Behind the Xinjiang Violence


A resurgence of violence in the Xinjiang region in the past couple of weeks, in which at least dozen people have been killed, highlights the continued failure of Chinese policy within this region of western China. The attacks, which occurred in Kashgar Prefecture, echo the much larger ethnic riots in the region’s capital city, Urumqi in July 2009, in which 196 people were murdered in a single day. Like the Urumqi riots, the latest events saw Turkic Muslim Uyghurs indiscriminately killing Han Chinese. The precise cause of the riots isn’t yet publicly known, however broader political and economic factors contributing to the violence are now quite well understood.

In 1940, the Han Chinese population constituted 6 percent of Xinjiang’s total population (with Uyghurs making up over 80 percent). Today, the Han population constitutes roughly 50 percent. This population shift was initially due to socialist state projects bent on “developing the west”. Since the 1990s, following China’s economic liberalization, the Han population has increased dramatically: millions of Han migrants, freed from the socialist-era household registration system that pinned them to a single geographic location, now come to the region in droves, seeking better economic prospects.

Xinjiang, like many other regions in western China, is plagued by the stigma of being left behind, as eastern coastal provinces enjoy stratospheric growth. Hence, provincial governments, themselves competing against each other, often privilege economic growth over all else. Within Xinjiang this is manifest in an all-out drive to attract Chinese companies from the eastern provinces to invest in far-flung regions such as Xinjiang. In order to encourage investment, the government does not in any way oblige such companies to employ Uyghurs. These corporations often bring Han Chinese laborers with them or hire laborers already living in Xinjiang.

This makes sense if you are a Chinese company establishing a presence in far-flung regions of China: all employees speak the same language, eat the same food and live in the same dormitories. If forced to employ local Muslims, these companies face a much greater challenge in terms of catering to local cultural sensitivities, and they have to deal with potential inter-ethnic hostilities.

While such a lack of affirmative action may lead to greater Chinese investment in Xinjiang, this is counter-balanced by spectacular acts of inter-ethnic violence, which scare away much needed investment. For instance, following the Urumqi riots of 2009, property prices in the city plummeted and tourism, vital to the region’s economy, took a nosedive. Thus, even from the perspective of the Xinjiang regional government, the no-bars-held approach to outsider investment has itself disrupted economic growth.  It’s for this reason that if the government is serious about maintaining stability in the region it should consider obliging coastal Chinese companies to employ a certain percentage of local Uyghurs when setting up their businesses in Xinjiang.

Both Chinese and western media have a tendency to associate violence in Xinjiang with Muslim extremism. However, it only takes a few days in conversation with Uyghurs to discover that the main grievance (political repression aside) is that it’s incredibly difficult to find work. But this is only half the story. The full grievance goes something like this: “It is incredibly difficult to find work if you are a Uyghur; look at all these Han Chinese coming here from elsewhere, all prosperous, all making money!” Now, to the degree this is the case (and there is evidence to suggest it is), it isn’t difficult to see how such widespread perception of Han Chinese advantage leads to deep-seated hatred of their presence.

While much of the violence in the region in recent years may be cast in the language of religious extremism and ethno-separatism, the facts often suggest that the violence is frequently ignited by very practical grievances. For example, the Urumqi Riots were triggered by the belief that the police didn’t intervene to stop Chinese killing Uyghurs in an inter-ethnic dispute in a toy factory in Guangdong. I wouldn’t be surprised if it emerges that the causes of the recent violence in the Kashgar region can be traced back to an incident involving the perception of a Han Chinese comparative advantage.

By seriously committing themselves to providing the Uyghur population with better employment prospects, the government can kill two birds with one stone. First, such a move would serve to diminish the perception that new Han arrivals in Xinjiang quickly become gloriously wealthy while Uyghurs remain poor. Second, the more Uyghurs are engaged in gainful employment within their own territory, the more they have to lose when faced with the option of turning to violence. Some of the worst of the rioting carried out in Urumqi in 2009 was undertaken by young, disenfranchised Uyghurs with a great deal of pent up rage and few prospects of economic prosperity.

To be fair, particularly following the 2009 riots, the state has taken modest steps to rectify the situation. Wang Lequan, the widely disliked hardliner Communist Party boss, was promptly replaced with the younger, more conciliatory Zhang Chunxian. Since then, greater tax windfalls from oil production (Xinjiang possesses an estimated 30 percent of China’s reserves) have been allocated to local government and billions of renminbi have been earmarked for development projects in rural areas, including the building of schools, hospitals and the construction of earthquake-proof houses. But contrary to the arguments of many nationalists who defend the Chinese presence in Xinjiang by touting increases in the likes of life-expectancy and education, we shouldn’t confuse development with legitimacy. The government has spent the last 60 years developing Xingjian – and are politically none the better for it. Until such development is unwaveringly pressed into the service of producing an Uyghur populace capable of competing economically on par with Han, we can expect more of the kind of violence seen recently.

In comparison to the present trouble, Xinjiang has experienced far greater periods of violence during the Qing dynasty and the Republican period. Unlike now, however, these earlier bouts of unrest often occurred during periods of large-scale political turmoil when state presence was weak in the region. Today, the Chinese state is strong, national sentiment is robust and economic growth is unprecedented. Within this context, the intractable problems in regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang pose a serious challenge to this general bill of good health. Although the government frequently boasts of successful policy implementation in these regions, it’s clear that such policies have failed. It will take great courage on the part of officials to make a U-turn, but the future of Greater China may depend on it.

Ross Anthony recently completed a Ph.D at the University of Cambridge that focused on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of Western China and spent over a year conducting research in the region.

October 2, 2012 at 22:20

Quite right Chan – nice sidestep!

John Chan
March 12, 2012 at 00:57

Smearing China is not going to white wash the atrocities the White done to the natives in America and Australia.

John Chan
March 12, 2012 at 00:54

NGOs are organizations competing for funds to survive and thrive. In a capitalist world, NGOs need exposure to get funds, western media are mouthpiece of Westpac imperialism, they are out to destroy anyone in the way of their dominance of the world. For the moment China is their biggest target, therefore no anti-China news no publication; no publication, no exposure and no money; so NGOs are not interested in real injustice in the world. NOGs are only interested in reporting sensationalization in China.

I hope the above could answer the question about the seemly unfair and odd behaviour of the international NGOs. It is a cruel world indeed.

March 11, 2012 at 12:38

I agrre with author`s point but I want to add some. Thie main factors that causing the ethnic tension between Han and Uyghurs are several,the highly unemployment rate among Uyghurs is just on of them, to fix the problems there is much more to consider. Since 2003 the Chinese local government implemented a policy which is called”bilingual policy” for Uyghurs students in Xinjiang province, which made the Uyghur language less important then Chinese and finally it caused the difficulty for young Uyghur generation speaking fluently in Uyghur in their daily life, it is not hard to see that Uyghur language is facing a extincting problem in this Xinjiang UYGHURS autonomous region. Uyghurs have been finding themselves in hard time to practice their religion and learn their own history and culture, Which make also Uyghurs so discontent. They can`t publish books, articles, they are even not allowed to paint about Uyghur historical issues.
When a person is restricted form basic human rights for a long time, he rather want to be dead then livinng under that kind of brutal oppression. I couldn`t agrre more with Burket`s point”The consequences of China’s discriminatory treatment of Uyghurs was “the resistance of a sheep to the Butcher”.

Big Boy
March 10, 2012 at 18:38

Thank you Valbonne for alerting our attention to these terrible situations in Malaysia and the Philippines … if they are, as you argue, as dire as the situation in Xinjiang, then lets hope and pray that NGOs and the media take note of the mountains that these problems are.

John Chan
March 10, 2012 at 12:13

It seems Cambridge has fallen to become an off-site campus of Dick Cheney School of Imperialism, this article is a piece of papaganda material smearing China but it is disguised as an PhD research academic paper.

The author uses the sample template that smears China’s effort developing Africa, such as
1. Large amount of Chinese creates tension with local people.
2. Chinese companies do not employ locals.
3. Chinese corporations bring Chinese labourers.
4. Chinese do not care local cultural sensitivities and resulted in inter-ethnic hostilities.

The author then added the suppressive ways the Europeans operated in Africa to smear China in the article, by replacing XinJiang with Africa, and Uyghur with African.

Any improvement made in XinJiang by China, the author immediately tagged a negative modifier to smear China, such as “we shouldn’t confuse development with legitimacy.”

After reading all the westerns’ fabrication and smearing reports on Tibet and Africa, I would fail his PhD thesis for not having enough new idea. Accepting a thesis using stolen propaganda material from the neocon black information network proves that the quality of Cambridge has dropped drastically.

John Chan
March 10, 2012 at 11:17

You should not believe it; I am puzzled by the screen name Liang1a, it has multiple personalities, the comments posted by Liang1a can vary drastically, from Chinese nationalistic, to moderate, to anti-China.

March 10, 2012 at 01:08

You just argued that its not an issue here because it IS an issue in other parts of the world.

March 10, 2012 at 00:37

Regarding Uyghurs, both China (Han people) and Uyghurs have extreme viewpoints.
Most of Chinese people have this deterministic viewpoint: That “New Dominion” in the far west has been their land since Ancient times. Who writes the history and who determines which point in history is an ancient? It is the Powerful!. So, the truth is trampled and distorted by the powerful. Sometimes I wonder if those extreme Chinese people (or so-called patriotic people” do ever ask themselves the following questions?
1) If this land had been ours since the ancient times, why would there only 3% of us before 1949? and yet almost all of them were soldiers and their families, merchants and their families?
2) If Uyghurs had been our family members, why we would have detonated atomic bombs in their land?
3)Why I just listen to government propaganda, why I should not go and see Uyghur’s grievance by myself?

On the other hand, Uyghurs who had increasingly limited option to continue their culture and themselves as people consider all Han people as invadors,aggressors and robbers supported by their government (I think this is extreme as well, because some of the Chinese were forced to come to so-called “New Dominion”).
Do you think Billionaire Sun Guang Xin would make to the Forbes List if he were in Shan Dong?. Uyghurs know too well that How Those Sun Guang Xins, Wang Dong Xings or Zhang Kong Bings got rich in Uyghur land!
Talking about fair competition, or inability of Uyghurs to get a job in that racist society is a trash talk.

China is making a stragetic mistake for NOT allowing Uyghurs to determine their own future.
China’s current policy covertly or explicitly aims to “assimilate” Uyghurs who have a long and civilized, proud history.
Uyghur has this proverb: Even a sheep will resist when you try to slaughter him.
The consequences of China’s discriminatory treatment of Uyghurs was “the resistance of a sheep to the Butcher”.

March 9, 2012 at 21:21

I agree with most of the article. Having spent over a year researching the region provides substantial knowledge and understanding of the complexities of the situation. However, it sadly lacks one essential dimension, as pointed out previously. There is no accurate analysis of the current situation in East Turkestan/Xinjiang if one ignores the ongoing colonisation programs lead by communist regime. The settlement of Han Chinese into Xinjiang is used as a means of control and exploitation of the region. And this is rightly perceived and lived as a threat to the survival of Uyghur culture and identity, the ultimate goal being their full assimilation. The Uyghurs’ fears are those of the Tibetans who live unde similar aggressive repression. No economic growth will remain phenomenal, successful and prosperous as long as fundamental rights are daily and systematically violated. And all this in spite of China’s existing legal provisions and international commitments to protect human rights! Taking that U-turn is therefore not only necessary, but it is a condition to China’s further growth.

March 9, 2012 at 17:30


In the State of Malaysia, Sabah was a Christian State during the British time. The Christians made up about 65% of the population. Now, Malaysia Government has Muslimisation of Sabah last 50 years with Muslim Migrants from Indonesia and Philippines. Now, 65% of the people of Sabah is Muslim. Nobody make any big noises especially from Western NGOs. Why??

In Southern Philippines, the people are Muslim. Now, the majority are Christian. Where are the NGOs?

Why victimise China in Xinjiang?? The world is very unfair to minorities especially in developing countries. Do not make a mole hill into a mountain.

In Southern Thailand, the Muslims are second or third class citizens. No complain from NGOs.

Leonard R.
March 9, 2012 at 14:53

@R. Anthony:

“…While such a lack of affirmative action may lead to greater Chinese investment in Xinjiang, this is counter-balanced by spectacular acts of inter-ethnic violence…”

Local hiring is not ‘affirmative action’ Mr. Anthony. It is the opposite of affirmative action.
The beneficiaries of ‘affirmative action’ here are the Han Chinese imported from elsewhere.

Otherwise, I agree with your analysis. It’s about jobs & a future for the local people.
It’s not about religion. If they had a future, they would not be in revolt.

March 9, 2012 at 13:54

I can’t believe it. I agree with Liangia.

March 9, 2012 at 12:16

The Chinese government would rather keep them poor and flood the Uyghurs out. The policy now amounts to a steady “Ethic Replacement”

March 9, 2012 at 10:36

It’s clear enough that the PAP will need to invest huge volumes of money and and man power to stabilize both Tibet and Xinjiang in the future

These problems aint going away… This is the cost of Empire

March 9, 2012 at 10:25

I sincerely ask China to leave Xinjiang. Xinjiang people deserve the land of their own. We are most hatred nation on earth.

Yolvas Tiger
March 9, 2012 at 04:25

I agree with Mr. Anthony’s analysis of the situation in East Turkestan/Xinjiang. The problem in East Turkestan is not so-called “three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism” often used by the Chinese officials to justify the heavy-handed crackdown of Uyghur people.

The real problem is China’s colonial approach to deal with Uyghurs by transferring millions of Chinese into this historically Uyghur homeland, allowing Chinese to dominate this region with political power, economic privileges and possession of Uyghur lands by marginalizing the Uyghurs, leaving Uyghurs with no opportunities and a prospect for a better future under Chinese rule. Under such circumstances, the Uyghurs feel that their homeland is overrun by the invading Chinese, their resources robbed by Chinese state and companies, their lands are taken by Chinese immigrants, and their very livelihood is no in existence, in addition to China’s criminalization of Uyghur culture, identity, religion and values as well as heavy-handed security measures against them as a people.

The important thing is for Western and even Chinese scholars and policy-makers to recognize this point instead of focusing on so-called sensational terrorist threat loudly claimed by Chinese officials and media without providing any substantive evidence. Furthermore, as Mr. Anthony pointed out, China needs to have a U-turn in its policy in East Turkestan. Otherwise, there will simply be more unrest in the future as long as Uyghurs feel repressed and believe there is no future for them under Chinese rule.

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