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The unsolved ethnic divide between Uighurs and Han

Video by Regane RANUCCI

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2009-07-09

The violent clashes that have erupted between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in China’s northwest Xinjiang region have shed new light on a deep ethnic divide that the Chinese government is eager to keep in check.

The mounting unrest in China’s northwest Xinjiang region that prompted President Hu Jintao to leave the G8 summit on Wednesday has brought into startling new focus a deep ethnic divide that the Chinese government is eager to keep in check.

Deadly riots that erupted on Sunday between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese civilians and police in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital city, are said to have been sparked by an Uighur demonstration against the government’s handling of a prior clash between Uighur and Han factory workers.

But despite Beijing's assertion that it has helped the vast, sparsely populated, oil-rich Xinjiang province prosper economically, the Uighurs have long protested many forms of  discrimination and repression under Han Chinese rule. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has regarded the Uighur population with deep mistrust, often portraying them as militant separatists who rely on terrorist tactics.

A majority ruled by the minority

One common source of Uighur discontent is related to demographics. Though the 10 million Turkic-speaking Uighurs make up Xinjiang’s ethnic majority, the Han have always governed the region under the Chinese Communist Party. Many Uighurs believe that the Han, China’s dominant ethnic group, are trying to tighten their grip by altering the area’s population balance.


Corinna-Barbara Francis, a China specialist for Amnesty International, told France 24 that a government incentive to increase Han migration to Xinjiang is indeed one of several “discriminatory policies which provide great benefits to the Han Chinese.”


“The Uighurs have been literally pushed out of their traditional territory, their traditional communities,” Francis noted. She offered the example of Urumqi, the site of the recent clashes, which used to be a largely Uighur city but is now 80 percent Han Chinese.


Religious, cultural and economic discrimination


Another complaint is that Han policies limit Uighurs’ religious practices. The majority of Uighurs are Sunni Muslims, and according to Asia expert Jacques de Goldfiem, a professor at France’s University of La Rochelle, secular China is particularly suspicious of Islam. The Han government in Xinjiang “permanently monitors all Koranic schools in fear of insurrection,” de Goldfiem said in an interview with France 24.


Many Uighurs are also angry about the Han government’s phasing out of Uighur-language instruction in schools.


Beijing contests these grievances, pointing to the rapid economic growth and improved living conditions Xinjiang has seen under Han policies. However, Uighurs say they have been excluded from the region’s economic development. In his interview with France 24, De Goldfiem said that most Uighurs are “limited to second-class jobs, thus creating a feeling of social frustration.”

Beijing alleges terrorist ties

China insists that other causes are to blame for the tensions boiling over. Authorities have accused Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman and president of the World Uighur Congress who now lives in the US, of orchestrating the protests that set off the violence.


The argument has echoes of previous allegations from Beijing that Uighurs have been staging terrorist attacks on Chinese civilians since the 1990s and have ties to Al-Qaeda. Human rights groups argue, however, that Chinese authorities have used their support for the previous US administration’s “war on terror” to justify a clampdown on Uighurs since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

Separatist groups and Uighur independence movements exist in the Xinjiang region, but have been largely forced underground because China considers their views to be treason.

Date created : 2009-07-08