The roots of the hatred between ethnic Han Chinese, China’s dominant group, and the mainly Muslim Uighurs of the western borderlands go deep. In 1949, the fledgling Communist government subsumed the independent Uighur state of the East Turkestan Republic, and ever since, the Uighurs have agitated for some degree of autonomy from Beijing.
Chinese dominion has never ceased to remind the Uighurs of their status. In 1993, the ashes of a loathed People’s Liberation Army general, Wang Zhen, were scattered from atop a sacred mountain in the Tien Shan range, which is the main source of the Uighurs’ water in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Since then, the Uighurs feel they have been forced to live on water tainted by the remains of their nemesis.
A terrorist attack earlier this month, killing 29 people in a train station in Kunming in the southwestern Yunnan Province, was blamed by Chinese officials on militant Uighurs. The radicalization of the Uighurs’ cause is an inevitable result of Beijing’s continued repression.
As Beijing has ramped up the pressure in recent years against the Uighurs, violent clashes between them and Chinese security forces have been on the rise. When a Uighur man drove a car through a crowd near Tiananmen Square in October, killing two pedestrians and the two other occupants of the car, Beijing’s heavy-handed tactics only worsened.
The government likes to flaunt how much money it has showered upon Xinjiang in the last decade. Beijing boasts that urban residents in the region saw their annual per capita income more than double from 2000 to 2009, while rural villagers, officials say, tripled their annual income in that period. New transportation infrastructure and natural gas pipelines, mostly financed by Han Chinese from the East, have continued apace. The changes have propelled Xinjiang into the 10th-fastest-growing region in the country.
But while the economic indicators have soared, the majority Uighurs have been left behind. The best jobs have gone mostly to the Han Chinese. Uighurs lucky enough to find jobs often end up doing manual labor — toiling in coal mines, cement plants and at construction sites. Unemployment among young Uighurs is widespread. On my nine visits to Xinjiang, I have often seen bands of working-age Uighur youths loitering on the streets, whether I was in a city or in the countryside.
Beijing’s economic push into Xinjiang comes with a demographic rush that many Uighurs find most overwhelming. As money from the east has been piped westward, so have people — more than 8 million of them. Han Chinese now make up some 40 percent of Xinjiang’s population, a sharp rise from just less than 7 percent half a century ago. The Han go West to make money and look after their own, explaining why Uighurs are not benefiting from the economic boom. So long as Xinjiang’s economy is run by the Han Chinese, Uighurs will be at a disadvantage — in language and personal networks.
In Urumqi, the regional capital, I saw a public square that had been turned into a restaurant featuring live dance performances. I would pass by to find only a handful of Uighur tour guides accompanying foreign visitors among the several hundred overwhelmingly Han patrons. The local Uighurs had to peek through a new iron fence to enjoy performances by their own people. The image of Uighurs peering through the bars at Han Chinese and foreigners was symbolic of how marginalized the Uighurs have become in their land under Han Chinese rule.
Before Xinjiang’s economy took off, conflicts between Uighurs and the Han were centered on historical disputes — abstract legal and moral concepts. Most regular Uighurs were not bothered in their day-to-day lives by the Chinese encroachment. But economic development has brought the conflict closer to home. Now, most Uighurs have to confront their lower status every day, as they see Han prospering all around them. There’s little wonder that discontent has become so widespread. The efforts of the central government to develop Xinjiang — some even say well-intentioned efforts — have backfired dramatically.
Still, the core conflict between Beijing and the Uighurs is political, not economic. That’s why the Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, of the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing, who has dedicated his life’s work to building bridges between Han Chinese and Uighurs, points to China’s Constitution as the way forward.
Mr. Tohti has long advocated not independence but genuine autonomy for Xinjiang, under Chinese rule, similar in spirit to what the Dalai Lama has been urging for Tibetans.
“The Constitution has laid out a sound framework for all ethnic groups to live and thrive together,” Mr. Tohti wrote on a website dedicated to Uighur issues. Under the Constitution “an ideal balance between national unity and minorities’ autonomy is possible.”
Unfortunately, seeing how the Dalai Lama has failed after nearly three decades of trying, many of Mr. Tohti’s fellow Uighurs have rejected his bridge-building as a quixotic quest. And with Mr. Tohti’s arrest this January, on charges of inciting separatism, the bridges are being burned — both by the oppressors and by the oppressed.
For years, Beijing has characterized Uighur protests as the work of a few pesky separatists, as if the Uighurs’ desire for self-rule was not a serious concern. But more than ever, Uighurs see separation from China as the solution. And many are looking beyond Chinese borders, toward militant Muslims overseas, for inspiration.
Backed into a corner by Beijing’s relentlessly antagonizing tactics, the Uighurs are likely to resort to more deadly terrorism. Xinjiang is poised to become China’s Chechnya.
Wang Lixiong, a Chinese novelist and researcher of minority issues, is co-author of Voices From Tibet: Selected Essays and Reportage. This article was translated by Violet S. Law from the Chinese.