The view from the ground.

How China Wins and Loses Xinjiang

The Chinese government can put down a riot -- but its heavy-handed tactics ensure that ethnic tensions will keep simmering.

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Photo Essay: Who Are the Uighurs?

Photo Essay: Who Are the Uighurs?

On Sunday, more than 1,000 Uighurs clashed with police in the western Chinese city of Urumqi — marking one of the country’s bloodiest ethnic conflicts in recent years.


The government’s crackdown on the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group that has long chafed under Beijing’s rule, was nasty, brutish, and short. Overnight curfews were imposed. Thousands of police officers dispersed. President Hu Jintao left the G-8 summit in Europe to focus on putting out fires at home. But not all aspects of China’s policies toward Uighurs and other minorities are characterized by such precision.

If you visit Xinjiang, the restive province that’s home to China’s roughly 8 million Uighurs, you’ll realize there’s a gap — often a chasm — between official intention on minority issues and what happens in practice. Sometimes the government’s missteps appear to be the product of malevolence, sometimes of ignorance. The results are both tragic and absurd.

On bad days, the tragedy is obvious: More than 150 people, Uighur and Han Chinese, have died in recent riots. But there is also a thread of dark comedy, a continual drama of miscommunication and miscalculation, as Han authorities try to hamstring the practice of Islam and local politicians try to at once appease and suppress the Uighurs.

On paper, Islam is one of China’s five officially recognized and legal religions. And the central government, in order to foster a "harmonious society," aims to help all minority peoples prosper alongside their Han neighbors. But in practice, ethnic policies as implemented alienate and inflame the largely Muslim population of Xinjiang. Tensions run high, liable to erupt at even distant provocations. (The spark that lit last Sunday’s riots was the mistreatment and murder of Uighur factory workers in faraway Guangdong province.)

Recently, Robert D. Kaplan argued in The Atlantic that, on purely pragmatic grounds, in the case of Sri Lanka, repression worked. Other writers have recently made similar assertions in the case of Xinjiang. One line of argumentation indeed holds that China’s uncompromising stance toward its ethnic populations may be unsavory to Westerners, but is in fact the surest way to keep the peace.

If only Beijing’s iron fist were so dexterous. China’s government is indeed effective at disbanding protests, building skyscrapers, and staging high-profile spectacles like the Olympics. It’s also proved relatively adept, to its credit, at managing the financial crisis and keeping factories churning.

But you don’t have to look far for signs of breakdown or miscoordination. Take the embarrassing wavering over Green Dam, the much-maligned Internet nanny program; or last year’s scandals over tainted milk, an economic and international public relations disaster for Beijing. China routinely looks more vulnerable from the inside than the outside, and its volatile minority affairs are just another example.

Ultimately, China is more adept at creating fearsome impressions in the moment — grand like the Olympic Opening Ceremony, or cruel like the crackdown on protestors — than at maintenance. When you look close, it’s apparent how much muddle there is beneath the surface, especially when authorities attempt to formulate policy around something they don’t truly understand.

The Uighurs, as well as Islam itself, mystify China’s secular leadership. In Xinjiang, a vast western province — three times the size of France and bordering eight countries — China’s long-term policy toward minorities is puzzled in principle, capricious in execution, and the result is much suffering on the part of both Uighur and Han. Far from containing tension, the heavy-handed approach fans the flames. It is a brutal kind of confusion.

Xinjiang has been called the "Texas of China," and it certainly exhibits a rough-and-tumble frontier feel. Oil and mineral wealth have in recent years attracted Beijing’s attention, and an influx of Han businessmen, swashbucklers, and entrepreneurs migrating from east China. When the western desert territory was incorporated into the People’s Republic, the Chinese leaders selected as their provincial capital Urumqi, a city undistinguished by landmarks or history. In a region with a long and storied past, and a landscape dotted by historic mosques and the sites of famous battles and tombs of Uighur kings, the new capital was a relative blank slate. It seemed a place that new settlers could, in effect, start over.

But, on the face of it, official policy in Xinjiang is not to erase Uighur history or identity. Indeed, special efforts are made to highlight certain aspects of the past. Airport gift shops sell books printed by Han publishing houses about the charming customs of Xinjiang’s minority groups. A stream of tourists, international and Han Chinese, comes to visit the historic old towns in cities like Kashgar, located in southwest Xinjiang. The local government is flirting with, or at least trying to make a few yuan off of, what the spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in London described to the BBC’s Radio 4 as the region’s "multiculturalism."

Outside Urumqi, the troubled provincial capital where Sunday’s riots took place, new highway signs are posted in both Mandarin characters and the Uighur language, written in an Arabic script. But there’s a danger of getting lost if one tries to follow those signs. If you ask the local Uighurs, they say that what passes for signage in their language is often nonsensical transliterations, a version of "Chinglish" in Uighur. There’s ornamental appeal, sans utility — evidently Uighurs weren’t consulted in planning or proof-reading.

Special funds are allocated by the central government for religious affairs and poverty reduction bursaries in Xinjiang, as in other western provinces. But how are they spent? Take the "Xinjiang Minority Street" project in downtown Urumqi. It’s a five-story market complex with an exotic-looking exterior, dominated by pale yellow turrets and fanciful archways, with numerous stalls and winding staircases inside. A placard by the entrance proudly announces that it was built in 2002 for the benefit of Xinjiang’s minority people, as a place to sell their ethnic handicrafts, for the hefty sum of 160 million yuan (around $23.4 million).

But inside, most of the stalls, if they were ever occupied, are now empty. A few are home to Han jewelers selling jade trinkets. The paint is beginning to peel. A Chinese hostess stands outside a deserted restaurant with décor resembling how Walt Disney might imagine Arabia. In short, this is what a boondoggle looks like. Or rather, it’s how local officials and contractors conceive of what Uighurs want (or at least how they can capture funds Beijing sets aside for minority affairs), without much consultation with Uighurs themselves. Sadly, the building sits adjacent to what is in fact the heart of the city’s Uighur district, where families live in one-story shanties of brick and mud that could badly use money for repairs.

The building, a work of pure architectural and promotional fantasy, epitomizes the vast disconnect between how Han officialdom envisions China’s minorities and how Uighurs see themselves, and Islam.

Last year I was in Kashgar during October’s Golden Week — an extended national holiday commemorating the founding of the People’s Republic of China. My hotel sat on the grounds of the former Russian consulate — a reminder of when Western powers fought over influence in Central Asia. That afternoon Chinese state television was showing continuous coverage of the Golden Week celebrations, including parades of China’s officially-recognized minority peoples in bright costumes, singing and dancing, and saluting the legacy of New China.

But outside, residents of Kashgar were gathering to mark a rather different festival: the end of Ramadan, the month-long fasting period for Muslims. The final day of Ramadan, when the fast is broken and people celebrate, is called Rozi Festival. Annually, 10,000 men and their families from across southwestern Xinjiang travel to Kashgar to commemorate the holiday outside the ancient Id Kah mosque.

The sight of thousands of devout Muslims kneeling on unfurled prayer mats in a ceremony unsupervised by the state of course makes local authorities deeply nervous. The government hasn’t razed the mosque or explicitly prohibited worship, but it has recently erected a giant TV screen in the public square facing the mosque. Kazakh soap operas are now screened at regular intervals throughout the day, timed to coincide with daily services. Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t had much impact on mosque attendance.

One night I asked a Uighur man headed into Id Kah mosque about the TV. "If they put it somewhere else, people would be happy," he said. "But not here — here it makes us angry."


Miscalculations about Uighurs and their religion have graver implications, too.

Beijing claims that new industry and oil exploration in Xinjiang is bringing wealth into the region, benefiting both Han and Uighurs. Yet according to the Asian Development Bank, income inequality in Xinjiang remains the highest in all of China. Hiring discrimination is a substantial barrier, often fueled by the Chinese Communist Party’s perplexed attitude toward religion. "You have a party that is primarily Han and officially atheist," explains Gardner Bovingdon, professor of East Asian and Eurasian studies at Indiana University. "The party doctrine is founded on notion that religion is a mystification. It requires its members to be atheist; any party member or teacher in Xinjiang must renounce Islam."

The vast majority of the new jobs in Xinjiang are state-affiliated: Construction crews, bank clerks, police officers, nurses and school-teachers all work for the government (there isn’t much private business on the frontier). Many of those positions are off-limits to publicly observant Muslims. The state-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the largest development company in the province, for instance, not long ago filled, by mandate, 800 of 840 new job openings with Han Chinese.

Such policies exacerbate inequality and rile ethnic tensions. But do they also help the government squash would-be separatist movements?

Most analysts do not believe that religion itself, or radical Islam, animates pro-independence factions in Xinjiang. To target actual separatists, more precise strategies could be envisioned. "The way to respond to a small minority in a society is not to prevent the religiosity of an entire population," Bovingdon explains. "That’s counterproductive, and makes plenty of people resentful."

And yet, that appears to be precisely the strategy the local government has adopted. Since 2002, when the U.S.-led "war on terror" gave China cover for greater surveillance of its own Muslim populations, the Xinjiang public security bureau has increased crackdowns on what it deems, with alarmingly broad brushstrokes, the "three evils" of "separatism, religious extremism and terrorism."

In practice, this means that loudspeakers in mosques are banned in Urumqi; families hosting dinner parties during religious festivals must register with the government; the interiors of even small rural mosques are plastered with tawdry government propaganda, and routinely visited by Han inspectors (who don’t bother to doff their shoes when they enter and check log books). Although Islam is not officially outlawed, Uighurs are subject to a litany of intrusions on daily religious life, which leads them to see the government as an antagonistic force. As one man in Kashgar told me, "Because I am born a Uighur, I am a terrorist — that is what the government thinks?"

The authorities’ overreach is also clear in the way security policies target children. During certain religious holidays, anyone under 18 is barred from entering a mosque. In Kashgar, communal meals are imposed at school during the fast period of Ramadan, and attendance is required at special assemblies timed to coincide with Friday prayers. There’s no reason to treat every Uighur child like an aspiring terrorist or separatist, unless the aim is truly to stamp out religion from next generation. But this tactic would seem a high-stakes gamble for the CCP.

Andrew Nathan, chair of the political science department at Columbia University, explains, "This is the Chinese style toward religion — the government is very suspicious of religion. In Xinjiang, separatism is the thing they want to avoid. They conceive of the separatists as people who are religious fundamentalists. They’re making a logical leap of faith. It produces resistance. It produces deep resentment."

And there are some indicators that China’s attempts to curb Islam in the name of assimilating the Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang are woefully backfiring. Even as the local government has tightened its "counterterrorism" policies in recent years, the U.S. Congressional Commission on China has determined, the level of unrest in the province has actually increased. Last year saw a string of bus bombings and attacks on police in southwest Xinjiang; Sunday’s bloody riots in Urumqi were the worst in many years.

"China’s attempts to suppress Islam," a recent Human Rights Watch report concludes, "is a policy that is likely to alienate Uighurs, drive religious expression further underground, and encourage the development of more radicalized and oppositional forms of religious identity."

Commenting from a different angle, Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, finds broader regional security implications. "A lot of Chinese problems do appear to be a bit of their own making," he said. "They justify a lot of what they’re doing in the name of counterterrorism, but we fear it might also exacerbate a terrorist threat. Of course, the same could be said for some U.S. policies — look at Iraq and Afghanistan."

Misunderstanding the Uighur culture and religion, the Chinese authorities fear the worst.  And their current policies seem more likely to foster resistance and resentment than peace and passivity. Perhaps the backlash is already beginning.

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina
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