Why is there tension between China and the Uighurs?

BBC News, 6 March 2014

he Xinjiang autonomous region in China has had a long history of discord between Chinese authorities and the indigenous ethnic Uighur population. The BBC sets out why.

Where is Xinjiang and who lives there?

The sprawling Xinjiang autonomous region is located in China’s far west. The largest of China’s administrative regions, it borders eight countries – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Uighurs comprised most of the population before the heavy migration of China’s ethnic majority Han began.

Most Uighurs are Muslim and Islam is an important part of their life and identity. Their language is related to Turkish, and they regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.

The region’s economy has largely revolved around agriculture and trade, with towns such as Kashgar thriving as hubs along the famous Silk Road.

But development has brought new residents. In the 2000 census, Han Chinese made up 40%, excluding large numbers of troops stationed in the region and unknown numbers of unregistered migrants.

Has Xinjiang always been part of China?

Xinjiang officially became part of Communist China in 1949
The region has had an intermittent history of autonomy and occasional independence, but what is now known as Xinjiang came under Chinese rule in the 18th Century.

An East Turkestan state was briefly declared in 1949, but independence was short-lived. It was during that year that Xinjiang officially became part of Communist China.

In the 1990s, open support for separatist groups increased after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Muslim states in Central Asia.

However, Beijing suppressed demonstrations and activists went underground.

Q&A: China and the Uighurs

What is at the heart of the unrest?

China’s critics say authorities have stepped up a crackdown on Uighurs in recent years
While the issue is a complex one, many say that ethnic tensions caused by economic and cultural factors between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese are the root cause of violent incidents in the region.

In recent decades, major development projects in energy and industry have brought prosperity to Xinjiang’s big cities. This has attracted young and technically-qualified Han Chinese from eastern provinces.

The Han Chinese are said to be given the best jobs and the majority do well economically, something that has fuelled resentment among Uighurs.

The Uighur culture leans more towards Central Asia than China
Activists say Uighur religious, commercial and cultural activities have been gradually curtailed by the Chinese state. There are complaints that the Uighurs experience severe restrictions in the practice of their Muslim faith, with fewer mosques and strict control over religious schools.

Rights group Amnesty International, in a report published last year, said authorities criminalised “what they labelled ‘illegal religious’ and ‘separatist’ activities” and clamped down on “peaceful expressions of cultural identity”.

Making sense of the unrest from China’s Xinjiang

China jails Xinjiang ‘terrorists’

How has the violence developed?

China has poured troops into the region in recent years as unrest has rumbled
China has been accused of intensifying its crackdown on the Uighurs after street protests in the 1990s and again in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

But things really escalated in 2009, with large-scale ethnic rioting in the regional capital, Urumqi. Some 200 people were killed in the unrest, most of them Han Chinese, according to officials.

Xinjiang’s economy has largely revolved around agriculture and trade
Beijing then increased security in Xinjiang and detained many Uighurs as suspects. But violence rumbled on as right groups increasingly pointed to tight control by Beijing.

In June 2012 six Uighurs reportedly tried to hijack a plane from Hotan to Urumqi before they were overpowered by passengers and crew.

There was bloodshed in April 2013 and in June that year, 27 people died in Shanshan county after police opened fire on what state media described as a mob armed with knives attacking local government buildings

Establishing facts about these incidents is difficult, because foreign journalists’ access to the region is tightly controlled.

Death on the Silk Route: Violence in Xinjiang

Is it evolving into an extremist threat?

Chinese officials blamed the attack at Tiananmen Square on separatists from Xinjiang
In October 2013, a car ploughed into a crowd then burst into flames in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing three people inside the vehicle and two tourists. China blamed this attack on separatists from Xinjiang.

It also blamed the 2 March attack at a train station in Kunming, Yunnan province, on Xinjiang separatists. Twenty-nine people were killed and more than 130 others injured as eight attackers stabbed commuters at random.

China also blamed Xinjiang separatists for the brutal attack in March 2014 at Kunming station
China has often blamed ETIM – the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – or people inspired by ETIM for violent incidents both in Xinjiang and beyond the region’s borders.

EITM is said to want to establish an independent East Turkestan in China. The US State Department in 2006 said ETIM is “the most militant of the ethnic Uighur separatist groups”.

The scope of ETIM’s activities remains unclear with some questioning the group’s capacity to organise serious acts of extremism.