Uneven spread

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 2010, 12:00am

The timing of last week's bombing in Aksu, deep in Xinjiang , couldn't have been more unfortunate for Beijing. Just two days before a Uygur man detonated the explosive device amid a crowd of security guards that killed at least seven people, Xinjiang's government had announced its latest plans to improve the province's infrastructure. New airports, roads and railways are to be built, as Beijing seeks to establish the province as a key trading hub with the eight countries that Xinjiang borders.

For the central government, the bombing is an early response to its assertion that an economic boom in the region will end the decades of ethnic strife between the Han Chinese and the Uygurs, the Muslim, Turkic-speaking indigenous inhabitants. Since May, Beijing has promised that direct state investment will be doubled - 110 billion yuan (HK$126 billion) has been allocated for this year - and the controversial fuel tax reformed, so Xinjiang gets to keep more of the revenue from the oil and natural gas it produces. The admirable goal is to lift Xinjiang's per capita gross domestic product to the national average by 2015 and to eliminate poverty by 2020.

But by trying to spend its way out of trouble, Beijing has revealed that last July's riots in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, during which almost 200 people died and over 1,600 were injured, have not changed its mindset towards its most troublesome ethnic minorities. And while the Communist Party's largesse enables it to counter critics who claim Beijing sees resource-rich Xinjiang as merely a source of oil and minerals, all the evidence suggests that the new investment will only exacerbate tensions there.

Launching massive infrastructure projects and pumping in cash will no doubt lift overall living standards. But the plans for the province are simply a repeat of the policies being implemented in Tibet, whose capital, Lhasa , was convulsed by riots in April 2008. And just as there has been no discernible reduction in tension between Tibetans and Han Chinese since then, so it is unlikely that the fundamental divide between Uygurs and Han will be bridged by new highways and train lines.

Like the Tibetans, the stark reality for the Uygurs is that they are increasingly marginalised in their own homeland. Ongoing Han immigration since the 1950s has resulted in the Uygurs becoming a minority in Xinjiang - they make up just 46 per cent of the population now. Worse still, it has had the effect of ensuring that the local economy is now firmly in Han hands.

Job ads in the local newspapers make that explicit. Many ask for Putonghua speakers, which is code that no Uygur bother apply. Whether it is the state-owned enterprises that control the flourishing energy sector, the provincial government or private companies, Han employers are unwilling to hire Uygurs in anything other than token numbers.

At the same time, the Uygurs are further alienated by restrictions on their right to practise their religion and the government's insistence that their children go to Chinese schools where they cannot study their language or culture.

That discrimination is the real reason why Urumqi, like all of Xinjiang, remains such a tinderbox that armed soldiers are required to patrol it every day. Beijing likes to claim that Uygur unrest is prompted by the activities of overseas exiles, which is why internet access in the region was cut off for months after the 2009 riots, or due to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a shadowy terrorist organisation fighting for an independent Uygur state.

In fact, most Uygurs are resigned to Beijing's rule. But they can be forgiven for doubting that little of the money set aside for Xinjiang will reach them. Urumqi is already profiting from an increase in foreign trade - with some forecasting a rise of almost 400 per cent from US$6 billion in 2006 - and its booming energy sector. Yet, the city is still divided between the prosperous, Han-dominated centre and north, where property prices are soaring and new cars jam the roads, and the depressed Uygur neighbourhoods in the south.

There, the government's only answer to high unemployment is to pay jobless Uygurs 1,000 yuan a month to work as security guards.

Mainland rulers have a long history of insensitivity, and worse, towards China's ethnic minorities. There is no tradition of pluralism in China and, since ancient times, non-Han have always been regarded as barbarians at worst, or naive primitives at best. That's why Beijing likes its Uygurs and Tibetans performing for tourists, rather than questioning, as the Uygur academic Ilham Tohti does, why after 60 years of Communist Party rule they still have no real say in running their affairs.

As long as that continues and until they get an equal chance to share in the riches Beijing is promising, no amount of money will end the conflict in Xinjiang.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist