China’s Two Problems with the Uyghurs

By James MillwardMay 28, 2014

China’s Two Problems with the Uyghurs

Image: Lisa Ross

BEIJING HAS TWO PROBLEMS with the Uyghurs, the Turkic-speaking, Central Asian people from China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. One problem is terrorism — as was brought to the world’s attention by the horrific bombing and vehicular attack last week (22 May) in North Park Street (Gongyuan Bei Jie) market in Xinjiang’s capital city, Urumqi.

The other problem is civil rights, as demonstrated by another incident last week (20 May) that has received much less world notice. According to a news report confirmed by local officials, police in Alaqagha township in Aksu district, Xinjiang, shot into an unarmed crowd, striking five and killing at least two women. The women were demonstrating because their middle-school girls had been arrested, and some in the crowd had thrown stones and roughed up a school principal. Why were the girls detained? For violating dress code and wearing headscarves to school.

The Uyghurs’ historical homeland, Xinjiang (also known as Altishahr or Eastern Turkestan), is a resource-rich region of mountains and deserts, larger than Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California combined. It was conquered by the Qing empire in the 18th century and inherited by the Republic of China that succeeded the Qing in 1912, though it was only after 1949 under the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that Beijing was able to re-exert firm control over the region. Uyghurs are mostly Muslims, but their individual expression of this affinity takes varied forms: for some it is a secularized cultural identity; others practice in a traditional Sufi manner involving shrine pilgrimages, music, and chanting; and more recently some have gravitated to Islamist ideology that condemns Sufism and condones political violence. 

The North Park Street market killings follow recent Uyghur violence in train stations in Urumqi and Kunming (in Yunnan province, in China’s southwest), as well as a vehicular attack in Tiananmen Square in October 2013. Altogether these attacks have resulted in nearly 80 dead and over 200 injured. And they represent something new. For years there has been loose talk of potential Uyghur jihadis and links to al-Qaeda-type groups. After the Bush Administration rolled out its Global War on Terror following 9/11, China utilized this rubric to rebrand overnight those East Turkestan separatists it had once called “nationalists,” “counter-revolutionaries,” and “Pan-Turkists” with new terminology: they were now called “religious extremists” and “terrorists,” implying jihadi religious rather than ethno-national motivation. Ironically, though, even as Chinese and Western media and counterterrorism think tanks speculated about the rising Uyghur Islamic terrorist threat, from 1998-2008 the region remained quiet. From 2008, with the Beijing Olympics, there began to be sporadic incidents, mostly Uyghur clashes with and some attacks on police, military, or other representatives of the state. China tended to call almost every violent incident “terrorism,” including the bloody Urumqi riot of July 2009, which left nearly 200 Han and unknown numbers of Uyghur dead. To outside observers, this looked not like a terrorist attack, but more a race riot such as those in the United States in the 1960s, indicative not of foreign-organized or -inspired jihadism, but of deepening tensions between Uyghur and Han at home.

Now, however, by the spring of 2014, the tactics and trappings of what is globally recognized as terrorism — suicide attacks, strap-on bombs, random civilian targets in public venues, Islamist ideology, and, China argues, involvement of groups based abroad — have appeared in China. Chinese official media has expressed fury that while recent US government statements have condemned Uyghur-related violence, they have not called it “terrorism.” China can now rest assured on that point — in a May 22 statement, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney officially condemned the Urumqi market attack using the t-word. 

What of the other problem? As I myself observed in the 1990s, Uyghurs and long-term Han residents of Xinjiang tended to get along pretty well. But Xinjiang’s rapid development in recent years has brought many more Han to the region, and relations between native Uyghurs and these millions of newcomers have grown more and more strained. While standards of living for some Uyghurs have indeed risen in cities, there is a broad perception that Uyghurs enjoy less access to economic opportunities than Han. Many anecdotes, some backed up by documentary evidence, tell of active discrimination against Uyghurs in hiring not only by Han-run private enterprises but by state organs, specifically the massive Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (the Bingtuan), which operates many agricultural, industrial, and commercial enterprises and has listed “Han ethnicity” as a requirement in its job advertisements. Uyghur unemployment runs high despite the booming Xinjiang economy, which is flush with oil money and state investment. 

The propaganda drumroll about Uyghur terrorism, starting years ago when it was a minor threat, along with common ethnic stereotyping has spread fear and misunderstanding that poisons Han attitudes toward nine million of their fellow citizens. Recent terrorist attacks will of course intensify this fear. Across China, otherwise well-educated, even liberal Chinese often talk of Uyghurs with the sort of casual racism last heard publicly in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s about Blacks, say, or Jews. Affirmative action policies have left many Han feeling that Uyghurs who do go to university are undeserving of admission. Uyghurs traveling outside Xinjiang in other parts of China are often refused accommodation in hotels and hassled by local police. Uyghurs are subjected to security checks and house visits by police far more frequently than Han.

Uyghur advocacy groups outside of China often claim that the Chinese Communist Party has embarked upon an intentional campaign of cultural genocide against the Uyghurs. While some of these spokesmen are given to hyperbole, the record of recent policies that seem to comprise an assault on Uyghur culture is sobering: 

  • The old center of Kashgar, a warren of bazaars and neatly kept lanes discussed by Marco Polo, has in the last few years been razed, with only a few blocks retained as tourist attractions behind pay-gates. The former inhabitants of old Kashgar have been relocated by the tens of thousands to apartment projects in arid suburbs of the now sprawling city. Similar changes have overtaken other Xinjiang cities, and while bringing some infrastructural improvement, when combined with the influx of Han residents, the demolition, rebuilding, and relocation have completely changed the tenor of life for many Uyghurs. Authorities have even publicly burned books on traditional Uyghur architecture.

  • Following an announcement in 2002 by Xinjiang’s first party secretary that the Chinese language was needed to bring Uyghurs “in step with the 21st century,” what had been a dual-track education system, in Uyghur and Chinese, has been changed to Mandarin-only, without provision of sufficient numbers of qualified Mandarin-speaking teachers. In many rural areas, Uyghur teachers are required to teach Uyghur children in Chinese, a second language for both teacher and student. While fully cognizant of the advantages of knowing Chinese in the PRC, many Uyghurs are concerned that in the future few of their children will achieve high-level literacy in Uyghur (whose literary heritage extends back as long as English, with early texts older than Beowulf). 

  • The Chinese state has restricted Uyghur weddings, funerals, shrine pilgrimages, and going on hajj. Official state-owned workplaces have convened mandatory lunches to force Uyghur employees to eat during Ramadan, and campaigned against fasting on supposed health grounds (just as authorities argue that veils and scarves cause vitamin D deficiencies by blocking women’s skin from the desert sun). Children under 18 years old are officially forbidden from entering mosques. Such official secularism is unequally enforced across China: Buddhists (other than Tibetans) practice religion far more freely, and even other Muslim groups, such as the Chinese-speaking Hui, are subject to less scrutiny and fewer restrictions than Uyghurs.

  • Most recently, the official “Project Beauty” has targeted female veiling and wearing of beards by men, calling violators in for questioning and indoctrination. Facial hair on old men is a Uyghur and Central Asian tradition: the Qing empire governed Xinjiang with the help of aqsaqal — “white-beard” elders. Full veiling for some, usually older, women, has always been less common than in the Middle East but is not unknown in Xinjiang. Now the state worries that beards and veils are symbols of support for foreign-inspired Islamic militancy. While this might be true in some cases, local officials in Xinjiang have apparently extended the campaign to demonize even fashionable colored scarves and embroidered caps that Uyghurs have worn for the all of the more than six decades of PRC rule — and of course before that. Scarves and caps are not particularly Islamic, but rather symbols of Uyghur identity and signs of proper comportment. The doppa cap is one of the most ubiquitous and beloved Uyghur cultural artifacts, sold to tourists in the bazaars and gifted to visiting politicians — indeed, President Xi Jinping himself donned one for a ceremonial photograph during his visit to Xinjiang just this past April. Yet it was local enforcement of a ban on doppas and scarves that led to the arrest of the schoolgirls, the subsequent demonstration, and the shooting of unarmed protestors.

What is the relationship between the civil rights problem and the terrorism problem? Are they linked? Some say so. Uyghur rights groups, while deploring the attacks, say that Chinese oppressive policies have led to the outbreak of Uyghur violence.

The Chinese government opposes this view, arguing that the sources of religious extremism and terrorism are external and unrelated to its own policies. It blamed the recent Urumqi train station attack on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that the United States once listed as an international terrorist organization. (The United States has since delisted ETIM, which has seemingly dissolved and may have been replaced by the equally murky Turkestan Islamic Party.) State media so far say that the five perpetrators of the North Park Street attack organized the attack themselves, under the influence of foreign-inspired religious extremism and violent video and audio recordings.

It’s likely that the truth lies in between: Chinese policies and never-ending crackdowns, especially since the 2009 riots, have created a climate in which some Uyghurs are more likely to heed twisted, pseudo-religious ideologies that advocate killing innocents to send a political message. But even if we accept the Chinese position that religious extremism, leading to terrorism, is mainly an exogenous force, why then campaign domestically against features of Uyghur culture, nonreligious as well as religious, that have been part of Uyghur life and Xinjiang’s social landscape since long before the Taliban and al-Qaeda emerged elsewhere? Why then the repeated gratuitous insults against Uyghur culture — false claims that Uyghur is a primitive language, thoughtless dismantling of Uyghur-language education, suspicion and persecution of private Uyghur-language instruction, compulsion of government workers to eat during Ramadan, prohibition of doppa caps and scarves?

I suspect that the Chinese leadership and some Chinese scholars who advise them are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. They increasingly feel that this distinctiveness is itself a source of the problem. One, no doubt well-meaning, Han professor from Beijing’s top university recently wrote on Weibo that in addition to security crackdowns, solving the Xinjiang problem would require such “soft measures” as removing ethno-national designations from China’s official ID cards. What he was getting at was this: since the 1950s, China has managed its ethnic diversity with a centralized system, modeled on that of the Soviet Union, that gives legal status to 55 ethnic categories plus the Han and, in theory, furnishes these “nationalities” (minzu)with political representation and cultural support through educational, publishing, and arts institutions, and also sets aside certain territories as theoretically “autonomous” ethnic areas. These measures are laid out in successive versions of the Chinese constitution. The original motivations for this approach were admirable: to bolster groups like the Uyghurs against the political weight and cultural chauvinism of the vast Han majority. This is why Xinjiang is officially designated the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” though there has never been any real Uyghur autonomy behind the name.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the continuation of Uyghur and Tibetan unrest, however, Chinese leaders and political theorists have come to question this PRC approach to multiculturalism. Some argue that the nationality system itself has actually contributed to separatism by inhibiting assimilation of minorities within a broader Chinese identity. Though the nationality system is too deeply institutionalized to be easily removed, in the course of the discussion, as Uyghur (and Tibetan) cultural distinctiveness has itself become a source of concern, some have argued that official ethnic designations on ID cards should be removed, that territorial set-asides (though only nominal) must be undone, that Uyghurs need to speak Chinese, not the Uyghur language, and so on. Whether by Central Party design or zealous overreach on the part of local officials, official China’s disregard — for Uyghur architectural heritage, linguistic maintenance, religious practice, and Uyghur dress and grooming — reflects this growing assimilationist impulse.

Thus, even while the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem. Yet addressing the terrorism problem should not preclude but should rather lend urgency to addressing the civil rights problem. Uyghurs are likewise victims of this terrorism and its repercussions. 

Territorial expansion, migration, and globalization have created multicultural societies in China as in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. No nation’s record dealing with the multicultural condition is spotless — far from it. Chauvinism, discrimination, and interethnic and antistate violence have erupted everywhere. As China heightens security to protect its people against further terrorist attacks, it should look to other nations for both positive and negative examples and closely consider how to defend against terrorism in a manner that will prevent further alienating the great majority of Uyghurs who oppose violence. The lessons from last week — when authorities were busy arresting schoolgirls in headscarves and then shooting their mothers, while at the same time the bomb-makers prepared and executed their atrocity unhindered — should give Chinese leaders pause.


James A. Millward is Professor of Intersocietal History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of History, Georgetown University.

LARB Contributor

James A. Millward is Professor of Intersocietal History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of History, Georgetown University.  He received his bachelor's degree in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard in 1983, his MA in East Asian Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) in 1985, and his Ph.D. in history from Stanford in 1993.  He teaches a variety of classes on Chinese, Central Asian and world history at undergraduate and graduate levels.  His research interests focus on China and Central Eurasia including Mongolia, Tibet and especially Xinjiang, as well as the silk road more generally.  He is the author of Eurasian Crossroads:  A History of Xinjiang. (Columbia, 2007).  His most recent book is The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2013).  He is currently researching Eurasian cross-cultural musical exchanges.  He has served on the China and Inner Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), as well as on the Executive Board of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS).  He was president of CESS in 2010. 


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