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Xinjiang: China’s Misguided Policy Promotes Resurgence of Violent Uighur Separatism

Published On May 26, 2015 | Far East

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, often referred to as Xinjiang or East Turkestan depending on political allegiances, in northwest China has been one of the most volatile regions in Central Asia and one of the most vexing to the Chinese government, largely due to the area’s history, nationalism, and separatism. Even semantic differences separate the Chinese government from the predominant ethnic group in the area, the Uighurs, evidenced in the different terminology of East Turkestan and Xinjiang used to reference the same land area; while “Xinjiang” in Chinese means “gained territories,” the predominantly Muslim and Turkic-speaking Uighurs prefer to use the term East Turkestan to emphasize their common roots with other Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia.

In modern Xinjiang, conflict stems from the marginalization of the Uighurs at the hands of the Chinese government, and despite the deep historical roots of Uighur separatism, the conflict has been worsening in recent years. This has been corroborated by the fact that 700 people in the region were killed for political reasons, and the number of arrests of Uighurs increased by 95 percent in the past year (Yildirim). Despite the recent uptick in violence, the Chinese government continues to enact discriminatory policies toward the Uighurs and has fostered a pro-Chinese demographic shift in the region, and the Xinjiang separatists have become increasingly risky in their willingness to utilize violent tactics in other Chinese provinces. Both of these trends present a bleak future for the cessation of violence, and China’s inability to accommodate ethnic minorities and provide them with equivalent socioeconomic opportunities as the dominant Han may continue to fan the flames of separatism for disaffected Uighurs.

Although the Chinese government has claimed that Xinjiang had been an “inseparable part of the unitary multi-ethnic Chinese nation” since the Western Han Dynasty in the first century BCE, recent interactions between the two parties began in 1921, when China identified the Uighurs as integral to their policy of nation-building (Bhattacharji). After the Uighurs conducted violent revolts against the Chinese government in the early 1930s, they created the short-lived Islamic Republic of East Turkestan, which only existed in the year of 1933 and later from 1944 to 1949. Xinjiang was deemed a Chinese province for the final time in 1949 before it became an autonomous region, as it is still today, in 1955, and Xinjiang’s most recent experience with Chinese rule from 1949 onward can be considered the most violent. It is estimated that 26.3 million Uighurs were killed between 1949 and 1965 by the Chinese government, and the memories of these abuses persist in the violence today (Yildirim). Violence in the region has continued today, and the conflict reached its current iteration in 2009 after civil rights abuses on the part of the Chinese government in response to a mass protest in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

The structural factors of the conflict have their roots in the early history of the Xinjiang province and are inextricably intertwined with the creation of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) in 1954; the historical effects of this organization and resultant economic inequality and demographic shift set the backdrop for Uighur unrest. The XPCC was established “to build agricultural settlements in China’s western periphery,” but the strategic creation of the XPCC signaled a mechanism to “bind Xinjiang more closely to the rest of the PRC” by both populating and guarding the frontier region (Bhattacharji). In fact, the XPCC operates independent courts, police units, and prisons; the organization even has a militia of 120,000 men, a force with which it is able to quell frontier separatism. One Chinese politician even brashly proclaimed that “as long as Xinjiang has ethnic separatist forces making a clamour [sic] and extremist religious forces kicking up a row, the [XPCC] will exist forever” (“Circling”). Along with providing a militia binding the Xinjiang region to China, the XPCC served as a source of state-sponsored Han migration to the area in a form of cultural imperialism. This state-sponsored policy of migration has gradually eroded the preponderance of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang. While Uighurs composed 75 percent of the Xinjiang population in 1953, Uighurs made up only 46 percent of the population according to a 2010 census (“Chinese Forces”). This relative decline is counterbalanced by the explosion of Han immigrants to the region, from only 6.7 percent of the population in 1949 to 40 percent in 2008 (Bhattacharji). Because economic development initiatives in China have been centered on the Western periphery, especially Xinjiang due to the discovery of oil deposits, the demographic shift in Xinjiang has not only had cultural implications (discussed below), but it has also created unequal economic opportunities based predominantly on ethnicity.

While China has launched numerous economic development plans for its Western provinces in the past 15 years, this economic development, presumably intended to mollify separatist tendencies, may widen the socioeconomic gap between migrant Hans and native Xinjiang, as a 2012 Human Rights Watch report has claimed will occur. China continues to invest heavily in Xinjiang and thus provide economic incentives for migrant workers because native Uighurs are disqualified from holding such jobs due to discriminatory hiring practices. As late as 2006, the XPCC reserved over 95 percent of its white-collar civil servant positions for Han migrants, despite the fact that they comprised less than half of the population (Bhattacharji). Many hiring campaigns for the XPCC have even listed Han ethnicity as an occupational requirement, linking economic disenfranchisement of the Uighurs to their losing battle with surging Han migration (Grieboski). Although some quotas have been instituted in the public sector, Uighur workers earn 52 percent less than Han workers, regardless of education and work experience, and Uighurs’ quality of life has risen at a slower rate than that of Hans, despite generalized economic growth in Xinjiang (“China”). This divergence has been exacerbated by the discovery of oil deposits in the region, mainly due to the fact that most of the wealth extracted from these resources flows to Han migrants. Han Chinese comprise 88 percent of the XPCC, which facilitates mining projects, and Uighurs are restricted from many jobs in the China National Petroleum Corporation (Martina). Ultimately, the lack of access to high-skill service sector jobs for Uighurs, exacerbated by the influx of Han Chinese filling service sector jobs and crowding out natives for lower-skilled jobs, has fomented resentment of the Chinese state policies.

The proximate factor facilitating conflict is the shift in rhetoric toward Uighur nationalists that occurred as a result of China’s mirroring of the US’s Global War on Terror. Following the 9/11 attacks in the US, China linked its counterterrorism strategy to that of the Bush Administration’s Global War on Terror, and through this, it changed the way in which it referred to Uighur separatists; instead of the Chinese Communist Party referring to separatist Uighurs as “nationalists,” they were deemed “Pan-Turkist [sic] counter-revolutionaries,” associating their goals with international jihad instead of with ethnic motivations (Grieboski). In a similar manner, China has often attributed violence in Xinjiang and elsewhere to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terrorist organization that was listed on the US’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list until January 2012, as a scapegoat for the complexities of Uighur violence (Bhattacharji). The Global War on Terror, in this manner, has provided the rhetorical excuse for its overzealous counterterrorism policies that border on state-sponsored violence and religious discrimination.

Such state-sponsored violence and religious discrimination toward Uighurs serve as the triggers for conflict, and three particular instances illustrate the turning points in the strategies of separatists and the responses from the Chinese government. Similar to the discriminatory economic obstacles that Uighurs face and the new rhetoric of the Global War on Terror, the Chinese government has introduced an undertone of religious discrimination into its counterterror policy in Xinjiang, and such practices may further embolden nationalists. While the Chinese government has sought to stimulate economic growth in Xinjiang in order to raise all economic fortunes in a hope to ease ethnic tension, it has ignored the underlying social factors that lie at the root of the conflict, largely the inability of the state to address the grievances of its minority populations, whether these grievances be religious ones or economic ones. The overbearing Chinese secularism has exacerbated the economic disenfranchisement of Xinjiang’s Uighurs by distancing them from their religious and cultural and traditions, as well, in an effort to apply counterterrorism tactics.

To begin, the Chinese government censors certain versions of the Quran and regulates the content of imams’ sermons. Mosques, moreover, are regulated through heightened government surveillance, and the crime of expressing separatist sentiments is punishable by death under Chinese law. More specific to the repression of Islam and the Uighur identity in Xinjiang, Uighur weddings are restricted, as are funerals and religious pilgrimages, even the hajj. Uighur language is banned in schools, and Uighurs in government jobs are forced to eat during the day, even during Ramadan, as a sign of good health; a similarly discriminatory health argument has been made for the Chinese state banning Muslim veils on the account that they promote Vitamin D deficiencies. Lastly, even more robust counterterrorism policies have been instituted in Xinjiang such that Chinese officials during Ramadan are “legally permitted to enter and search [Uighur] homes to confirm that their occupants are not conducting illegal religious activities” (Grieboski). It is important to note that China’s seemingly strict secularism is unevenly enforced such that Buddhists and even Chinese-speaking Hui Muslims are subjected to far less religious discrimination than are Uighurs. China’s fear of radical Islam spreading from neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan into Xinjiang has led it to enact extremely harsh counterterror policies, many of which serve to create the problem of radicalized Uighurs which China initially sought to avoid (Grieboski).

The culmination of economic disenfranchisement, religious discrimination, and overzealous counterterrorism policy underlies the conflict, and these factors are manifested in the most recent resurgence of violence, epitomized by the 2009 Urumqi Riots and the Chinese security backlash. In late June 2009, two Uighur workers at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong were beaten to death by Han co-workers as a result of allegations of sexual assault of a Han woman. The ethnically-charged motivations behind these killings led thousands of Uighur protesters to the streets in Urumqi. The protest soon turned into bloody riots as Chinese security forces sought to quell the upheaval. By the time that the riots had subsided, “197 people were killed, more than 1600 were injured, and 718 people were detained;” the following year twenty five people, primarily Uighurs, were sentenced to death by the Chinese government for their roles in the Urumqi riots (Bhattacharji). The Urumqi riots represented China’s deadliest public crackdown since the infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square violence and marked the resurgence of conflict between the Uighurs and the central government as the international community was reminded just how harsh the Chinese government could be in stamping out dissent (Xu, Fletcher, & Bajoria).

Two other attacks after the Urumqi Riots exemplify the current and future direction of the conflict, as both the Tiananmen Square attack and the Kunming Station attacks exemplify the increasing willingness of both the Uighurs to use terror tactics outside of their province and the Chinese government to employ harsher crackdowns. In November 2013, Uighurs crashed a car in Tiananmen Square, killing five people. While the tactics were relatively novel for the Uighurs and the causalities were average, the location and symbolism of the attack were revolutionary. The Tiananmen Square attack exhibited a more headstrong Uighur separatist movement that was willing to inflict damage on the heart of the Chinese state in Beijing, and this was the first time that Uighurs had conducted violence outside their own province. As if to reiterate the lengths to which the Uighurs were to go to prove their newfound boldness, on March 1, 2014, eight Uighur militants killed 29 people and wounded 143 with long-bladed knives in a railway station in Kunming, Yunnan (Kingston). In both of these incidents, Uighur separatists ventured outside of their province to maintain visibility, and in response to both cases, the Chinese government did not amend its counterterrorism policy to address any of their stated grievances; in fact, the attacks were both attributed to pan-Islamic terrorism, and the government continued to increase surveillance and strip away religious freedoms and economic opportunities for Uighurs.

The most recent update of Chinese counterterrorism policy does not bode well for the future of the conflict, and the conflict is likely to continue until the socioeconomic and religious grievances of the Uighurs are substantively addressed. In light of recent attacks, residents of the northwest prefecture of Xinjiang were required to hand over their passports or have them invalidated. This policy represents a focus on the threat of Islamic terrorists entering Xinjiang and spreading jihadist ideology throughout the province in an attempt to mitigate terrorism by limiting the free movement of people, but this misdirected policy fails to address the underlying socioeconomic and religious marginalization of Uighurs. This policy also represents a strategic shift by the Chinese government to a decidedly counterinsurgent strategy by fortifying control of an area through restricting the mobility of the population; this strategic shift reiterates the view of Uighurs as outsiders because it provides legitimacy to the fact that the Chinese government is in a type of battle with the ethnic separatists (Wong). The continuation of misguided policies focused on counterinsurgency measure and broad-based economic development without regard for the relative distribution of socioeconomic capital represents the worst-case scenario. Contrastingly, the best-case scenario is one in which the Chinese government acknowledges the roots of Uighur violence and seeks to rectify the unequal treatment of the Xinjiang minority group, and this comes from the a fairer application of secular policies to Muslim Uighurs and higher representation of Uighurs in service sector and oil and energy occupations.


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Xu, Beina, Holly Fletcher, and Jayshree Bajoria. “The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).” Council on Foreign Relations. N.p., 4 Sept. 2014. Web. 24 May 2015.

Yildirim, Cihangir. “Uighurs Suffer from Continuous Chinese Oppression.” Daily Sabah. N.p., 26 Apr. 2015. Web. 22 May 2015.

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