Thousands of miles from any sea, on China’s western frontier, is a vast, sparsely populated region called Xinjiang. The majority of its inhabitants are Uighur Muslims, a Turkic people with more in common with their Kyrgyz and Kazakh neighbours, than with the Han Chinese who control them. This minority people are struggling to defend their culture and traditions, as China continues to dilute their population by effecting large-scale Han migration from the East.
In China’s “Great Western Development Drive”, a campaign launched in 2000, Xinjiang and its natural resources were identified as crucial to China’s energy hungry economy. With similar policies in Tibet, the Chinese government have set economic incentives to draw Han people to these frontier provinces, with the aim of “promoting stability” and encouraging development. Decades of forced migration have brought the Han population in Xinjiang from five per cent in the 1940s, to around 40 per cent today.
Surprisingly, when launching the project in early 2000, Chinese authorities drew comparisons between their strategies of development to that of the development of the American “wild west” in the early 1900s. They even commissioned a detailed study of the “take off of the American West in the early decades of the last century.” Today, China stands at the beginning of what many scholars predict will be the “Chinese century” and it is believed that sometime within the next 20 years, China will emerge as the world’s largest economy. But at what price?
The influx of Han migrants has fuelled Uighur discontent as the two communities compete over limited jobs and resources. Escalating tensions has led to the imposition of a significant military presence to suppress what Beijing identifies as a growing terrorist threat. So the local people live under constant surveillance, angered by the discrimination that they experience affecting their work, religious practice and freedom of movement.
In July 2009, this long-standing ethnic conflict was brought to international attention, as Uighur demonstrators gathered in the region’s capital of Urumqi. The street protests erupted into a mass riot, where Uighurs attacked Hans, who retaliated, followed by “The People’s Armed Police”, killing hundreds. In the proceeding weeks, countless Uighur men simply “disappeared”. The Chinese government took action, banning the internet for 10 months and limiting text messaging to prevent mass communication.
Today the relationship between the Uighur community and Han authorities remains tense. Known as the Muslim minority, though they are still the majority in Xinjiang, they live on under significant restrictions, limiting religious and cultural expression as well as social freedom. In a land officially known as “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region”, the word autonomy is rendered meaningless.
Chloe Dewe Mathews