in China, what does the future hold for the country's Muslim population in Xinjiang?

September 19, 2016

Originally published on US-China Today. Written by Anna Lipscomb.

In April, the Xinjiang regional government announced rewards of up to 5 million yuan ($765,386) for tips about possible attacks or plots in the region. This is a giant increase from the 100,000-500,000 yuan ($15,307-$76,538) offered in 2014 by the police in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi. Those rewards were announced after April and May attacks that took almost 50 lives and injured over 150 people. Since those events, around 10,000 people have provided information. It’s not clear how many, if any, of those individuals received rewards.

The attacks exacerbated existing tensions in Urumqi, where an ethnic riot in 2009 took almost 200 lives. Urumqi is a majority Han city (Han is the largest ethnic group in China), but there are more Uyghurs in Xinjiang than Han. Hui and Uyghur are China’s two largest Muslim groups, both with more 10 million people. But China has more than 1.2 billion people officially listed as Han on their identity cards.

As tensions grow within China between Muslim groups, especially the Uyghurs, and the greater public, experts suggest that the Chinese government examine its relations with these groups, as well as the increasingly anti-Islamic sentiments expressed by its citizens.

According to James Leibold, a professor at LaTrobe University, "Anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise in China and this doesn’t bode well for ethnic relations in China." He says a recent "troubling spike" in anti-Muslim sentiment on Chinese social media may increase the likelihood of inter-ethnic violence on the streets. "The fact that the censors haven’t stepped in and deleted these anti-Muslim posts suggests political infighting over the future direction of ethnic and religious policy at the highest levels of the Chinese government.”

Simmering Domestic Relations

The Chinese constitution promises citizens freedom of religion. The Chinese state recognizes five religions, including Islam. Also, there are 10 different Islamic groups included among China’s 56 officially-recognized ethnic groups. The largest of these Islamic groups are the Uyghur and the Hui, which have very different experiences as Muslims in China. Although both share a common religious faith, the Hui have more freedom to openly practice and study it because they have friendlier relations with the government, tend to stay out of politics and are not perceived as threats to national security. Further, the Hui aren’t concentrated in a strategic location, are less physically distinct from the Han majority and are usually minorities in their communities.

The majority of Uyghurs reside in the strategically important Xinjiang region. The importance of the region is growing as China moves forward with Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative. The initiative seeks to promote economic cooperation between China and its Central and Southeast Asian neighbors. Xinjiang borders Central and Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In order to foster development and to integrate Xinjiang more fully into China, Beijing has tried various programs, one of these being the migration of Han Chinese to the region. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Han Chinese made up around 6.7% of Xinjiang’s population in 1949 and 40% in 2008. However, the Uyghur had not had the same exposure as the Hui to the Han prior to these movements, thus fueling the ethnic tensions between the Uyghur and Han. In addition, the integration that has brought the Han in has been in a privileged capacity—as employees at state energy companies, heads of various government agencies and massively in the army and police.

“Over the last decade there has been a distinct scaling back of Uyghur culture and language through the promotion of bilingualism and the curtailing of overt religious practices,” says Leibold. “In short, the Party is attempting to dilute Uyghur culture and identity by encouraging more interethnic mingling and fusion with the majority Han Chinese."

A lone horseback rider on the road to Tianchi in Urumqi, China. Photo by Xianyi Shen

These government attempts have also fueled heightening tensions and resentment as Uyghur culture and ways of life seem to be threatened. Gardner Bovingdon, a professor at Indiana University, explains that Uyghur language is being threatened and perhaps will be wiped out.

“[These government programs] did away with Uyghur language instruction in higher education and systematically for decades now repressed Uyghur political expression, so that even when Uyghur are unhappy with their treatment, they have no venue for speaking about it. If they do, they could then be charged with nationalism or ethnocentrism.”

The movement away from Uyghur language instruction and towards “bilingual” and Mandarin instruction is seen as a way to integrate Uyghurs into Chinese society, provide more access to opportunities, and deter terrorism. However, it can also create distance between the younger generation and the older generations, most of whom are unable to speak Mandarin, and may be viewed as a challenge to Uyghur ethnic and community identity.

The Impact of the Global Anti-terrorism Movement

According to Bovingdon, Islamophobia and general hostility towards Muslims in China had already begun in the 1990s when he was there doing field research. “I [later] did summer research in 2002 in the wake of September 11, and already at that time, more than 15 years ago, my Uyghur friends, who were Muslims, told me that they felt the world had abandoned them,” he says.

After 9/11 the United States launched a war on terrorism that reached domestically and internationally, thus giving China the grounds to frame and justify its own measures against perceived threats from Uyghur separatists as a part of a larger global movement. With the rise of ISIS and ripples of global Islamophobia, the tensions have continued to increase. However, experts generally categorize Chinese Muslims as “moderate,” stressing that radical Islamic extremism is not a big threat within the country.

“China is not Syria or Iraq, China is a strong and prosperous nation,” says Yang Zhongdong, a historian at Xinjiang University. He is more optimistic about the integration of Muslim minority groups in China. “The leadership in China has paid much attention to the development of ethnic minorities including Uyghurs in Xinjiang… More and more Uyghurs and Huis and other Islamic groups are benefiting from national policy.” 

Yang does note that Uyghur violence and terrorist attacks, such as the 2014 attacks in Kunming and Urumqi, have increased radical anti-Uyghur sentiment in China which is often shared and spread on social media. This, however, is not an absolute representation of the overall public view towards Uyghurs. “In Urumqi you may still find that Muslim restaurants are always crowded with non-Muslim clients. In the [social media] world, you feel it is the end of the world. But in the actual life, you will find everything is going fine, [or] at least not [too] bad.”

China and the Muslim World

China is not the only place where nationalism is rising and where anti-Muslim sentiments can be heard. China has maintained strong relationships with many Middle Eastern countries. China has forged oil deals with Iran and Iraq and maintained ties with the Assad government in Syria. Xinjiang holds considerable mineral resources and geographic and cultural ties to Central Asia.

According to Leibold, “Xinjiang is now viewed as China’s backdoor into Eurasia, and new markets in Central Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Yet all this is dependent on shoring up the Party’s control and stability in Xinjiang.”

In regards to ongoing conflict in the Muslim world, “China has steadfastly refused to be sucked into the Syrian conflict,” says Dr. Dru Gladney, an anthropologist at Pomona College. “I think that’s given China’s Muslims more opportunity to be involved in Sino-Middle Eastern trade opportunities.”

Since trade relations with the Middle East are important to China, one may assume that it would be more conscious of its treatment of its Uyghur and Muslims within its home borders. But China seems to have learned that its economic strength matters more.

“At one time, I think the Muslim world were very concerned about the status and treatment of Uyghur and they calibrated their policy toward China on that basis,” says Bovingdon. “I think in recent years, drawn by gifts and economic aid and so forth, [Middle Eastern countries] have come largely to ignore the status of Uyghurs.” Turkey is the only predominantly Muslim country that has sometimes been critical of China’s policies in Xinjiang. 

Looking to the Future

The future of relations between the Uyghur and the government in China may depend on reforms and changes in attitude by towards real integration in Xinjiang

Bringing Uyghurs and other Xinjiang Muslims more fully into the economic and development plans in the region. “Many people in Xinjiang, not just the Uyghurs, feel that they're being shut out of these huge economic opportunities,” says Gladney.The future of relations between the Uyghur and the government in China may depend on reforms and changes in attitude by towards real integration in Xinjiang.

He suggests that the government look at what it has been doing in other places with diverse populations, such as Yunnan, to promote involvement, support, and representation of the local communities. In the case of Yunnan, he says, “you don’t see the kind of unrest and discontent or huge income gap between the local Han population and the minorities.”

Another step could be the preservation and recognition of minority rights. Yang explains that in some cases, ethnic and religious rights have been ignored or sacrificed in order to order to achieve the goal of political unity and stability.

“We should respect cultural and religious rights to maintain political unity and social harmony,” Yang says. “Fortunately, I think our now government is taking a holistic approach toward ethnic issues. It is making a proper distinction between political and ethnic and religious issues and looking for respective solutions to different issues.”