The deep roots of Uygurs' frustration

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am

Three months after the worst ethnic violence in Xinjiang for 12 years, tens of thousands of troops remain on duty in cities across the region that accounts for one-sixth of China's land area. The transport of security forces from different provinces was so large that it caused cancellations and delays of civil air flights.

On September 26, Beijing announced the first charges against those involved in ethnic riots that struck the regional capital Urumqi from July 5, killing 197 people. Twenty-one people were charged with murder, arson, robbery and damaging property. The city's Communist Party chief and the regional police chief were fired to take responsibility for the riots.

In late July, Beijing announced spending of 4 billion yuan (HK$4.5 billion) on poverty relief and economic development in the three districts of southern Xinjiang where most of the rioters came from. But nothing else has changed. The worst ethnic violence in 12 years - since up to 100 were killed in anti-government protests in Yining in February 1997 - has resulted in no change of policy or self-reflection. Beijing has left in place Wang Lequan , the party chief of the region since 1994, the longest-serving leader of any part of China.

'Through the past decades, our ethnic policies have proved to be correct and effective, and we must stick to them for a long time,' Yang Jing , minister of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, said on September 21.

Many Uygurs do not agree, saying that the violence reflected long-standing grievances over employment, education and religion that would cause similar protests again.

Hailaite Niyazi, one of two moderate Uygur intellectuals who present the case of their people to the Chinese public through their Putonghua websites, said two grievances lay behind the July violence.

'One is the movement of Uygurs to the east to work and the other the introduction of double-language education. Both were opposed by many Uygur officials, but anyone who dared to say 'no' was immediately dealt with. It is no laughing matter to send Uygur girls of 17 and 18 away to work,' he said.

It was the killing of two of these migrant workers, at a factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, on June 26 that was the spark for the July 5 protest.

'The second policy is double-language education,' Niyazi said. 'This will mean dismissal for tens of thousands of minority teachers whose Mandarin is not good enough, and has shaken people's faith in grass-roots education.'

For Ilham Tohti, formerly a professor of economics at the Minorities University in Beijing, the key issue is employment. In an interview with Radio Free Asia this year, he criticised the policy of encouraging Han Chinese to migrate to Xinjiang. 'When I was doing research for the government in the 1990s, I found that there were 1.5 million unemployed out of a population of 20 million in Xinjiang. But 1.3 million migrant workers went to Xinjiang in 2008. There are abundant employment opportunities in Xinjiang, but why not for Uygurs?'

On July 8, the authorities detained Tohti at his home in Beijing and released him on August 23 after intense lobbying on his behalf at home and abroad.

The government's most detailed response to these grievances came in the white paper issued on September 21, a passionate defence of its policies since the People's Liberation Army took over Xinjiang in 1949. Since then, it said, the central government had invested 386 billion yuan in Xinjiang. Last year, the income of a farmer reached 3,503 yuan (HK$3,980), 28 times the level of 1978, and that of an urban resident 11,432 yuan, up 35 times.

'Before 1949, Xinjiang did not have one metre of railway and no large-scale agriculture. Its industry was of a very small scale. Last year its GDP reached 420.3 billion yuan, an average annual increase of 8.3 per cent since 1955. It has 3,000 kilometres of railway and eight major expressways, with a total of 147,000 kilometres of roads. It is self-sufficient in grain, China's top producer of cotton and sugar beet, the top exporter of tomatoes, the biggest producer of gas and second-largest of oil.'

It said that last year the average rural resident had 22.8 square metres of living space, up from 10 in 1983, and that the average urban resident had 27.3 square metres, up from 12.

The white paper presented the movement of Uygur labour to cities in the east as an important step to fight unemployment, especially in rural areas, and raise incomes and skill levels. It started in the early 2000s, with fewer than 300,000 in 2002 and rising to 1.5 million last year. The white paper cited the county of Jiashi , which had since 2006 sent 19,000 workers to firms in the rest of China, earning nearly 200 million yuan and increasing the average income to more than 7,000 yuan a year. At the same time, it said, hundreds of thousands of migrants went to Xinjiang each year from other parts of China to work on the cotton crop.

While such migrant work brings in more money for Uygurs, it is a challenge to conservative Muslim families who want to keep their children, especially their daughters, close at hand and not expose them to an unfamiliar life thousands of kilometres away.

'Anger over unemployment was the biggest factor behind the July 5 riots,' said a report in August in Nanfeng Chuang, one of China's boldest weeklies. 'Minority families were large in the 1980s, with less strict birth control. Xinjiang does not have a private economy like Guangdong and Zhejiang . Uygurs are handicapped by poor language and scholastic standards. In the past, minority quotas on employment were strict but have become increasingly lax. Every minority family we interviewed complained of a shortage of jobs. There is a big gap in the unemployment level between the different races.'

Education and language are also points of friction. 'Of the 10 million minority people in Xinjiang, 70 per cent do not understand Chinese characters, which is disadvantageous to them and the region,' the white paper said. 'From 2004, the government introduced double-language education in minority schools. An increasing number of minorities want to learn Chinese; 24,000 minority students are attending secondary schools in 28 cities' in other parts of China.

This switch to Putonghua threatens the jobs of tens of thousands of older teachers whose Chinese is not good enough to use as a teaching medium. Putonghua is the dominant language of government, education and business; mastery of it is essential to a successful career.

The white paper also said different races were living closer to one another. In the southern areas of Kashgar, Hotan and Aksu , the Uygur proportion of the population had fallen from 84.6 per cent in 1944 to 71.5 per cent in 2007. In Yili , the Kazakh proportion of the population had fallen from 83.4 per cent in 1944 to 76.8 per cent in 2007.

Religion is another point of friction. The white paper said Xinjiang had 24,800 mosques, churches and temples, with 29,000 professional religious and two religious schools. Since the 1980s, more than 50,000 people had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and 47 people had gone to Egypt, Pakistan and other Muslim countries for higher study.

The state had printed more than a million copies of the Koran and last year spent 33 million yuan to repair an important mosque and cemetery.

But critics reply that official controls on Islam are too rigid - the state does not allow public officials and students to enter mosques and does not allow private activities in running religious schools, constructing religious buildings, printing religious material or accepting donations from abroad; everything must be approved and controlled by the state, which proclaims itself atheistic.

Intermarriage among the races is increasing but rare. In Urumqi, there were 218 such marriages in 1980, accounting for 2.1 per cent of the total, rising to 811, or 5.9 per cent, in 2003, the white paper said. Intermarriage between Han and Uygur is rare, mainly because of family opposition and the difference in religion.