Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Unrest in northwestern China questions ethnic policy

In China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, differing cultural values between Uighurs and Han Chinese highlight the need for Beijing to review its ethnic policy. Recently erupting violence at the end of June, killing 35 people, underlines the country’s struggle with its ethnically diverse border regions and also exposes the skewed living standards between Chinese living near the coast and those deeper in the mainland.

Chinese security forces demonstrate stop protests
in Urumqi, China's farwest Xinjiang region - Picture: AFP
Beijing is looking at new pragmatic approach for their border regions. An historic heavy-handed control has already singed relationships with ethnic minorities and a softer way of dealing with the inland people could be in development.

Xinjiang is located far inland near the Central Asian borderlands. The majority-Muslim northwestern region dealt with the recent riots just four days before the fourth anniversary of the 2009 clashes which killed almost 200 people. Several clashes around police stations over the past few weeks have heightened security measures.

It is unclear which ethnic minority the attackers represented, but state media have hinted at a possible connection with the Uighur exiles operating outside of China that Beijing calls “terrorists”. Those exiles are angry at a perceived cultural dilution as Beijing implements a massive migration of ethnic Han into the region. Fighting between the two groups is increasing and exacerbated by the region’s vast energy reserves.

Beijing is under pressure from the violence to find a way to reconcile its ethnic policy with its long-term goal of developing the mainland into a wealthy and modern society. China has struggled with Tibet in much the same way as Xinjiang due largely to the enormous distances separating the advanced coast from its disperse and ethnically divided interior which feels increasingly subjugated by China.

Much of the legitimacy of the Communist Party in the eyes of the Han Chinese population comes from an expectation of continued stability and territorial integrity. Unrest in Xinjiang has been quelled with a heavy security hand in the past along with a policy of encouraging the movement of Han Chinese to marginalise the Uighur influences and integrate minorities into mainstream Chinese society.

While this sounds good on the face, the policy pivots on whether the minorities actually want to be associated with Han lifestyle. The fact that riots are occurring more often since 2008 as Uighurs push back against Beijing’s social engineering will bother Chinese officials trained in the ideology of sinic cultural superiority. Clearly the cultural traditions of the ethnic minorities are still closely respected, and adoption of what is essentially a foreign culture is unattractive for many of them.

Calling Beijing’s ethnic policy in the mainland a total failure at this point might be premature. But building a “harmonious society” was always going be a difficult task for central planners. Forcing two or more starkly different ethnic groups together under an artificial edifice is clearly not working but there are some signs that Beijing is considering more conciliatory policies in its border regions.

Ethnic unrest in China is not homogenous and differs from one restive region to another. Taken together however, the clashes and public disobedience suggest China will continue to struggle with the complicated nature of stabilising the country. China can not very well adopt a Soviet strategy of forcibly removing whole populations. Instead Beijing will continue diluting the populations and tighten security while adopting a softer approach to grievances.

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