Changing Course: The Strategic Flaws of the Chinese Government’s Treatment of the Uyghur Minority

While narratives of anti-Islamic sentiments continue to dominate the American media, little airtime is given to how other parts of the world treat Muslim minorities, such as the Uyghur ethnic group in China. While the state officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups, over 90 percent of the Chinese population are members of the Han ethnic group. The Uyghurs, one of only two majority-Muslim ethnic groups in China, have a particularly tense relationship with the Chinese government. The government has suppressed their right to self-governance since their homeland, Xinjiang, was incorporated into the People’s Republic in 1949. Today, suppressive state policies targeted at both Islamic and Uyghur culture have caused civil unrest in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the country’s northwest, where the Uyghur population is concentrated. With growing unrest in the region, the government has a strategic incentive to relax these suffocating policies and provide opportunities for development for the Uyghurs.

The contemporary Chinese Communist Party recognizes five official religions, including Islam, but Muslims have been frequent targets of oppression and public hostility since the 1950s. During the Cultural Revolution between 1968 and 1976, Chinese Muslims were targets of intense grassroots anti-religious movements, during which communists destroyed all religious symbols to forge a new secular socialist society. Still, Chinese Muslims are viewed suspiciously as foreign influencers, as well as competitors with the government for control over citizens’ beliefs.

Suspicions of subversive activity likely come from the distinct lifestyles Uyghurs lead. Their practice of Sunni Islam, use of their own eponymous language, and resemblance to their neighbors in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in physical appearance and in dress separates them from the Han majority in the rest of the nation.

Because of this alienation and oppressive government policies, some Uyghurs have turned to radicalism and violence in recent decades. Recently, five men drove two SUVs down a busy market road in Urumqi, the capital of the province, crashing into civilians and throwing a dozen explosives from the car. The incident resulted in 31 deaths and over 90 injuries. Incidents like these are not rare and have in turn led to firmer and more vitriolic statements against the Uyghurs – and Islam in general – by high-ranking officials. Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, has called for a “great wall of iron” in Xinjiang, and a top party official from the region has warned of an “international anti-terror situation” targeted towards the Uyghur region that will threaten the stability of China. This anti-Uyghur sentiment exists among the greater Chinese populace as well. Chinese Muslims face social pressure from an alarming trend of online hate speech directed against them and their religion.  Many Uyghurs are mocked over the internet with users telling them to return to Arabia and hurling criticism based on difference in dress.

Interestingly, the Chinese government has taken a very different approach to the Chinese Hui, the other major Muslim ethnic group in the nation. The Chinese government’s attitude towards the 10.5 million Hui is one of cautious tolerance: As long as they submit to the authority of the state and do not cause trouble, measures to subdue them are unnecessary. Unlike the Uyghurs, the Hui have folded into Han society gradually, speaking Mandarin and practicing a form of Islam heavily influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism. This slow transition is important: There is little reason to believe that policymaking pushed by an authoritarian government can subjugate an unwilling population into adopting Chinese traditions in a much shorter time span. Simply put, the Uyghurs have too much culture to assimiluate in too short of a time, even assuming they would like to do so.

Still, the Chinese government has placed all its chips on assimilating the Uyghurs into Chinese society to improve security in Xinjiang and turn Uyghurs away from religious extremism. This has come in the form of suppressing their culture through dress codes (namely, a ban on headscarves) to limiting the use of the native Uyghur language in schools. The government has also required Uyghurs to attend “political education” courses and coerced Uyghurs to take part in forced labor on public works. Worse, the central government has created economic incentives to attract Han Chinese settlement in Xinjiang in large numbers in recent decades, overwhelming the locals with their culture and outnumbering them in the institutions of daily life.

Because of this alienation and oppressive government policies, some Uyghurs have turned to radicalism and violence

More insidiously, the central government continues to institute vague and clandestine policies to break down the Uyghurs’ distinct ethno-national identity that go beyond mere political control. Such policies include promoting bilingual education in both Uyghur and Chinese while phasing out the use of the traditional language written in Arabic script in other areas of life. China should not legislate and legitimize further cultural genocide, and the richness of Uyghur culture should be preserved and be treated as an issue separate from political obedience. The process of homogenization will produce further instability in the region unless handled extremely cautiously. In the worst case, foreign terrorist elements could gain a foothold, and Xinjiang may become China’s Chechnya. Rather than preventing religiously inspired extremism, it seems that current Chinese policies toward Uyghurs may be pushing the region toward the precipice of disaster.

The suppression of Uyghurs may well be a reaction to separatist aspirations with entirely non-religious motivations. Geographically, Uyghurs are mostly concentrated in a pocket of northwest China, thousands of miles from the Han population centers of the east. Such a geographic separation challenges the Party’s projection of power, especially as the Uyghurs have been attempting to solidify their national identity, even establishing illegal secessionist organizations. Resentment toward the Chinese government stems from economic problems as well. Previously, Chinese officials have tried to bring a “development miracle” to Xinjiang as a softer way to silence calls for separatism – yet this has not proven to be a success, as the urbanization rate among the Uyghur population is about 10 percent, leaving a vast majority in impoverished rural conditions. In fact, the institutional suppression of ethnic Uyghurs by the state is creating a vicious cycle of economic deprivation leading to separatism and civil unrest, which in turn results in more oppression. Unemployment among the native population is much higher than the national average, and only 17 percent of Uyghur university graduates manage to secure a full-time job directly out of school. Furthermore, the population growth in Xinjiang – due to the arrival of migrants from the east – has strained resources like water and land. Economic realities fuel nationalist sentiments, leading to potentially more damaging outlets like joining terrorist groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party, a designated terrorist organization that works with al-Qaeda within China’s borders and abroad.

Some relaxation of the rules and restrictions placed on everyday society would certainly relieve the self-fulfilling prophecy of Uyghur radicalization: the vicious cycle of oppressive policies leading to further resentment of the state and increasing the temptations to conduct extremist acts, which provokes even more oppressive policies. This is something that members of the Chinese government must understand: Minorities can only be subdued and oppressed for so long without retaliation.

But instead, the central government continues to bet on eventual security coming from a rapid pace of cultural assimilation of the Uyghurs into Han society – faster than the negative consequences of suppression. But given the massive size of the province and its importance as China’s largest gas-producing region, it is unlikely that the government will cede any major political rights in the near future. Thus, unrest in the frontiers of Xinjiang may not end any time soon, and tensions between the state and the Uyghurs may escalate. Rather than pursuing ineffective and counterproductive policies to ameliorate tensions with Uyghurs, the Chinese government should attempt to relieve the institutional ethnic discrimination and push for economic empowerment of oppressed groups. This may not resolve the problems of the region overnight, but it would finally give the Uyghurs a chance at a better life, potentially ending the antagonism toward Islam in China before it spirals beyond control.