The Chinese government thinks it can thwart unrest among ethnic minorities by raising their incomes. But prosperity doesn't buy loyalty.
On Oct. 28, a car crashed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing two innocent bystanders and injuring about 40 others. The incident appears to have been an act of terrorism, albeit quite an unsophisticated one, perpetrated by ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim population mostly living in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). This is the first time in recent history that Uighurs have engaged in political violence outside the XUAR. The incident seems to be a product of the substantially escalating tension between Uighurs and the Chinese state.
The Uighurs view the XUAR as their homeland, an assertion that has long fueled tensions between them and the Chinese state. This tension has been on the rise over the last twenty years as the People’s Republic of China rolled out controversial policies that emphasize integrating Uighurs into the Chinese state. (In the photo above, Uighurs living in Turkey burn a Chinese flag to commemorate the July 5 incident.) The government has used heavy-handed measures to impose this integration (sticks), but it has placed its largest bets on the hope that rising prosperity will encourage loyalty among Uighurs (carrots). Unfortunately, China is guided by an outdated development strategy, and it’s only generating more instability.
China’s most controversial integration measures suppress the Uighur culture and violate the group’s human rights. Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese state has pursued policies that limit the Uighurs’ ability to freely practice Islam and prevent all forms of political organization and expression in the XUAR. This has led to hundreds of arrests on political charges of "illegal religious activity," "separatism," and "terrorism," scores of which have ended in executions. More recently, the Chinese government has adopted education policies that force all students to study in Mandarin Chinese while limiting access to education in the Uighur language and reducing the publication and broadcasting of materials in Uighur.
But these heavy-handed cultural transformation measures tell only part of the story. The Chinese government has also undertaken a gigantic economic development plan for the XUAR, and has targeted rural Uighurs to partake in education and industrial work projects at institutions and factories in China’s interior. These "softer" efforts to integrate Uighurs have not only failed to ease tensions between Uighurs and the state, but indeed appear to have exacerbated them.
This has caused frustration among Chinese policymakers and citizens, who view these efforts as a benevolent program to provide Uighurs with new opportunities and better livelihoods. But the Uighurs’ resistance should not be surprising. In fact, in the modern era, many states have attempted to pacify restive minority populations through economic development, only to bear similar results.
The idea of modernization as a way to unify nations goes back several centuries. The nation-states of Europe we know today — Germany, England, France — emerged as unified entities from their fragmented forbears through the advance of communication and transportation technology, along with concerted efforts by state leaders. Modern states not only began to collect taxes and raise armies, but also sponsored national systems of education that propagated state ideology and instructed pupils in a single national dialect. Economic development birthed loyalty to the state and fellow-feeling among citizens. As suggested by both Marxist and free market modernization theorists, economic stability and prosperity was thought to yield harmonious, unified states.
In the 20th century, would-be state builders sought to accomplish in a few decades what took centuries to take hold in Europe, using top-down planning and industrialization. This approach was effective in achieving rapid growth, but it was less successful in establishing a unified body politic. In Turkey, leaders attempted to use a strategy of economic development through education and infrastructure to integrate minority Kurds into the new state, even as they banned the Kurdish language and suppressed its culture. This strategy only generated a violent movement for secession. Today, the Turkish government has been pressed to accommodate the still-strong Kurdish identity through new reforms.
The Soviet Union also relied on development to integrate the many peoples of its far-flung empire. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks sought to eliminate national identity altogether — and with it the threat of anti-Soviet nationalism — by delivering material progress. Increased well-being would bind people to the Soviet regime, while macroeconomic growth would eliminate differences between nations, ultimately transforming Latvians and Uzbeks into exclusively Soviet subjects. As we now know, this did not work out as planned: 70 years of development led to remarkable improvements in living standards, but it did not stifle nationalism. It was the wealthiest inhabitants who were the most vehement in opposing the Soviet Union.
Why doesn’t prosperity buy loyalty?
First, economic development, rather than causing political passivity, tends to result in greater political engagement. Scholars of modernization theory recognized decades ago that urbanization, literacy, and rising incomes gave people greater means to develop their own interests and to advocate for them. Rather than expressing gratitude to the state that made their political consciousness possible, newly empowered classes would demand more accountable governments and sometimes overthrow them. In simplified form, this is the story of democratization in Europe in the 19th century. It is also the story of anti-colonial liberation movements, whose leaders emerged from the middle classes that were educated under colonial systems of rule.
A second reason development fails to quell nationalism is that it occurs unevenly, especially when it is rapid and state-led. The benefits of centralized investment, even if nominally intended for the minority masses, often fail to reach their targets. Instead, state largesse tends to fall disproportionately into the hands of well-connected elites (who may be settlers in minority regions rather than minority representatives themselves) or to benefit certain (usually urban) areas over others, which can increase overall inequality between majority and minority ethnic groups and exacerbate resentments. Prosperity and development lead more citizens of the majority group to settle in minority regions, often marginalizing minority groups in areas where they were once the primary inhabitants. When people are marginalized both economically and culturally, their exclusion heightens their awareness of difference from the majority and provides a unifying cause around which they can rally.
A third reason for the failure of the modernization strategy is that human beings tend to value certain ideals in addition to, and often above, material well-being. Money is nice, but the desire for justice, fairness, self-determination, or dignity can be a stronger driver of human behavior. Although the protests of the Arab uprisings were partly about unemployment and frustration with elite corruption, the demonstrators’ slogans appealed to more abstract virtues in pursuit of a better society. "Bread, freedom and dignity" became a rallying cry in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Expression of these values is usually even more pronounced in movements involving culturally marginalized groups, who react to official suppression by asserting their language, culture, and traditions.
This brings us back to the Uighurs. The Chinese government’s intensive development plan has only inspired conflict in the XUAR as Uighurs become increasingly marginalized in their own homeland. Development has in many cases displaced traditional Uighur communities, the most well known example being the destruction of the culturally significant, medieval city of Kashgar. In other cases the government has forcibly relocated Uighurs to accommodate large development projects. Additionally, China’s policies have encouraged an influx of Han Chinese migrants into the region in pursuit of economic opportunity, reducing the Uighur share of the population. Finally, Uighurs are increasingly discriminated against for employment in urban areas, as the economic benefits of the region’s development flow mostly to Han Chinese.
China’s development efforts in the XUAR utilize an outdated top-down model of development that betters the region’s GDP, but not the lives of its average citizens. As a result, many Uighurs perceive China’s development plan as an attack on their very existence.
The failure of state-led development to ease ethnic tensions in the XUAR should not be taken as evidence that development can never mitigate conflict and unrest. However, when the politics of identity are involved, development planning must include all ethnic groups and communities and promote a fair distribution of wealth. In the absence of these considerations, China will continue to be confronted by the perverse consequences of its development policies. Attacks like the one in Tiananmen Square may become all too common.