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Unlocking China's Xinjiang puzzle: Uyghur problems beyond terrorism and Islamic extremism.🔷

While rising populist movements in Europe and the United States play the “Muslim threat” to their audience, China faces its own self-inflicted “Muslim problem.”


The Uyghurs in Xinjiang is one of Beijing’s biggest headaches. Since the birth of the People’s Republic, the Chinese government practices the Minority Policy under the slogans of equality and democracy. However, the Uyghurs today lives in a similar situation to the African-Americans in the pre-Civil Right in the South and inner cities. The Chinese Communist’s ethnic policy is shaped by the KMT policies and the experiences from the Soviet Union. Since the KMT policy and the Soviet policy on minority groups ended in bitterness, it is expected that the CCP policy is not far away from that. The Xinjiang problem exemplifies a series of policy failures. The current Minority Policy suppresses Uyghurs’ political and religious demands while it remains benevolent on Uyghurs who conduct a crime. This paradoxical policy inevitably alienates the Uyghurs while it encourages crime. Another ironic policy is adding points for Uyghurs student on the National College Entrance Examination while only a fraction of Uyghurs actually graduates from high school. These policies not only fail to satisfy Uyghurs but also stimulate the anti-Uyghur sentiment among Han Chinese. The Chinese government must face reality, acknowledge the discrimination on Uyghurs, and fix its broken policy.

Uyghurs are Turkish Muslims who live in Central Asia, mostly in Xinjiang. Uyghurs first appeared in history during Tang Dynasty. They were the Lord of vast grassland of Mongolia. Around the mid-9th century, the internal power struggles between tribes and conflicts with Tang forced the Uyghurs to move westward to today’s Xinjiang. The Xinjiang region first became part of China in Han Dynasty, more than 2,000 years ago. Since then, with the rise and the fall of Chinese dynasties, Xinjiang was periodically ruled by Chinese or Nomads. During the Qing Dynasty, the Qianlong Emperor finally conquered this entire region and coined the name of “Xinjiang,” which means “New Territory.” Since the late Qing Dynasty, the Russian also got involved with the North-western frontier of China. In the 1940s, to weakened China, the Soviet Union supported the East Turkestan Republic, an Uyghur independence movement in Northern Xinjiang. The East Turkestan Republic became the starting point of the Uyghur independence movement, and it still has significant influence today.


Painted ceramic figurine from the Tang dynasty (618-907),
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum. (Flick / Dan Lundberg)


The CCP enforce two policies in Xinjiang: Suppression and Secularization. The PLA general and the first “military governor” of Xinjiang, Wang Zhen, first introduced military repression. The use of force is common when facing not only terrorist attacks and violent riots but also peaceful demonstrations. Police launch massive arrest after riots, attacks and protests against “criminal suspects.” The secularization is another policy practice by the Chinese government. The schools in Xinjiang deny the right for Muslim students to participate in Ramadan by forcing them to eat food and drink water before they enter school. The party cadres, government officials and school teachers cannot participate in the Ramadan. School also prohibits girls to wear the hijab on campus. Furthermore, the government prohibits children under 18 years old from entering any Mosque at all. When teenagers first start to establish a worldview and consider some serious religious questions, getting the right guidance and receiving proper answers from the Mosque is critical for their growth and development. A lot of young Uyghurs are exposed to and attracted by the pamphlets and other propaganda from the extremist and fundamentalist sects because they don’t receive guidance from the Mosque. They become the reserved force for the terrorist attack.

Besides the suppression and secularization, the Uyghurs also face institutional discriminations. Before the government loosened the policy in 2015, the Uyghurs couldn’t travel abroad easily. They couldn’t hold a passport; the local police station kept their passports. When Uyghurs go through airport and train stations in Xinjiang, they often face harsher security checks than Han Chinese. The Uyghurs also face glass ceiling and employment discrimination in their homeland Xinjiang. Han Chinese get most public-sector jobs in Xinjiang. Around 8.6 percent of the Uyghur population works in the public sector, the lowest among ethnic groups in Xinjiang. The biggest employer of Xinjiang, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Crops, employs 11.8 percent of the population in Xinjiang and 86 percent of its employees are Han Chinese. According to local Uyghurs, employees in airports and railway stations are exclusive Han Chinese. Even if some fortunate and well-connected Uyghurs may find great job opportunities, they will face glass ceilings that deprive their promotion opportunity. Only 0.86 percent of Uyghurs population get promoted to public officials’ jobs. The Uyghurs also lack education opportunities; there are numerous Uyghur students drop out of school because of poverty. The average years Uyghurs spend in school is 6.79 years; only 35 percent of Uyghurs population completes middle school. These teenagers can’t find good jobs and meander on the street and eventually get exposed to drugs, crimes and Islamic extremism. The government abolished elementary and middle school tuition fees in China back in 2006; however, it was not until spring 2017 that the government abolished tuition fees in Xinjiang. Tuition fees were a huge burden for poor Uyghur peasants who live in poverty.


Farmers in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. (Flick / Todenhoff)

Although Xinjiang is an “Autonomous Region for the Uyghurs,” the Han Chinese controls the political and economic power and enjoys most of the economic growth. The most dominant position in Xinjiang, the Party Secretariat of the Autonomous Region, has always been reserved to Chinese, except for five years in the 1970s. The more nominal Chairman of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region has always been an Uyghur, for ticket-balancing. However, among the top 10 officials in the Government of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, only three are Uyghurs, and rest are Chinese. Seven of the 10 Party Committee members in Xinjiang are Chinese; only three are Uyghurs. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Crops controls Xinjiang’s economy; its gross product occupies more than 20 percent of the entire gross domestic product of Xinjiang. Xinjiang enjoys a fast-booming economy and has the highest GDP growth rate in Northwest provinces. The economic growth transformed cities in Xinjiang, such as the capital city Urumqi, into modern metropolitans. Karamay, a city famous for its abundant natural resources, was once ranked as the fastest growing city and the city with the highest standard of living. However, the fast-growing standard of living in the city barely benefits the Uyghurs, as more than 80 percent of them live in the rural area. In Karamay, 80 percent of the population is Chinese. Research shows that the regions with high Uyghur populations usually have a lower GDP per capita. The peasants in Xinjiang lag behind their counterparts in China, and the gap is widening every year.


Kashgar Sunday Market. (Flick / Gusjer)

The economic growth is the core of the Xinjiang policy. The fundamental policy of the Communist Party is to exchange economic growth for loyalty and gratitude toward the Party and its ideology. The government believes that the increasing standard of living will calm the opposition and build appreciation and loyalty among the Uyghurs. However, this policy went bankruptcy because it has not only failed to deliver the promised economic growth to Uyghurs, but it has also overestimated the impact of communism and economic growth. The Central Nationality University hires Uyghur professors. They live in Beijing and enjoys the middle-class life their Uyghur counterparts live in the rural area of Southern Xinjiang could never imagine. They have to travel to the rural area of Xinjiang every year during the summer vacation and educate the poor Uyghurs about the greatness of the Party’s Minority Policy. However, in private, they don’t believe anything they propagate and criticize Party’s policy. They are the beneficiaries of the current system, but their comfortable lifestyle doesn’t prevent them from losing faith in the current policies and the Party.

The Uyghur problem has reached a dead end because the Chinese government has imposed different policies time after time but still failed to solve the problem completely. The Chinese government must think outside of the established frame, identify and acknowledge the deep-rooted problem, and find a solution that will benefit the Uyghurs and the Hans. Three stages for a solution: 1. recognize the institutional discrimination against the Uyghurs; 2. respect the Islamic religion and culture of Uyghurs; and 3. grant the Uyghurs representation and civil liberty.

By recognizing the problem, the government can make policies that will end discrimination policies and reach parity. Uyghurs are Chinese citizens; thus, they must enjoy the same rights the Han Chinese enjoy. Many Uyghurs expressed that they only wished to expand the same level of limited rights and freedoms in China to Xinjiang; this would be a significant progress for the Uyghurs. In the United States, the social awakening on the maleficence of the Jim Crow Law led to the success of the Civil Right Movement. The government acknowledged that the Segregation against the African-American population was a political crime, and this acknowledgement led to the Brown vs Board decision in 1954 and the Civil Right Act in 1964. The Chinese government tends to cover up the problems, suppress the different claims, and pretends nothing happens. However, finding the solution starts with facing the problem. Ending the discrimination of Uyghurs will only start with acknowledging their discrimination.

The Chinese government should also respect the unique religion and culture of the Uyghurs. Islam in China is under the leadership of the Islamic Association of China, a subset of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. This Administration is part of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party. As the state media underscore consistently, the Communist Party members must not practice any religion. In other words, a group of atheists supervises the Islamic affairs and, in fact, all religious affairs in China. The Communist Party lacks understanding in religious issues, which explains the poor policy design. The policy of banning Uyghurs under 18 years old from entering Mosques invite trouble and extremism. By respecting Uyghur’s religion, the Chinese government would dissociate the Islamic Association from the Party and grant Muslims more freedom on their own religious affairs.


Traditional old Uyghur women in Kashgar. (Flick / ChiralJon)

The last step is not new: Owen Lattimore already proposed this concept back in the 1940s when Jiang Jieshi asked for a solution to the ethnic frontier problem. Lattimore believed that only democracy and representation for the minorities could solve the ethnic conflict. An individual Uyghur encounters institutional and personal discrimination, underrepresentation and limitation on their civil rights and liberties in their daily life. Uyghurs have to get together to represent themselves and make their voice heard. Some Uyghurs believe that only independence could bring them representation, civil rights and liberties, and equal treatment. Therefore, if the Chinese government grants these fundamental human rights to Uyghurs, the Islamic extremism and Uyghur independent movement will lose their root. It is precisely the regressive “Minority Policy” in China that provides the earth for the independence movement to flourish. Both Communist Eastern Europe and the United States faced horrendous racial challenges in the 20th century. The U.S. Constitution protected basic rights and representation of African-Americans, when the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia oppressed the necessary representation and rights of minority groups. Once the authority lost the power to suppress, both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia collapsed by ethnic conflicts. In the United States, the African-American community rarely sought independence, and gradually moved the United States away from racism and discrimination through the Civil Rights Movement, through Judicial victories and through passing legislation. Of course, racism still plagues the United States, and the new wave of populism, white-supremacy and Neo-Nazism seriously threaten the progress toward equality. However, the United States is free from ethnic cleansing and humanitarian disasters unlike what happened in the former Soviet Bloc.

“There is no cultural problem; there is no religious problem; there is no political problem. There are only the problems of separatism, extremism and terrorism.” The Chinese government explains the current challenges in Xinjiang with this quote.

The reality is the exact opposite; the Xinjiang Problem is at the same time a cultural problem, a religious problem and a political problem. It is now up to the Chinese government to choose between the Soviet path or the American path.🔷


(Cover: Flickr / Gusjer - Uyghur children in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China.)


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Manassas Park, Virginia, USA