'China will never let go' of Xinjiang

Asia expert Jacques de Goldfiem, a professor at the La Rochelle university, discusses the ethnic riots that have left more than a hundred dead in China’s Xinjiang province.


Asia expert Jacques de Goldfiem is a professor at the La Rochelle university and active on, a website on Asian geopolitics.

France 24: What’s behind the ethnic riots that have left more than a hundred dead in China’s Xinjiang province?

Jacques de Goldfiem: Even though the region is affected by strong separatist movements, Xinjiang is worth a great deal to Beijing.

Firstly, it’s strategic because of the frontier with Russia and Kazakhstan. It’s in the latter country that the minority Muslim Uighurs separatists place their rear bases. Then there’s the future of oil in China. Finally the region is full of mineral resources. For these reasons, China will never let go of this region.

What is troubling in Sunday’s events is that they grew to a level we haven’t seen before. These riots underscore a deep malaise among the Chinese Muslim population of Xinjiang, which was independent until 1949. Since then, this region has always been turbulent, with a separatist movement similar to the ETA in Spain or the IRA in Northern Ireland. Urumqi, the city of these events, is predominantly Han — people of Chinese origin.

This current of independence movements is fed by three phenomena. First, the proximity to neighbouring countries, independent and often close in history and culture.

Then there is a social phenomenon: this rich region is exploited by Hans, who come from elsewhere. The Uighurs, descendants of shepherds who represent 47% of the population, are limited to second-class jobs, thus creating a feeling of social frustration. Finally there is a strong sense of identity, with a marked return of Islam.

Beijing points the finger at Rebiya Kadeer, a rich Uighurs businesswoman from Xinjiang who had to flee to the United States. Contrary to the authorities, I don’t think she could have coordinated these riots. People have simply expressed their anger. These eruptions of popular unhappiness are current in China.

How can we compare these troubles in Xinjiang with the riots in Tibet in 2008?

The name Xinjiang signifies “new frontier of the empire”. The Chinese had invaded a region inhabited by Turkic-speaking Muslims in the 18th century.

We’ve been seeing very targeted attacks there since the 90s, but tourists are never troubled. This mode of operation is very different from what we see in Tibet.

Xinjiang was long occupied by the army, with many camps where those in opposition to the regime were held.

Also, the term "autonomous", given to this region and four others in China, is not quite true. All it really means is that they have a different ethnic majority than the rest of the country. Moreover, even though these regions are not predominantly Han, the head of the region is Han.

By comparison, there aren't any such armed attacks in Tibet.

These are two large peripheral regions of China, both representing a strategic point. Both have a strong sense of independence, but this does not manifest itself in the same way. Compared to the rest of China, the people are physically very different.

As for the blocking of the Internet and particularly Twitter, which also happened in 2008, this is a practice now common in China. Under the guise of fighting pornography, they’re looking at installing spy and filter software on all computers sold. Before the Olympics they had blocked a large number of websites. All this doesn’t surprise me at all.

What role did religion play in the events?

The People's Republic of China is secular, and the Chinese central government is very suspicious [of religion]. For example, it permanently monitors all Koranic schools in fear of insurrection.

China is populated by two kinds of Muslims. There are Muslims of foreign origin, like the Uighurs, but also Han who were "Islamized" at the time of the Silk Road. During the Cultural Revolution, between 1965 and 1969, all religions were banned, which frustrated the Muslims. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the five Chinese Muslim regions became separatists.

Minorities have a special status in China, where they represent only 8% of the population. They differ notably administratively, by being exempted from the one-child rule. But this hasn’t provoked any jealousy [among the Han].

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