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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 33, August 1, 2009

Ethnic Violence Shocks Xinjiang (New Territory)

Wednesday 5 August 2009, by Ravindra Sharma


The latest ethnic violence between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese, that erupted in China’s Xinjiang province on July 5, has captured the attention of the global media and China watchers. The violence has deeply shattered the social-political life of the province, generating deep frustration among the local inhabitants; the orgy of violence was so powerful that a disturbed Hu Jintao, the President of China, had to leave the G-8 summit in Italy and rushed back to Beijing. The Chinese rulers have identified the violence of July 5 as an “international conspiracy” hatched by six countries, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Turkey and the United States. They have also blamed the World Uighur Congress’ leader, Rebiya Kadeer, a businesswoman and a former political prisoner, for leading the “separatist movement” from exile. Conversely, a Professor, named Dru Gladny, an expert on Xinjiang in California, says:

The Uighurs are the very bottom of the heap economically in China. There is a very deep sense of frustration, especially among the unemployed young men.

Similarly, Time (July 20) reports:

Many Uighurs complain that they have become second class citizens in their own homeland.

And, the Newsweek (July 20) says:

Uighurs see their livelihoods threatened by Beijing’s call on the Han Chinese to ‘go west and develop Xinjiang’.

Historically, locally known as East Turkistan, Xinjiang was independent till 1933; in 1945, a group of rebels established an “independent republic” close to the Soviet Union. However, in 1949 the Chinese Communists with the help of the former Soviet Union established Xinjiang (New Territory). Demographically, in 1949, the Han Chinese in Xinjiang were only six per cent and increased to 40 per cent in 2009. On the other hand, between 1949 and 2009, the Uighurs in Xinjiang were reduced from 80 to 45 per cent. Xinjiang is a province of 20 million, out of which eight million Uighur Muslims refuse to follow the rule of the CPC. Xinjiang is the largest state of China (one-sixth) with the biggest resources of coal, oil and natural gas. In 2004 alone, the Tarin basin produced around five million tonnes of oil. Uighurs apart, Kazakhs and Tajiks also constitute minority groups of the region. While the Han Chinese follow Confucianism in routine life, and the local party cadres of the CPC preach atheism, the non-Han Chinese practise “Sufi mysticism”. As the religious institutions have been effectively banned in Xinjiang and the “Mandrain” has become a compulsory tool for higher education, the non-Han Chinese feel pain and agony at the very core of their heart. It is confirmed that demographic domination apart, a sort of cultural conflict is vividly visible in the social milieu of Xinjiang.

From the point of view of geopolitics, Xinjiang shares its borders with eight countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, India and Mongolia; and in the economic sense, Xinjiang may be identified as a “gateway to Central Asia”. China’s oil experts frequently visit the oilfields of Central Asia, which also perturb the rulers of Central Asia, outfits of the Al-Qaeda and the military establishment of Pakistan. One must mention that constitutionally Xinjiang is an autonomous region of China; however, culturally and linguistically it is close to Central Asia. More importantly, while in the nineteenth century, Britain and Russia competed for the natural resources of Central Asia, in the post-Cold War era, China, Russia and the US are battling to capture the oil and gas of Central Asia. Culture apart, Xinjiang’s periodic violence is also a reflection of Central Asia’s “oil rivalry”. In this sense, China’s accusation against the West for troubling her in Xinjiang is not groundless. Knowing fully well the enormous importance of Central Asia and Xinjiang to “the development of China”, Mao was as eager to “build” Xinjiang as Deng. Factually, in 1949, Xinjiang was without a railway station; however, by the end of 1962, its capital Urumqi was connected with the Gansu province of China, and in 1984, Xinjiang’s western part was expanded connecting the cities of Turpan and Korla; by 2006, Xinjiang’s railway network expanded further adding 1,43,000 km. In 2009, Xinjiang is a province of 20 land ports with several metropolises. The Chinese rulers also have a plan to connect Xinjiang with Pakistan to help promote trade between China and Pakistan. China’s nuclear programme is also installed in Xinjiang.


Critically, once Lenin pointed out that the question of nationality, in essence, is the issue of “class”. Marxist mentors probably missed a fundamental point that the question of culture for the minorities/nationalities is equally important. Communist rulers throughout the period committed blunders while dealing with the minorities/nationalities. Plainly, the millennia old pernicious virus of religion, fundamentalism, backwardness and superstition cannot be erased overnight: Tibet is the miserable example of China’s modernisation hoopla; despite the modernisation curricula of Tibet, carried out by the CPC, the issue of “cultural identity” still haunts the Tibetans; so is the case of Xinjiang.

In fact, China’s policy of ‘go west’, failed to win the hearts and minds of the non-Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Han Chinese believe that the concession to the “one-child policy”, job reser-vation and relaxation in college entrance exams etc. have enormously benefited the non-Han Chinese; yet, the latter are ungrateful to the Chinese Government. Chinese rulers claim that since 2000 (when the ‘go West’ policy was initiated), it has been a mission of the PRC to erase the sluggishness of the non-Han Chinese in Xinjiang by raising their living standard; yet, the non-Han Chinese seek moral cultural and financial support from the fundamentalist outfits operating in Central Asia. In March 2008, at the annual session of the NPC, Hu Jintao, while talking to the officials of Xinjiang, said that

People of Xinjiang must grab the opportunities brought forth by the strategy of large scale development of the western region to enhance stability and prosperity, and to ensure a stable border by making local people rich.

To cut a long story short, despite the development of Xinjiang, the separatist tendencies have been troubling the Chinese rulers in the region since the 1950s; and with the attack of 9/11, the demand for East Turkistan grew rapidly. As per official figures, between 1990 and 2001, more than 200 terrorist incidents occurred causing death to 162 people, and between 1993 to 1997, the Uighurs were seriously at loggerheads with the Chinese rulers; and with the enunciation of the policy of ‘go West’ (since 2000), the more Xinjiang was modernised and developed, the more the Uighurs tilted towards the fundamentalists of Central Asia, seeking religious, cultural and moral inspiration. Importantly, Xinjiang is neither Chechnya nor Kashmir. A local Imam may be quoted here: “The government has such a chokehold over us today that we can’t even think about the war.” Yet, on the eve of the Olympics (August 2008), 17 Chinese police personnel were gunned down by the Uighurs giving a political message—the “glory of the Olympics” can’t influence the non-Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Ironically, the Western world is in a predicament as to whether or not support Xinjiang’s separatist movement. However, the rulers of Central Asia and the Muslim world have a tacit understanding with the separatist leaders of Xinjiang.

To conclude, as the story of July 5 is reported, economic recession also hit the toy factories in China. On June 26, two job-seekers belonging to the Uighur community were slain in Guangdong province alleging that they had raped two Han women. In retaliation, Uighurs en masse attacked the Han Chinese in Xinjiang with sharp weapons killing and injuring several hundred Hans. Finally, the Han Police intervened and butchered the non-Han Chinese resulting in sheer bloodbath and violence. In fact, the violence of July 5 is also a reflection of the “growing gap between the well-off Han Chinese and impoverished Uighurs”. Second, the non-Han Chinese in the region also feel culturally alienated. The rulers of post-Communist China must resolve the riddle of Han-versus-non-Han in Xinjiang so that peace and tranquillity thrives and the project of modernisation and development of Xinjiang continues without further obstacles and hindrances.


1. Time, July 20, 2009.

2. Newsweek, July 20, 2009.

3. Hu Jintao’s speech in Renmin Ribao, March 17, 2008.

4. China Daily, July 14, 2009.

5. The Economist, December 3, 2005.

6. Economic and Political Weekly, August 16, 2008.

Dr Ravindra Sharma is a noted China scholar. His latest book, Paradoxes of Chinese Socialism (2007), was widely acclaimed. He also follows developments in South Asia.

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