The recent outburst of violence in Xinjiang, where 35 people were killed, occurred near the upcoming fourth anniversary of the July 2009 riots which resulted in a death toll of 197 individuals, along with 1,721 injured. It begs the question: what has changed in the past four years? And, are we to expect further violence in the near future?
Occupying one-sixth of the total land mass of China, Xinjiang possesses some of the nation’s largest natural gas and oil reserves, and is strategically situated as a distributor of these resources to energy-hungry Central Asia, and surrounding Chinese provinces. Suffice to say, relations in Xinjiang between the nearly 8.4 million Uygurs and Han Chinese (the predominant ethnic group) have been tense over the years; and the government is keen to pacify any ethnic tensions, especially given its geo-economic position.
A notable departure from the response of the 2009 riots is that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Yu Zhengsheng (who heads the National People’s Congress) are taking an increasingly active leadership role. This could signify a new determination to ensure party control and oversight of the security apparatus when it comes to ethnic issues, with a reduced role for the Central Politics and Law Commission and its head, Meng Jianzhu. In this scenario, Meng answers to Yu; the equivalent was not the case with Zhou Yongkang, Meng’s predecessor, under the Hu Jintao administration.
Despite this apparent shift, the government’s response to repeated expressions of Uygur unrest continues to consist of oscillating soft and hard policies. The soft approach is exemplified by the activities of the Chinese Islamic Association, which mainly involves the building and upkeep of mosques. There are more than 20,000 mosques in Xinjiang, according to the State Council Information Office, which makes this endeavour relatively significant. The hard approach is represented by increasing the visible security presence, as well as “re-educating” and “reforming” religious leaders to ensure they do not advocate Islamic “fundamentalism” or “radicalism” as defined by the state, or forge connections between the nearly 21 million Muslims in China and elsewhere.
The present response to the recent violence mainly follows the hard approach. As further proof: there is currently a grid system being rolled out across Xinjiang to “manage social control”. In Urumqi, for instance, this system includes 40,000 riot-proof HD cameras, 600 policing boxes and 756 inspection routes patrolled 24 hours a day.
Behind the ethnic unrest
The state is keen to paint the recent violence as religious terrorism. On July 1, Chinese state media suggested that some individuals behind the violence participated in extremist and terrorist organisations linked with Syrian opposition forces. These claims have not been independently confirmed, and warrant scepticism. Notwithstanding, they fit a common state narrative that portrays ethno-religious violence as originating outside China, such as in Pakistan, Turkey and now Syria, and not home-grown. This narrative allows the state to side-step the main causes of ethnic tensions, which are pre-dominantly rooted in religious/cultural repression and increasing economic disparities.
State policies that limit religious practices are major contributing factors to Han-Uygur tensions. Public sector employees are forbidden to wear Islamic head scarves and coverings (including the doppa cap for males) or fast during Ramadan. Individuals under the age of 18 are not allowed to enter Islamic religious places such as mosques or pray in schools. The study of the Koran is permitted only in designated government schools, and imams cannot teach the Koran in private. Furthermore, Chinese authorities have slowly phased out use of the Uygur language in the majority of schools and universities, leaving Putonghua the main mode of instruction.
Perhaps the most culpable factor behind current ethnic tensions is socio-economic, such as segmented labour shares and unequal sectoral distribution in occupational categories. This is coupled with growing migration to Xinjiang (most notably, Hans to Urumqi) intensifying economic inequalities between Uygurs and Hans. Hans earn more than Uygurs in Xinjiang. They are over-represented in high-status and high-paying occupations (for example, professional and managerial jobs), in which more than 35 per cent of the Han working population works in comparison to 13 per cent of Uygurs.
Disproportionate access to the labour market creates and reinforces existing, spatial divisions, with wages determining residential location. Uygurs and Hans reside in relatively closed ethnic communities and seldom interact meaningfully with each other. This does not bode well for economic, social and political integration in the short- and long-term, and will only intensify perceived (or real) differences between Hans and Uygurs, thus reinforcing ethno-religious consciousness and tensions.
In the short term, the violence will be suppressed, as it has been in the past, with the use of hard policies. Soft policies will eventually be re-employed. In the long term, the current soft and hard policies do little to address the main reasons for a rise of ethno-religious consciousness among Uygurs. Left unattended, this will lead to increases in flash inter-ethnic violence as the one witnessed the past few days, and four years ago.
Reza Hasmath is a lecturer in Chinese politics at the University of Oxford in Britain