China’s Wild West: A Cautionary Tale of Ethnic Conflict and Development

China’s Wild West: A Cautionary Tale of Ethnic Conflict and Development


While the international media has extensively analyzed the demonstrations and street clashes in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt over the last several weeks, there has been very little coverage of the street violence happening in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (aka East Turkistan). The Xinjiang violence has not been as impressive in terms of numbers of protestors and certainly offers less photographic and video documentation to make its story compelling than these other, sexier street battles of this summer of discontent, but what is happening in China’s northwest may be no less significant to future geopolitics.

On the surface, the latest outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang do not appear remarkable. The first incident on June 27 involved “sixteen knife-wielding religious extremists” attacking a police station and a construction site near the northern city of Turpan. A second incident occurred on June 29 near the southern city of Hotan, and allegedly involved more than 100 motorcyclists – also armed with knives – storming a police station.

While there is still little information about casualties in Hotan, official reports claim that the violence near Turpan resulted in 35 deaths. This is the highest death toll of any instance of civil unrest in Xinjiang in the last four years, but on its own this number of casualties in the most populous country on Earth is only marginally newsworthy.

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However, the heavy-handed state response to this recent violence suggests that it is much more significant than is readily apparent. It has triggered a mass mobilization of military and security forces in the region and a variety of new restrictions on ethnic Uyghurs.

Part of the significance of these recent acts of violence is that they reflect a continuation and potential expansion of ongoing ethnic tension in the region that China has struggled to mitigate. Similar acts of violence have occurred periodically in Xinjiang over the last two decades and increasingly so in the four years since the events of July 5, 2009, when brutal ethnic violence engulfed the region’s capital city of Urumqi.

The 2009 events left close to 200 dead and resulted in extensive property damage, hundreds of arrests and missing persons. It also led to the discontinuation of Internet service to the region for an entire year and increased surveillance and restrictions on ethnic Uyghurs. In this context, the recent violence suggests that the People’s Republic has serious problems in a region where it intends to base much of its future economic growth.

Beijing portrays this ongoing violence as a widespread terrorist threat fueled by external support from Islamic jihadists. In fact, the state claims Uyghur terrorists who have trained and fought in Syria’s civil war carried out the most recent violence near Turpan and Hotan. The level of sophistication in the attacks we have seen in Xinjiang does not, however, resemble the work of groups with international jihadist support. Others view the violence happening in Xinjiang as a local response to human rights abuses, which are undoubtedly rampant in the region.

However, we suggest that the root cause of Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang is not terrorism, separatism, or even human rights abuses. Rather, it is an outgrowth of the state’s development efforts in the region, which are interrelated with China’s economic engagement of Central and South Asia. In this regard, the violence reflects a substantial and volatile local challenge to the almost unstoppable plans of the Chinese state to project its power westward.

While these plans are already quickly transforming the geopolitical map of Central and South Asia, the recent street violence in Xinjiang and China’s strong response to it may hint at the nature of these changes and whether they are more likely to bring stability or conflict to the region.

Over the last decade, China has sought to rapidly develop Xinjiang, leading to the establishment of modern transportation networks, mass urbanization, and a steady flow of commercial investment. While the People’s Republic claims that this development is intended to ease ethnic tension through the establishment of economic opportunities, it is actually exacerbating it.

Development is raising the region’s economic potential, but it is also further marginalizing the Uyghurs in their perceived homeland. State projects have destroyed Uyghur communities, displaced thousands, and have brought an influx of Han migrants to the region. They have also been accompanied by aggressive attempts to assimilate Uyghurs into Han culture through targeted educational and work programs that incentivize the learning of Mandarin and integration into the Chinese state’s vision of modernization.

While some are now claiming that the latest violence in the region could lead to a shift in state policy that would be more conciliatory towards Uyghurs, this may be overly optimistic given that the local people have little to do with the vision that the Chinese state has for Xinjiang. Unlike Tibet, which has more symbolic than strategic value to the People’s Republic, Xinjiang is critical to China’s future intentions in Central and South Asia.

Without strong control over Xinjiang, China’s only overland routes westward are through India and Russia, neither of which are easy countries for the Chinese to engage. With a developed commercial and financial infrastructure in Xinjiang fully under the control of the state, however, China will be able to establish multiple critical trade routes to the west and south through partnerships with neighboring countries over which it has significant leverage.

Already, China has established a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan and an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan through Xinjiang, and is discussing the potential for a pipeline mega-project through Pakistan that would run from the Persian Gulf to Xinjiang as well as pipelines from Afghanistan to the region. At the same time, the Chinese state is negotiating deals with its Central Asian neighbors and Pakistan to establish a variety of rail links between Xinjiang and points west and south.

This emerging transport network for hydrocarbons and other goods is also being built around two urban hubs in Xinjiang, Urumqi and Kashgar, where the state is creating Special Economic Trading Areas roughly modeled on the Special Economic Zones of southern China, which initially fueled the country’s economic rise.

In other words, China has very big plans for Xinjiang as a critical region from which to project its economic power westward, and these plans could completely change the geopolitical dimensions of power in both Central and South Asia for the foreseeable future. If realized, China’s development of Xinjiang as a commercial, financial and perhaps industrial center and its efforts to turn Central Asia and Pakistan into transit hubs serving China via Xinjiang have the potential to make the People’s Republic the indisputably dominant geopolitical force throughout the region for the coming decades, much in the way that it has already established itself in Southeast Asia over the last ten years.

As far as the Chinese state is concerned, the Uyghurs are welcome to join in these plans, but only through terms determined by the Chinese government. To the extent that Uyghurs have not bought into these grand development plans, they are quickly becoming an obstacle to their realization. Moreover, while Beijing thus far has cautiously welcomed the Central Asian states and Pakistan as equal partners in its plans, China already has substantial leverage over these countries as their largest trading partner.

One can expect this leverage to only grow in the future, enabling China to dictate its own terms economically and politically in the region in the same way it now does in Southeast Asia. In this context, China’s projection of its economic power westward via Xinjiang has the potential to make enemies of a wider swath of local Muslims than just its own ethnic Uyghur citizens.

For the United States, China’s apparent willingness to expand its economic footprint in Central and South Asia is often viewed as a positive development, based on the assumption that China could carry more of the weight in the region once the American military has pulled out of Afghanistan. But the recent violence in Xinjiang should be a cautionary tale for those holding such views.

Unless China dramatically alters its top-down, mega-project approach to development, violence will continue in Xinjiang as a form of local resistance to being force-fed grand development plans without any consultation. Furthermore, China may experience similar resistance as it extends its economic power into Central Asia and Pakistan. In this sense, the seemingly unremarkable acts of violence in Xinjiang this month may be a sign of things to come in the future, not only for Xinjiang, but for Central and South Asia more broadly as China becomes the de facto dominant force in a fragile region where it has already proven incapable of understanding the needs and desires of local Muslims. This could have dramatic ramifications for stability both in China and in the states it borders to the west.

Dr. Sean R. Roberts is Associate Professor and Director of International Development Studies at The George Washington University and has been working in both academic and applied capacities in Central Asia since 1989.

Kilic Bugra Kanat is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie, and a research scholar at the SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C.

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