China Power

The Xinjiang Perspective: Part II

Our second installment of reports from the ‘western frontier’ expose a part of China few understand, until now.

Graham Adams shares his  personal observations, experiences, and conversations from around Xinjiang. Please see the first part of this series here.

In an article on ethnic, religious, and political conflict in Xinjiang, Michael Dillion argues that following the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) purge of reformist leader Hu Yaobang in 1987, former Xinjiang military commander Wang Zhen was able to push for more hardline policies in ethnic minority regions. A supportive Chinese official in Xinjiang remarked that "You give them autonomy and they will only turn round and create an East Turkestan…. To stabilise Xinjiang we must send hard-liners like Wang." Yet, in the decades that followed, ethnic unrest and instability have continued to bedevil the region, despite massive amounts of government spending on political campaigns, economic development, and internal security.

Although Beijing publicly espouses firm convictions regarding official policies in Xinjiang,  it's difficult not to notice the clearly conflicted feelings of Uyghur government employees: their identity as civil servants and members of the State Security apparatus, for example, does not appear to supersede their identity as members of a persecuted ethnic group. On the one hand, a number of state employees revealed their desire to work for the government as a means of assisting and protecting other Uyghurs. On the other hand, they also revealed deep cynicism and frustration with the Chinese government. There are the Public Security Bureau workers who shed tears over Uyghurs arrested during the 2009 riots and speak secretly of their dreams of Xinjiang independence. There are also the state employees who describe bitterly government restrictions on religious practices, particularly during Ramadan. Muslims working for the government discussed their secret visits to mosques and their disgust at Chinese colleagues who pressured them not to fast. Then there was the state employee who revealed that on the third anniversary of the July 2009 riots, work units in Urumqi provided Chinese employees with batons to "protect" themselves in the event of any ethnic disturbances. No Uyghurs or other ethnic minorities received batons, not even longtime Chinese Communist Party members. This decision, argued the state employee, was a message to non-Chinese ethnic groups that the state not only does not trust them, but also sees them as a threat to social stability. 

One reason why many Uyghurs, including government employees, feel antagonistic toward the Chinese is that although a great deal of propaganda touts the importance of ethnic harmony and unity, none of it explicitly encourages Chinese to display cultural or religious sensitivity toward the local population. Uyghurs and ethnic minorities often complain that Chinese are at best woefully ignorant of their customs and at worst blatantly racist. Examples of uneducated and offensive behavior are unfortunately abundant. I witnessed a Chinese mother allowing her child to urinate on the grounds of a historical Uyghur tomb complex, right outside a mosque. I heard a Chinese realtor explain that it is difficult for outsiders to live in Uyghur neighborhoods, as locals are dirty and their bodies emit a strong odor. At a museum exhibit on various ethnic groups in Xinjiang, I saw a tour guide point out the "traditional green hats worn by Uyghurs in Turpan," only to subsequently joke that "you know what we Chinese say about wearing green hats." Everyone in the tour group laughed heartily at the slang reference to having an affair.

My point in raising such anecdotes is not to assert that all Chinese living in Xinjiang are ignorant or racist. Instead, I am simply stating that the government should find more creative and effective ways to address the sort of entrenched behavior that occurs far too frequently and causes deep resentment among locals. Perhaps political education in Xinjiang classrooms could focus less on imparting abstract concepts of "ethnic unity" and "loving the motherland" and more on building ethnic unity by directly addressing harmful cultural and religious stereotypes. Perhaps more institutions could incorporate sensitivity awareness lessons into their professional workshops or job training. Such simple suggestions might ultimately prove far more effective at gradually changing public behavior than large scale propaganda campaigns, especially in the absence of any momentum toward a coherent, nationwide ethnic minority civil rights movement.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Graham Adams specializes in the study of ethnic minority policy in the People's Republic of China. His name has been changed to protect his identity.