Ethnic Tension in China: the Case of the Uighers

By Ranran Zao, Juris Doctor Candidate (2014), Northwestern University School of Law

On the night of March 1, 2014, a group of black-clad attackers slashed indiscriminately for half an hour, as people queued to buy tickets at the train station of Kunming, the capital of a China’s southwestern province, Yunnan. They targeted victims randomly, and stabbed them with half-meter long bayonets in a professional and lethal manner, perhaps suggesting that they had been trained for the attack. As a result, 33 innocent commuters were killed and 141 were injured.Chinese security agents quickly identified eight suspects who carried out the assault as members of a Uighur separatist group, which, on multiple occasions, spokesmen of China authority referred to as a terrorist organization.

Who is Uighur? Uighurs are an ethnic minority group in China, the population of which approximates10 million, and constitutes 0.76% of the population of the country, and 46% of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an area bordering Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Most Uighurs follow a folk Islam, and they speak Uyghur, a language vastly different from Mandarin, the official language of China. Nowadays, the tension between Uighurs and Han Chinese, the ethnic majority of China, has escalated to ethnic violence, epitomized by the recent attack and the 2009 Urumqi riots, in which a total of 197 people died, with 1,721 others injured and many vehicles and buildings destroyed. A common feature of these riots is that they are carried out under the slogan of regaining genuine autonomy or even independence for Uighurs, which in a sense announces the failure of the Communist Government to instill a sense of national identity as Chinese among Uighur population. This failure is also evident by a survey conducted by a Han scholar: according to the responses to the survey, more than 90% of Uighur youths (under 18 years old) expressly refuse to identify themselves as Chinese.

National identity is often constructed based on a certain core values, such as religion, ethnicity, or a memory of common past. With the rapid development of new information technology and the industrial economy, however, the expectation of equality has also been instilled into the general public’s mind. This new foundation of national identity is not only gradually replacing the role of ethnicity and religion, but also asks a difficult question of countries, especially those with an authoritarian regime: how to live up to such an expectation of the public? Failure to answer this question properly isassociated with severe penalties, including but not limited to rampant separatism.

Unfortunately, what the Communist government has been done thus far to assimilate Uighurs into the Han-dominating society is the exact opposite of fostering the sense of equality. On one hand, the China authority is generous with granting a very wide range of political and legal privileges to ethnic minorities groups, including Uighurs: first, roughly 10% of the Constitution is dedicated to creating more autonomy power for the regions heavily populated by ethnic minorities; second, Yaobang Hu, a supreme leader of China in office from 1981 through 1987, created a national judicial principle the original text of which is “when dealing with criminals from ethnic minorities, we have to adhere to the principle of killing less and arresting less, and, as a general rule, we must be lenient in those matters”. This in effect makes the leniency of sentence dependent on the ethnicity of the criminal. Although most of Hu’s policies have subsequently been abolished, the said judicial principle somehow survives and is being applied to each and every criminal cases involving ethnic minority; last but not least, ethnic minority is not subject to some enforceable decrees, such as the notorious birth-control policy.

On the other hand, the central government has long been ignoring the Uighurs demand of equal economic opportunity: the region populated by Uighurs has the richest oil and natural gas reserves in the country. These gifts from god are normally sold by the regional government to the central government at what appears to be a discount in exchange for the latter’s investment on new transportation infrastructure and oil pipelines. The investment propels Xinjiang into the 10th– fastest- growing region in the country, but the majority Uighur population has been left behind. As a matter of fact, while the best jobs have gone to the Han immigrants, Uighurs lucky enough to find jobs often end up doing manual labor on account of the language barrier, and thus cannot benefit from the economic boom.

To summarize, the aforementioned privileges and economic disadvantage hinders the development of the Uighurs sense of belonging to the same community as the Han. On the contrary, due to the absence of equality, an independent national identity has been cultivated among Uighur population based on some ancient factors, such as subjective belief in common descent because of similarity of physical type. This encourages the Uighurs to agitate for higher level of autonomy. When relentlessly rejected by the Communist government, the Uighurs have resorted to terrorism, which only fuels this counterproductive and even deadly cycle.

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Posted in Analysis

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Northwestern students and faculty comment on current events, speaker presentations, and original research.

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