Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China's Ethnic Tension Isn't Limited to Tibet

April 6, 2008

Tension in Xinjiang Remains High Between Local Turkic Uighurs and Han

The Wall Street Journal
April 5, 2008; Page A5

This outpost of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps is home
to nearly 20,000 ethnic Han Chinese, transplanted from China's eastern
heartland to this arid border territory -- which is home to a large
Turkic Muslim population.

Such settlements, combined with large infrastructure investments and, at
times, heavy-handed measures to silence dissent, were supposed to cement
government authority in Xinjiang. But a new protest by Turkic Uighurs
and continued unrest in Tibetan areas illustrate the limitations of
Beijing's approach to dealing with minorities.

Roughly 2.3 million Han Chinese, China's dominant ethnic group, now live
in settlements set up by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps,
an outgrowth of the People's Liberation Army forces that occupied
Xinjiang in 1949. The Corps has built highways, railroads, power plants
and universities.

Coupled with this drive for economic advancement is a second function:
security. The Corps says its plays "an irreplaceable, special role" in
"cracking down" on separatists. Members can function as an armed militia
to work side-by-side with the army and police forces.

"The battle against ethnic separatism and invasion has never stopped,"
Zhao Guangyong, the Corps' vice secretary general, said in an interview.
The Corps plays a "very important role in promoting national unity."

The Corps' dual duties reflect the central government's general approach
toward ethnic-minority groups: Try to win them over with economic
growth, while stamping out opposition to Beijing. In Xinjiang, that has
meant restricting both religious freedoms and civil rights.

"It's a very volatile situation," says Nicholas Bequelin, a China
researcher for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
"People feel their cultural identity is being threatened."

As China this past week sought to contain unrest in Tibetan areas
following violent riots in Lhasa on March 14, it acknowledged for the
first time that a protest had also taken place in Xinjiang.

On March 23 demonstrators in a market in the southern Xinjiang city of
Hotan unfurled banners and handed out fliers urging their fellow Uighurs
(pronounced WEE-gers) to join an independence movement, the government
there says. Police moved quickly to silence what authorities described
in a statement issued Tuesday as "a small group" of Uighurs trying to
"trick the masses into an uprising."

Fu Chao, an official with the Hotan district administration, said the
Uighur protesters had been inspired by events in Tibet and that they
were calling for the creation of an independent Islamic state in Xinjiang.

Security in Xinjiang has been stepped up. Uighur activists say that as
soon as protests started in Tibet, China began detaining suspected
Uighur dissidents in an effort to prevent unrest from spreading to
Xinjiang, which shares a long border with Tibet.

Tensions had already been building. Chinese officials say they arrested
a Uighur woman last month who was part of a failed Muslim separatist
plot to hijack a Chinese jetliner. In February, Chinese police also
raided what they said was a meeting of Islamic terrorists and shot and
killed two men and arrested 15 others near Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi.

China's state-controlled Xinhua News Agency reported Friday that fresh
protests occured Thursday night in a Tibetan area of the southwestern
province of Sichuan. Xinhua said one government official was injured in
the unrest.

Xinjiang is strategically critical for China. It accounts for a sixth of
China's territory, and is an important oil-producing region and home to
China's nuclear-weapons test sites. It also has more than 5,600
kilometers (3,480 miles) of borders with eight neighboring states.

The cause of Uighur human rights has drawn far less international
attention than that of Tibetans. Tibet activists have gained a global
following thanks in part to backing by celebrities and the charisma of
the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhists' exiled spiritual leader. Another
factor, Uighur human-rights advocates say: Uighurs are predominantly
Muslim. Since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S., China
has sought to portray its battle against Uighur-rights campaigners as a
fight against Islamic terrorism.

Now, the Tibetan protests and the pending Beijing Olympics, which are
set to begin in August, are spurring Uighurs abroad to speak out -- and
to explicitly link their aspirations to those of Tibetans. Thursday,
hundreds of Uighur demonstrators gathered in Istanbul for an anti-China
protest during the Olympic torch relay passed through the city.

"Tibetans and Uighurs both want to live in peace and freedom," says
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Uyghur American Association, a
Washington-based advocacy group. "Both people should have the right to

Ms. Kadeer, who was jailed by China for more than five years and now
lives in exile in the U.S., says "power and prosperity" have been
reserved for Chinese settlers in Xinjiang and Tibet, "while Uighurs and
Tibetans have been pushed into poverty."

Xinjiang, which lies astride the ancient Silk Road trading corridor
between east and west, has a long and complicated history of shifting
peoples, rulers and religions. China's Qing dynasty annexed the area in
the 1700s. During turmoil in China in the first half of the twentieth
century, Uighurs and members of other ethnic groups twice declared an
independent republic, known as East Turkestan. Then in 1949, Chinese
Communist forces moved in.

Since then, many ethnic Han people have moved to Xinjiang seeking a
better life. Roughly 30% of the Han people of Xinjiang live in areas
administered by the Corps. In total, the Han population of Xinjiang grew
by more than 600,000 between 2000 and 2006, according to the government.

The Han Chinese of the Corps, many of them descendents of Chinese
soldiers ordered to settle the region, see themselves as heroic
pioneers, battling an unforgiving environment and often hostile natives
to bring civilization to their county's frontier. "It's just like the
American West," says Zhu Yun, the top political officer of Unit 150,
looking out past newly plowed fields as a cold wind blew in from the desert.

To many Uighurs, Han immigrants are viewed as alien interlopers taking
their land, competing for resources and threatening to overwhelm their
traditional culture.

Amid the sands of the Junggar Basin here, Unit 150's settlers have
carved out thousands of acres of irrigated farmlands, where they grow
cotton, grapes and wheat. They have built schools, a hospital and even a
television station.

Down the road, the Corps has built its biggest installation, a city of
650,000 people, called Shihezi. Many have prospered. On the Shihezi's
outskirts, Lu Liping and his wife, Zhao Yanli, toil on a 1.5-acre plot
of land that they enrich with soil carried from a nearby river bank.
This year, they are growing grapes, peanuts and cabbage.

Mr. Lu's father came to Xinjiang as a soldier in the People's Liberation
Army and stayed on as a rancher on a collective farm. As a boy, Mr. Lu
lived in a primitive earthen walled house. "You can see how I live now,"
he says, pointing to his yellow-painted home with tile floors.

Mr. Lu has done well enough to send his son to university in the
east-coast city of Tianjin. His daughter works in a beauty salon in the
provincial capital, Urumqi. His work, he says, "is important and good
for the country."

Much of the Corps' activity is large scale. It grows 50% of the cotton
and 70% of the tomato paste produced in the territory. It publishes 17
newspapers and runs radio and TV stations. It has about 1,400 commercial
enterprises, including construction and transportation business, and is
parent to 13 publicly traded companies. Annual output last year totaled
about $6.2 billion, the Corps says.

Mr. Zhao from the Corps says it is "a very important support for the
people Xinjiang" and that the Han Chinese who have migrated westward to
join the Corps have brought with them "advanced technology and modern
ideas" to Xinjiang.

Most Uighurs are happy that overall economic growth in Xinjiang has been
strong. But some say the Uighur community has received few direct
benefits from Corps work or from Han Chinese-run businesses.

"Uighurs are not of one mind about this," says Dru C. Gladney, a
professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., who studies Xinjiang.
Some urban Uighurs, especially those engaged in trading, have seen
significant benefits. Mr. Gladney also says many economic issues cut
across ethnic lines. He says, for example, that Uighurs and long-term
Han residents often share resentment toward new migrants.

Another source of friction is government restrictions on religious
practice. Uighurs who work for the government or attend government
schools are largely barred from attending services in mosques, Uighurs
and human-rights groups say. The government also prohibits Uighurs from
undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca except as part of
government-supervised groups.

Distrust continues between Uighurs and Han Chinese. One Uighur man
working in Shanghai, when asked how Uighurs feel about government
policy, said: "I can't tell you the truth. It would be illegal."

Write to Gordon Fairclough at
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank