Lessons from Xinjiang: The Deep Roots

Written by Julen Madariaga on August 8th, 2009

eeeee One of the essential purposes of a government is to ensure the safety of the citizens and, from this point of view, the Chinese government has failed spectacularly in Urumqi.

To begin with, it did not afford sufficient protection to the Han victims during the night of 5th July. Some wrong decisions were most likely taken during the crisis, and the leaders of the forces of order owe at least some explanation to the Chinese.

But the CPC has failed in a more crucial way, which cannot be ascribed to simple human error in time of emergency. It has failed to create the conditions for the peaceful coexistence of the Chinese; it has failed in the very objective that it states as its own: the creation of a harmonious society. 200 Chinese killed by Chinese are the clear proof of this failure.

I will analyze in this post some of the reasons why the interethnic policies may have failed and what can be done to  improve the situation. There are many good arguments both for and against the independence of Xinjiang, which would make for a fascinating discussion, but I will not touch the subject here. Whatever the theory says, the reality is that Xinjiang is and shall remain Chinese for the foreseeable future. Large numbers of both Han and Uyghur can equally call Xinjiang their homeland, and these peoples have to learn to live together for their own sake. Let’s try to be constructive and see how this can be achieved.

The intentions of the CPC

I began by saying that the government has failed, which is obvious. But to be completely fair, interethnic relations is an extremely difficult area where almost every government in the World has failed to some degree. Looking at the region where Xinjiang sits, and comparing with interethnic and interreligious strife in similar nearby countries we have to acknowledge that the record of Xinjiang in the last 20 years is far from catastrophic.

Some argue that there are no worse problems –fundamentalism, suicide bombings, war- just because the Han are repressing the Uyghur population to inhuman extremes. This is easily proven wrong, and anyone who has been to the area knows this much. Moreover, a simple look at the World can tell us that even the most extreme repression by the army does not guarantee peace, but rather the opposite, as seen in Uzbekistan, Chechnya or Palestine. It is not mainly force, but prosperity and stability that have kept the Uyghurs silent.

The party’s interethnic policies have failed, but the very existence of these policies and their actual enforcement speaks a lot for the nature of the CPC’s intentions. The clear goal of the party is to guarantee China’s unity, stability and harmony, it is not and has never been to impose the supremacy of the Han. Granted, China is an authoritarian regime, and individual rights are not always respected, in Xinjiang or in any other province. China needs democracy and rule of law, but this has nothing to do with the oppression of the Uyghur by the Han.

Interethnic policies

Let’s take a look at the essential of these interethnic policies, which mostly come in the form of positive discrimination: 10 added points in the gaokao exams for access to university, partial exclusion from the single child policy, quotas (but rather low) in the administration and, most surprising of all: an explicit policy of lenient treatment for non-political crimes, which is known to all Chinese in the form of the common assumption: “be careful with Uyghurs, they can carry knives”.

Another group of policies are the ones destined to avert the danger of Islamic fundamentalism. These include prohibition to wear headscarves and other religious attire in schools and government buildings,  prohibition for under 18 year olds to attend prayers at the mosque, and strict control of the clergy. While we can accuse these policies of offending sensibilities, we might as well say that France has a similar headscarf prohibition, and that China is consistent with its clear principle of forbidding religions to engage in politics. An enlightened rule, in my opinion, more so in a place where there is reasonable grounds for fearing religious fundamentalism.

Other more recent policies, decided by the maximum leader of the party in the region, Wang Lequan, are less justifiable. In particular the one related to having all the schools teach solely in Mandarin makes no sense and can only spark resentment among the Uyghurs. The logic of this decision is that all citizens need to be proficient in mandarin, but this point is not technically sound, as it has been proven that a full bilingual education from early age is compatible with proficiency in two languages.


One interesting point in the conflict of July and its aftermath is that it was never made clear what exactly the protesters wanted. The WUC had plenty of media time, but it didn’t present a consistent program. Kadeer dedicated her appearances to send out casualty figures and to deny her role in the events, relating them to the Guangdong incident. As a result, it is difficult to know which of the Chinese policies are most resented by Uyghurs, other than being “colonized and repressed”. The absence of a moderate Uyghur voice makes things very difficult to understand, another consequence of the heavy handed government of Wang Lequan.

In any case, it looks like it is not so much a matter of one policy in particular, but a problem of attitudes between the Uyghurs and he Han. A problem of integration and mutual misunderstanding that is so typical of interethnic conflict in any Western country, rather than a conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed. This is consistent with many of the observations of foreigners living in Xinjiang.

Much has been written in the West about positive discrimination, and you might be familiar with the kind of problems it can create. There is a natural reaction of resentment in the poorest elements of the majority group at what they see as unjust favouritism towards minorities. But worst of all, policies such as “2 restraints, 1 leniency” lend themselves to abuse and often benefit the worst individuals in the minority, starting a vicious circle of negative selection.

In China positive discrimination is particularly vicious because the Han, encouraged by the official media, tend to take these few concessions as a definitive proof of their generosity towards the Uyghurs, which then gives them carte blanche to engage in all sorts of discriminating behaviours, in many cases not even realizing that they are being unfair.

The Uyghurs react to this perceived –and often very real- discrimination by adopting the role of eternal victims and recalling the invasion of the bingtuans, or the dilution of their people, which is hardly a strong argument as: 1- A large part of the bingtuan population is not installed in Uyghur areas, 2- The Chinese have been doing bingtuan-like activities in Xinjiang long before the Uyghurs even arrived and 3- Chinese companies  have all the right to establish in any areas of their country as long as they are not forcefully expropriating the original owners.

Some possible solutions

In conclusion, I think this is not so much a matter of bingtuan, oppression or ethnical dilution, but rather a matter of complete insensibility from both sides Han and Uygur, and most of all from the Chinese government in Xinjiang, whose head only cares about pleasing Beijing.

I know the really important problem – lack of democracy and rule of law - will not change in Urumqi until it does in Beijing. But without looking so far, I have some modest suggestions to the CPC of Xinjiang that should be easy to try and improve the situation.  All relatively simple points, more gestures and attitudes than large power concessions:

  • Don’t forcefully modernize Kashgar declaring it backward.
  • Don’t force monolingual schools on people for their own benefit.
  • Impose 100% bilingual schools for all in majority Uyghur areas.
  • Stop, progressively and with tact, the leniency policies.
  • Enforce the laws against discrimination in job postings.

But most important of all, I have one advice for the government of China that is not restricted only to Xinjiang: Actively promote mutual respect and understanding among different cultures and races.

This ability is seriously lacking in most Chinese of all ethnicities, as this essential part of their education has for years been substituted by clichéd touristic dances and children in costumes. This spells trouble for China not only with the minorities, but also in other regions where it wants to earn respect and expand its influence, like Africa or South America.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Aug

    There is a second part to this article that I intend to do next week. I haven’t had the time to finish editing and for the same reason some important links are missing that might make my assumptions more solid. In any case it is full of opinions, so feel free to disagree or suggest improvements.

    I am off to the beach in Qingdao, see you on Monday!

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Aug

    A few points on another great xinjiang post.

    Policies designed to avert fundamentalism are clearly not working. Ironically, the last couple years has seen the rise of Hizb ut Tahrir (a pan Islamic party suspected of terrorist sympathies and proscribed in most central asian countries) in southern xinjiang. There are signs throughout southern Xinjiang warning against joining them and they were even implicated by the government in stirring up unrest last year. They could very well be filling the vacuum left by lack of outlet for meaningful religious expression. I don’t believe they were ever considered a problem before.

    The language policy (shuang yu) is a specific source of contempt among Uyghurs. I think those Uyghurs who need to use Chinese inevitably learn it, whether formally or informally. That is almost always the case. On the other side, in significant time spent in Xinjiang, I only heard one Han capable of speaking Uyghur and I’m pretty sure he was an undercover cop. It doesn’t help that governor Nur Bekri is on record saying teaching mandarin to Uyghurs helps ‘fight terrorism’. Unfortunately, this policy doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. (see: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-08/03/content_11815602.htm)

    You’re right that the WUC has not presented a consistent program. It is still unclear whether they prefer autonomy or outright independence. They seem to willfully obscure this point. They simply seem to be engaged in a battle with the government to spin the incident to maximum advantage whatever their ultimate aim.

    The convoluted affirmative action policies seem to have exacerbated tension. By trying to pacify each ethnic group individually they have unwittingly turned themselves against one another. Both have legitimate grievances about ethnic policy.

    With the exception of your point about the bingtuans your suggestions are all very well taken. But converting the bingtuans, which largely administer themselves and report to Beijing, would most definitely be a large power concession as they are still quasi military in nature.

    Understanding and facing up to realities in Xinjiang is undoubtedly the ultimate cure to these problems….. but unfortunately events in Urumqi and hardening feelings on both sides will likely delay any meaningful resolution for a long time.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Aug

    Thanks, your comments are very valuable and I can see that you know Xinjiang well.

    In response to your points:

    1- The bingtuan: I agree, and I edit this point. While I still think that it would be a good idea to get rid of their military connection, I understand this is not as simple as a name change. The army probably obtains profits from these activities and even Hu doesnt want to mess with that, in spite of his post in the Central Military Commission.

    2- Bilingual Education: I don’t agree on this. And I can tell you why: because I come myself from an ethnic minority where a very similar situation is happening, and where EVERYONE is forced to study BOTH languages. There are of course some people upset from both sides, but in the end it is best for all, and it will do a lot to finish with the Uyghur economic discrimination. One thing is to protect your culture and a very different thing is to give up your chances to attend a good Uni, etc.

    While some Uyghurs (and Han!) may have contempt for this kind of policy, I am sure also many others could benefit from it, and anyway it doesn’t harm anyone to study a new language, rather the opposite.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Aug

    “200 Chinese killed by Chinese are the clear proof of this failure.”

    Haha, had to be careful in wording there didn’t ya? Must drive you crazy not being able to speak that which is so plain. Your denial of the obvious is praiseworthy.

    “prohibition for under 18 year olds to attend prayers at the mosque,”

    Right, the gov’t education system has to take away the ability to worship anything but the state. Start it when they are young then it won’t be in thier hearts. This is why many Han have no true life compass.

    “There are many good arguments both for and against the independence of Xinjiang, which would make for a fascinating discussion, but I will not touch the subject here. Whatever the theory says, the reality is that Xinjiang is and shall remain Chinese for the foreseeable future.”

    Oh brother!

    “The clear goal of the party is to guarantee China’s unity, stability and harmony, it is not and has never been to impose the supremacy of the Han.”

    Clearly Han people will support any statement like this.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Aug

    I sense that you don´t agree with my post, and it sounds like you are trying to be ironic but I don´t really understand your point.

    Why do you think I am being “careful with the wording”? No really, I am writing what I think and this is not dictated by the censors. Feel free to speak up and say, for example, what is wrong with “200 Chinese killed by Chinese”. I mean, obviously most of the killers where Uyghurs, but I wasn´t trying to make that point here, I already wrote about it in the previous posts.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Jun

    Isn’t it fascinating to have someone commenting about “life compass”? It is beyond the little brain of the reglious lambs that that a value and moral system can exist well without throwing all your responsibilities to a god.

    Btw the only folks that give a fuss about Gods are either nurturing terrorist attacks (green cults) or errh…killing terrorists (jews)

    [Reply to this comment]

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