China’s Xinjiang problem
November 5th, 2013
08:42 AM ET

China’s Xinjiang problem

By Elizabeth Economy, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are her own.

In the aftermath of an apparent suicide attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on October 27 that injured dozens of people and killed five (including three involved in the attack), Chinese authorities moved quickly to label the incident terrorism and to arrest a handful of suspects who reportedly helped plot the attack. In the process, word leaked out that those involved were from Xinjiang, a Muslim-dominated region in the far northwest of China. For decades, Xinjiang, itself, has been the site of often-violent ethnic strife between the Muslim Uyghur majority and the Han Chinese minority. Uyghur discontent, however, has rarely spilled over into other parts of China. Now, Chinese authorities are claiming that Uyghur extremists have, for the first time, taken their cause to Beijing.

Assuming this suicide attack was, in fact, a premeditated terrorist attack and not simply an act of individual desperation – an assumption many in and outside China continue to question – the government’s next step will likely be to crack down in Xinjiang itself. Past violence in Xinjiang has been met by Beijing with highly repressive policies, mass arrests, and demonstrations of military and police force. In fact, the Tiananmen incident occurred while Beijing was already in the midst of a government-directed crackdown on online activists in Xinjiang. Even more moderate approaches have fallen flat. In May, for example, residents of one county in Xinjiang were the beneficiaries of more than 100 government-sponsored lectures on ethnic relations during “ethnic harmony education month.” The following month, 35 people died in ethnic violence in that same county.

Beijing’s policies do little to address the real sources of its Xinjiang problem, which are economic, political, and cultural. Xinjiang’s per capita GDP is approximately one-third that of chart-topping Tianjin. Moreover, within that, Han Chinese benefit disproportionately. Chinese scholars Shan Wei and Chen Gang note that as the Han have migrated in, they have brought industries that undercut traditional Uyghur handicrafts industries and commerce. In addition, they suggest that Uyghurs are largely excluded from the personal networks the Han Chinese use to develop business.

More from GPS: Why China should be open about Tiananmen attack

The scale of Han Chinese migration into the region makes this problem particularly acute: over the past sixty years, the percentage of Han Chinese in Xinjiang has increased from more than 6 percent to more than 40 percent. Shan and Chen also argue that the Chinese Communist Party’s “anti-religion” ethos and “heavy handed restrictions on Islam” have “radicalized” many Muslim Uyghurs. There are, for example, stiff fines for taxi drivers who pick up women wearing a face-covering hijab; men with long beards are often subjected to hiring discrimination; and civil servants can be dismissed for attending Friday afternoon prayers. On the other side of the ethnic divide, the Han Chinese themselves complain that Uyghurs are advantaged by the ability to have more than one child and by preferential treatment in college admissions.

So what might Beijing do differently? It could ban discrimination based on religious practices, address income inequality through tax policy or job training, and promote the continued value of minority languages. Allowing Chinese citizens to worship freely would be an additional, far more radical step.

More profoundly, however, Beijing must find a way to address the issue raised by Chinese judge Shu Rui. In an opinion piece published in the Xinhua Daily Telegraph, Shu raises the case of the wheelchair-bound man who set off a homemade bomb in the Beijing International airport last July. Shu suggests that such violence reflects feelings of injustice and powerlessness and argues that Chinese society must “take seriously everyone’s discontent,” and ensure that the legal system promotes “justice and fairness.” This is no easy task in a country in which people’s rights are routinely violated: a recently released study states that 64 million Chinese families have had their land or homes expropriated by local governments in the name of development.

Beijing’s inability or unwillingness to address adequately the well-founded political and economic grievances of the Uyghurs does not minimize the actual terror threat that China might face from Uyghur separatists, such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which took responsibility for the 2008 bus bombs in Shanghai and Yunnan. Some Xinjiang Muslims have joined al Qaeda, while others are reportedly fighting in Syria. The contacts and networks they develop could increase the actual threats Beijing faces if and when these radicalized fighters return to China.

However, such attacks have been few and far between. The more pressing challenge for Beijing is to weave a social contract with an increasingly disenfranchised Chinese people – Uyghurs among them – that respects and protects their interests and rights.

Post by:
Topics: China • Terrorism

soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. JAL

    There are biological and evolutionary implications in moving away from limited resources and to an abundance. I think the stock market labels of "bear market" and "bull market" are good at clarifying the situation. But what is to become of the bears when they are significantly outnumbered by the bulls? On a different note, how did Chicago get both Bulls and Bears named pro sports teams? Who do you root for?

    November 5, 2013 at 9:10 am |
  2. Really?

    The US really should be solving it's own minority crisis, not only with the Native Americans first before attempting to give others advice. Chinese policies if you studied them are quite favorable to minorities, no one child policy, monetary incentives etc... The US just use affirmative action.

    Also, to the author, innocent tourists were killed. The more CNN doubt this was a terrorist attack, the more credit it loses... Not that there was much to begin with....

    November 5, 2013 at 9:37 am |
    • Pppa

      The author works for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which, like CNN, is largely irrelevant, unless it can find a good war to start, and arrange to sell bullets to both sides...

      November 5, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        The author ignores the fact that many – Han – Chinese themselves face discriminations, if they are not born into the right families and the right place. Look at children of migrant workers, they don't enjoy the same rights as children born in cities. Indeed, this "blood is thicker than water" and elitist mentality is the roots of many social evils.

        November 6, 2013 at 4:56 am |
    • american imperialist

      No one, not even CNN denies this is technically a terrorist attack, but as terrorist attacks go this was pretty puny. I just want to point out that no frank discussion is possible if one side adopts a victim's mentality where no discussion is acceptable. Let's be clear, America's struggle with minority rights is not perfect and is still developing, but to look at China today is, in some ways, a sad reflection of our record from more than 100 years ago. Surely, Uyghurs and other minorities enjoy being "allowed" to practice a basic human right such reproduction. But to exchange basic dignity for preferential college admissions or any other gift from the Chinese Communist Party is hardly a good deal. As long as ordinary Chinese people fail to understand this concept–actually the Party, since only their voice matters–there will never be peace or prosperity in China's territories.

      November 5, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
    • Wangchuk

      First of all you should recognize that China has minority/race problems too, not just the US. And just b/c the USA has such problems, doesn't mean the US & the UN & other govts can weigh in on the issue of China's oppression of Tibetans & Uighurs. It's typical of the CCP to argue that everyone should stay out their business but if everyone did that, there would be no progress on human rights.

      November 7, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  3. rightospeak

    We have much bigger problems and I wish that you addressed them before worrying about our banker -China.

    November 5, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  4. James Walker

    Good on the Muslims...They have been persecuted in China since the day China said Xinjiang was part of it...The Chinese have tried to force Chinese culture, language, and beliefs onto them..and the majority of chinese people view and treat Uyghur in much the same fashion as Germans did the Jews...just the Uyghur are more willing to fight back..because they cant see it getting any worse for them and if it did they are quietly hoping the rest of the world wouldnt ignore it the way we do everything else in China..

    November 5, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  5. JAL

    There is no change in monitoring and information control China same as before

    November 5, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  6. mei guo de zhongguo ren

    Every government faces important forces that influence policy. The Chinese have 1.3 billion people. The need for order and employment, and unity trumps all other interests. The Chinese have confronted rebellion a number of times in their 6000 year history. They have learned many things about human "rights" which in China, include an extremely profound national obligation on the part of every citizen. It is the only way to preserve the principle values that make the Chinese...Chinese. To expect some silly reaction based on judgement formed by people who have never been to China, don't speak the language, have never studied Chinese history, and do not have a first hand knowledge of their economy is just the zeinith of google journalism.

    November 5, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • xue guo li shi de mei guo ren

      Haha, I love it! 6000 years of history? It seems China is expanding ever further back into the past. The standard preface to any China discussion used to be 5000 years.. I'll tell ya, someone has you beat. France has more than 30,000 years of history! Just look at those cave paintings. Top that Mr zhong guo ren :p

      November 5, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
    • Wangchuk

      This is a typical argument by the CCP & their 50 Cent Army supporters. They argue that b/c China is large & has many ecnomic/social problems, it requires iron fist rule. That is a false choice. A govt does not have to choose b/t human rights and economic development. A large pop. doesn't give China an excuse to oppress minorities, censor the media, or imprison journalists. China is not exempt from the Universal Decl. of Human Rights. Chinese, Tibetans, & Uighurs have human rights too, same as in the West, not less than Westerners. One does not need to choose b/t a police state & chaos. You can have rule of law & human rights & still not cause the collapse of China. The problem is the CCP doesn't want to improve human rights in China, Xinjiang & Tibet b/c they're afraid of losing power. It's as simple as that.

      November 7, 2013 at 10:27 am |
      • Really?

        LOL, since you're using the 50 cent argument, which is nothing more than an insult to the person you're opposing and your own intelligence. This fallacy makes the rest of what you have to say null. If a country wants to comment on China's issues, they should have at least some standard of support that they already done. The US is overly hypocritical on too many issues. I wouldn't mind if it was Germany or an North European country pointing this out, since their social systems are working. Unlike the US. Solve your own problems first!

        November 7, 2013 at 11:29 am |
      • Really? is a schmuck

        No point in arguing with really? If he is intent on being an apologist for the dim witted thugs posing as a government in china, then let's not interfere. If there were blog commenters during the nazi or Stalinist regimes, you can be sure there would be at least one really? Writing reactionary comments and serving as cheerleader.

        November 7, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
      • Maersk

        And you must have been paid more than 50 cents to zuck your uncle's limply kowk and swallow his kum. Otherwise, you wouldn't be so full of it, didkkhead!

        November 8, 2013 at 9:45 am |
  7. TiredOfPaying

    I had no idea China was doing this. Its quite interesting to see another group using the exact tactics that muslims use to take over a country against the muslims. I applaud China for this and hope they are successful. Anything, and I do mean Anything, that reduced the number of muslims and stops islam is worth doing. Islam is the biggest danger Humanity has.

    November 5, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
    • korasree

      I agree with you in a heartbeat (1000%). I cant name just one country in this world, where Muslims are majority who live in peace and harmony. They are born to kill humans.

      November 7, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
  8. Marisa

    Ms Economy writes as though she knows all the facts. The first thing to know is that anything reported out of China by the Chinese is usually false, so the opening sentence of 5 people being killed is just another example of how western media gobbles up as true what the Chinese media report. She should say, "5 people were killed according to Chinese media". The Chinese propagandists know that western media tend to believe whatever they say since western media are really naïve and no match for them. The position western media should always take is report on how much they lie and keep that up until we get straight answers out of them.

    November 5, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • Pseudotriton

      "The Chinese propagandists know that western media tend to believe whatever they say"

      wow, which planet do you live on? Western media is anything but trusting and cordial when it comes to China-related stories. I think you need to actually read some news before making dimwit comments.

      November 6, 2013 at 12:55 am |
  9. mohmad is no prophet

    Muslims are a danger to the world ,they are even a danger to each other, best to neuter them and keep them in cages.
    I wonder if China will start to collect DNA from Muslims like Russia because all Muslims are terrorists

    November 5, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
  10. Pat

    From an American perspective I see the fact that all of the major world powers face problems with Muslims actually a good thing for us. I am not suggesting a non-Muslim alliance against the Muslim world. What I am suggesting is that because all of the World Powers face a threat of Muslim extremism: Russia in their Caucasus region, China in Xinjiang, India in Kashmir and America because of its alliance with Israel, there must be a realization by all of these governments not to undermine the others efforts when it comes to combating Muslim Terrorism wherever it exists.

    November 5, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
  11. Pseudotriton

    Why is it that every case labeled as terrorism by western gov't is taken with much seriousness, while any claims of terrorist attacks by China is treated with great skepticism? This story is filled with weasel words to make it sound like a conspiracy by the Chinese gov't to frame some Muslims. Most of the things described in this story are not unique to China but have happened or are still happening in many western countries. European colonists have taken much of N. America and marginalized the natives. Indigenous people of many regions are at social and financial disadvantage. And gov'ts of places like France and Quebec are trying to ban religious garments like burqas. As for forbidding civil servants from attending prayer sessions, well, separation of religion and gov't is never a bad thing. So the bottom line is that China is just dealing with similar problems as the rest of the world, but western reporting always make it sound like China is less legit in their fights.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:15 am |
  12. tseringdolker

    The real problem isn't economics, it is human rights and the occupation of a country by another. Even if the region has benefited greatly and Uigyus are prosperous, the problem is still one of annexation and it will still flare up. Blaming it on economics is quite the misread of a far more complex problem – usually espoused by those who enjoy the freedom of their own country and have never lived under occupation.

    November 6, 2013 at 2:07 am |
  13. Abobakar Ibrahim

    If Beijing does not do something about human rights in places like Tibet, Xinjiang etc, China will have its hands very very full in the nearby future. With the evolution of time fiercer generations are brought forth!

    November 6, 2013 at 4:54 am |
  14. Mike

    Please do not underestimate dangers Chinese pose to World Peace. Our most important National Security Foreign Policy Goal must be: "No Chinese in NATO". Chinese use anti-western technologies, dangerous anti-western ideologies and are collaborating with anti-western forces against NATO.

    November 6, 2013 at 7:00 am |
    • Really?

      How stupid... And I'm attempting to be polite here. That an American think 1/6 of the global population be excluded from the world economy.
      BTW, copying isn't a new trend, guess where the Americans got their nuclear weapons from? German scientist!
      Your post is anti human, anti humanity, and pro American imperialism.... Which isn't working out very well, you know NSA, Snowden, silly politicians etc...

      November 6, 2013 at 9:36 am |
  15. Silverado

    Muslims murder innocent people everywhere. I hope China will deal with these Muslim terrorists with an iron fist, and thereby set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

    November 6, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • Wangchuk

      Between 1949-present, the CCP has murdered millions of Chinese, Uighurs & Tibetans. It seems the Chinese Communist Party is more a threat than any Uighurs.

      November 7, 2013 at 10:16 am |
      • Maersk

        The Chinese must have harvested your limply kowk and fed it to pigs. As a result became a trannny, am I right?

        November 8, 2013 at 9:41 am |
  16. Really?

    After the one that I avoided as much as possible with China is for the body, I will have a bitter experience

    November 6, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  17. Wangchuk

    From 1945-49, Xinjiang was an independent state called Eastern Turkestan. That freedom ended when the Red Army marched into Xinjiang in '49. Uihgurs were once the majority in Xinjiang but now they are gradually drowning in a sea of Chinese immigrants who contol the economy & govt of Xinjiang. Discrimination against Uighurs by Chinese businessmen & the CCP is common. The CCP places numerous restrictions on the practice of Islam by Muslim Uighurs, restrictions that often don't exist for Chinese or Hui Muslims. The central problem is the lack of self-determination for Uighurs. If Beijing allowed Xinjiang genuine self-rule w/ a democratically-elected govt, then there would be fewer political/social problems in Xinjiang and life for Uighurs would improve. Right now the CCP treats Xinjiang as a colony of China and treats Uighurs as 2nd-class citizens.

    November 7, 2013 at 10:15 am |
  18. Historicalfact

    Wangchuk stated, "From 1945-49, Xinjiang was an independent state called Eastern Turkestan. That freedom ended when the Red Army marched into Xinjiang in '49."

    What Wangchuk said is not true. From 1945-49, Xinjiang was NOT an independent state called Eastern Turkestan, but under Chinese control. In 1944-45, there were somewhere between 25 to 30 percent of the Xinjiang land were effectively conquered by Soviet Red Army and Stalin installed a puppet revolutionary government whose core was Muslin Communists. Internally, these Muslin Communists might call their controlled area as Eastern Turkestan or Second Eastern Turkestan, but externally they admitted that their area was part of CHINESE XINJIANG PROVINCE because Stalin ordered them to do so. Without military support of the Soviet Union, the puppet regime would have been wiped out by Chinese Nationalist Army within a few months at most. In 1949-50, the Communist Chinese troops entered Xinjiang peacefully because the Chinese Nationalist Army who had controlled 100 percent of Xinjiang nominally or more than 70 percent actually surrendered to the CCP and the puppet government of Eastern Turkestan or Second Eastern Turkestan, which by then had been really a Communist regime, handed their controlled area over to the CCP under the order of Stalin.

    It is not morally sound that many Western scholars who have known the history of modern Xinjiang well (not Ms. Economy) have implicitly justified the killings of innocent Chinese by Xinjiang Uighurs with various excuses and particularly the excuse that there was a "free state" of Eastern Turkestan or Second Eastern Turkestan in Xinjiang in 1944-50, a product of Stalin's expansionism that danced with Stalin's orders on the Chinese soil.

    One more comment. Ms. Economy stated, "The scale of Han Chinese migration into the region makes this problem particularly acute: over the past sixty years, the percentage of Han Chinese in Xinjiang has increased from more than 6 percent to more than 40 percent." Migration is one of the most basic human rights. As long as the Han Chinese migration into Xinjiang is not forced, which has been not at least during the last 35 years, then we should respect the Han Chinese decision to migrate into Xinjiang, just as we should respect the Uighurs' decision to migrate to Chinese inland. My impression is that you wanted the Chinese government to strip Han Chinese of the migration right or at least the right of migrating to Xinjiang. Am I right?

    November 7, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
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