Why the Uyghur boogeyman haunts China

Recent revelations about the existence of re-education camps for Muslim minorities in China highlights the strong-handed approach the Chinese government is taking against those it considers separatists, terrorists or undesirables. With thousands of Uyghur, Kyrgyz and Kazakh individuals detained across Xinjiang, the establishment of these anti-terrorism (now rebranded as Professional Education Schools) camps is latest chapter in Beijing’s strained relations with the peoples of its far west.

China's wild west

The territory of Xinjiang and its Uyghur people have emerged as one of the greatest domestic and international security concerns for the People's Republic. The emergence of a host of new Central Asian states following the dissolution of the USSR led China to shift its gaze westward. The combination of weak states, indeterminate borders, ethnic minorities and religious tension was one which greatly concerned Beijing.

Xinjiang is home to the Uyghurs, a minority numbering some ten million, scattered across China's far western expanse and bordering several Central Asian countries. The Uyghurs are a Turko-Islamic people who long lived on the periphery of Qing China, in an atmosphere of semi-independence as a tributary state to Beijing. Following the fall of imperial China in 1912, Xinjiang enjoyed de facto independence during the mid to late 1940s as the East Turkestan Republic, before being reincorporated into the People's Republic of China in 1949.

The Han dominated central government in Beijing has long viewed Xinjiang as a restive frontier, inhabited by troublesome minorities who refuse to assimilate and adopt the majoritarian norms promoted by the government. This tension has increased in recent decades for several reasons. Firstly, the Central Asian nations (each inhabited by Turkic peoples) which emerged on to the world stage after the collapse of the Soviet Union spurred similar separatist sentiments in Xinjiang.

Fear and loathing in Xinjiang

More recently, the rapid industrialization of China and corresponding need for resources has seen large scale Han migration (actively encouraged by Beijing) into Xinjiang, lured by construction, resource extraction and defence related projects. This demographic pressure combined with Beijing's emphasis on a Mandarin speaking, Han-dominated, unified national identity has led to the increasing marginalization of the Uyghurs. Unequal access to jobs, government services as well as prejudicial sentiments within the migrant Han population has also led to growing discontent and radicalization.

This has led to occasional spikes in violence, notably in 2009 during the July Urumqi riots when almost 200 people were killed, and in 2014 when at least 272 were killed in a series of knife attacks, suicide bombing, mass assaults, assassinations and other acts. Chief among these were a March 2014 knife attack in the southern city of Kunming which left twenty-nine dead and 143 injured. Two months later in May, Uyghur extremists detonated explosives in and drove off-road vehicles through a crowded market in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, killing thirty-nine and injuring more than ninety. In September, bomb blasts in Luntai County killed 50.

While recent years have been less chaotic than 2014, major incidents nevertheless occurred, primarily the killing of at least 50 individuals working at a mine by knife wielding men in 2015 and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan in 2016. Several other smaller attacks also occurred, and 2017 has also seen several killings.

China uyghur map

Even moderate Uyghur voices are falling victim of Beijing's crackdown, which has been paying extra attention to Xinjiang since the 2009 Urumqi uprising. In September 2014, the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court began the trial of Uyghur activist Ilham Tohti, who has been accused of separatism.

Tohti is a moderate Uyghur voice, who while advocating the Uyghur cause has repeatedly sought to mend Han-Uyghur relations by campaigning against ethnic intolerance and anti-Han sentiments within the Uyghur community. Tohti ran afoul of the central government after creating uyghurbiz in 2006, a Chinese language website fostering Han-Uyghur understanding. Tohti has repeatedly been subject to house arrest, and only four days after his trial began was sentenced to life in prison.

China's effort to 'sinify' the Uyghurs

Alongside a predictable security crackdown in the region, Beijing has increasingly been implementing policies which seek to undermine Uyghur identity, and which many critics characterize as efforts to “Sinify the uyghurs.” These efforts tout the promotion of secularism and community (read Han) values, by delegitimizing Uyghur values, often surrounding Islamic practices.

For instance, during his incarceration, Tohti went on a ten day hunger strike because the guards refused to give him halal food. Such actions are in line with Beijing's larger goal of stamping out the Muslim identities of Uyghurs. The government has banned young Uyghurs from growing beards or wearing Muslim garb. Similarly in April 2014, Shayar County introduced a program which offers rewards to people who informed the local government about individuals under the age of 18 who are suspected of growing a beard or attending a mosque.

Following the violence in 2014, President Xi Jinping also suggested that more Uyghurs should be moved to Han dominated areas for education and employment. Furthermore, Chinese officials in Xinjiang began offering various incentives to encourage Han-Uyghur intermarriage. Cherchen County in southern Xinjiang is offering 10,000 renminbi ($1600) a year for five years to Han who marry one of China's fifty-five minorities.

uyghur china map

The government is also offering inter-married couples priority consideration for housing and government jobs, as well as up to $3,200 a year in health benefits. Moreover, the government is also promising free K-12 education for children of mixed parentage, and tuition subsidies for technical school or university. Cherchen County director, Yasen Nasi’er, said that inter-ethnic marriages were “an important step in the harmonious integration and development of all ethnicities.” Yasen went on to characterize such marriages as positive energy contributing to the realization of the “Chinese Dream,” a concept popularized by President Xi Jinping.

No room for unsanctioned identities

These restriction have been put in place because the central government sees the expression of Uyghur identity as a threat. The position of Uyghurs as Turkic, Muslim, non-Mandarin speakers who agitate against the status quo undermines Beijing’s efforts to mould a unified modern Chinese identity. The government is pushing strongly to instil the image of 21st century China as Mandarin, Han and secular. These efforts are driven by the desire to prevent another Tibet situation in Xinjiang and other minority areas. Specifically, this means preventing the establishment of a robust non-Han identity which challenges the official discourse emanating from Beijing.

At a meeting discussing the 2014 Uyghur violence, Xi called on the government to "establish correct views about the motherland and the nation" among China's minorities. The greatest fear for the central government is an internationalization of the Uyghur cause. The proliferation of international sympathies for Tibetan independence haunt the Chinese leadership. Pro-Uyghur demonstrations in Turkey by Uyghurs in the country as well as the some 500,000 Uyghurs living in Central Asia keep the Chinese regime up at night, haunted by visions of cross-border insurgencies and international sympathy for the Uyghur cause.

Consequently, their chief priority is preventing the situation in Xinjiang from attracting foreign attention and creating unrest, either from the West, but more importantly from pan-Turkic sympathizes and the greater Muslim world. This fear was only amplified in March 2017 as ISIS called for attacks across China in response to Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur people: Uyghurs have also travelled conflict zones in the Middle East as jihadists, with the threat of returning fighters another cause for concern.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.