Fiercely independent Uighurs have had few opportunities
A Uighur man prays in a mosque in China's western Xinjiang region in April. In recent years, Chinese authorities have restricted expressions of religion in Xinjiang, sparking widespread resentment. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)
Tune in to any news channel in China on the evening of Sept. 30 and you'd be forgiven for thinking China's minorities were living in utopia. There was President Xi Jinping locking hands with smiling ethnic representatives as two Muslim Uighur sisters gifted an embroidery set with the words: "striving for the Chinese dream with one heart."
'Uncle Xi' (Xi Dada), so it goes, dreamt up the Communist Party slogan — now ubiquitous in China — and minority Uighur hands dutifully sewed it. For the hundreds of millions watching at the start of China's National Day, the imagery would not have been lost. But the reality is different — violently so.
Sixty years since the Communist Party annexed the vast northwestern province of Xinjiang in central Asia, many of China's 12 million Uighurs, natives of the region, could not be less happy.
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Since Xi became president in March 2013, Western China's cycle of violence has escalated. At least 500 reportedly died in Xinjiang-related violence in 2014.
The attacks have slowed this year, but separatists have simply diversified terror tactics amid heightened Chinese security. The main targets in 2014 were markets and railway stations, prompting police to add more ID card checks and personnel. On Sept. 18, alleged separatists targeted a coal mine in a knife attack that left at least 50 dead in volatile Aksu Prefecture, near the remote border with Kyrgyzstan.
"We must fully recognize that Xinjiang faces a very serious situation in maintaining long-term social stability, and we must make a serious crackdown on violent terror activities the focal point of our struggle," Yu Zhengsheng, the fourth most senior member of the party, said in a speech made in Urumqi to mark 60 years of Communist rule.
Now there are signs that Uighur discontent is spilling outside of China. Thai police have been ordered to play down links to global terrorism following the Bangkok bomb attack that left 20 dead in August as the military government wants to protect the tourism industry.
But main suspect Adem Karadag, a Uighur, has confessed to the attack — according to Thailand's often opaque police corps. Motives remain unclear but in June, Thailand reversed its recent policy of sending Uighur asylum seekers to the relative safety of Turkey, returning a group of more than 100 back to China.
In Beijing, the response to increased internal terror attacks remains more soldiers, more police and more laws. The government is currently mulling a ban on "terrorist clothing" it says is modeled on laws in countries including France and Belgium. Unsurprisingly, Beijing looks to be going much further than Europe by banning burqas in all public areas, not just at state buildings like courts.
"We Uighur people don't like to see women wear such kinds of clothes … and by covering the eyes, the burqa represents some kind of backwardness," Shewket Imin, an official of the Xinjiang Region Communist Party, was quoted as saying by state news agency Xinhua.
The issue has turned into yet another flashpoint in Xinjiang. Beijing claims Uighurs never used to wear Islamic dress, and have recently started an "ultra-halal" campaign as a form of protest. For Uighurs, the invasion of Chinese pork and poorly managed halal — there is no central Chinese standard — has become intolerable. And so the cycle of mutual dislike and disrespect continues.
Han Chinese and Uighurs rarely agree on anything, not least the name of the region itself — exiled Uighurs and separatists call Xinjiang 'East Turkestan.' Historic claims vary wildly.
In justifying its recapture of Xinjiang, and its religious policies, China's official line is a palatable dose of history-lite with the bad excised. The Beijing version notes Uighurs turned Muslim around 1,000 years ago, some 4,000 years after the start of Chinese history. Forgotten are the many times Uighurs and other non-Han groups claimed independence — including as recently as 1944 — as Chinese dynasties waxed and waned.
Uighur accounts are even more outlandish. Turghun Almas, an ultranationalist who died under house arrest in 2001, wrote in his banned work, Uyghurlar, that Uighur civilization is 6,000 years old and the origin of civilized humanity.
No ethnic group left behind?
A white paper released by Beijing last week to mark 60 years of rule in Xinjiang isn't quite as fantastical, but it papers over the cracks. Using the classic Communist Party tactic of giving figures for the total number of mosques and even minority libraries versus 60 years ago, it masks the root causes of resentment.
"Xinjiang has become an information society," it noted proudly.
Yet Uighurs have been imprisoned in recent years for little more than trying to run language schools and websites in their own language.
Perhaps the biggest gripe has been the extent that Han Chinese have migrated to the region, set up industry and reaped the rewards.
The white paper proudly notes Xinjiang's GDP has increased "115-fold" since the Communists arrived, reaching 927.3 billion yuan (US$145.9 billion). But again, reality tells a different story. Urumqi, the provincial capital, along with the oil town of Karamay and Korla, contributes over 65 percent of Xinjiang's total industrial output. According to the latest census, Urumqi is now less than 13 percent Uighur, pushed out by a Han population that accounts for 75 percent.
In Karamay, the displacement is even higher — now 80 percent Han — and in Korla, only about 20 percent are Uighur. All major firms from or operating in Xinjiang are Han Chinese. None are Uighur.
A Western executive told ucanews.com last year that his global logistics firm had hired their first Uighur, one of thousands of Chinese staff over the years. Only 17 percent of Uighur university graduates secure a full-time job, according to government data, even though China's urban unemployment rate was just over 4 percent last year.
Occasionally, state media have noted many separatist attackers are unemployed young men, some teenagers. Work discrimination is severe and no doubt growing with every separatist attack.
"I have stressed many times that not a single ethnic group should be left behind in the process of comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society," Xi said during his television appearance.
Fiercely independent Uighurs have had no such opportunity. Under current policies, the resentment and violence will fester and escalate. No glossing over the reality is going to change that.
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