Autonomy in Xinjiang: Han Nationalist Imperatives and Uyghur Discontent


Gardner Bovingdon

Policy Studies, No. 11


Washington, D.C.: East-West Center

Publication Date: 2004
ISBN: 1-932728-20-1
Binding: paper
Pages: ix, 77
Free Download: PDF


This paper analyzes the sources of Uyghur discontent and ethnonational conflict in Xinjiang since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. It argues that the episodes of unrest in Xinjiang have not been simply contemporary manifestations of an enduring culture of violence. Nor have they been the product of foreign intrigues. Instead, while conflict in the region has had several causes, the system of "regional autonomy" operating in Xinjiang must be seen as a principal source of the unrest. Instead of resolving a longstanding political dispute between Uyghurs advocating independence and the Chinese government, this system has deepened Uyghur discontent and exacerbated conflict. To support this thesis, the paper presents both a historical analysis of policy changes over time in Xinjiang and a close study of current policies in the region.

Autonomy arrangements around the world have been enacted to protect both states' territorial integrity and the fragile rights of minorities. But all autonomy regimes privilege territorial integrity over absolute responsiveness to the demands of the autonomous group: they are a compromise between (a) states, which want unabridged sovereignty and homogeneous populations; and (b) peoples that want self-determination, generally meaning independence. Thus we should not be surprised to find both state actors and autonomous groups pressing for renegotiation of their agreements. Yet there are dramatic differences in the degree to which states have honored their formal commitments and in the amount of pressure for change brought to bear by nominally self-ruling groups. In Xinjiang, the political system has chronically thwarted Uyghurs' exercise of self-rule and thus provoked and exacerbated Uyghur discontent.

One demonstration of the absence of regional autonomy in Xinjiang is that extreme policy swings there tightly followed those in the rest of China and its other autonomous provinces. Relatively tolerant policies in the early 1950s were replaced by strongly repressive and assimilationist ones as the country embarked on the Great Leap Forward in 1958. A return to moderation in the early 1960s was then reversed again with the advent of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. By the end of that movement in 1976, pressures to assimilate linguistically and culturally, the persecution of religious practices and personnel, and attacks on respected authorities had profoundly alienated most Uyghurs. Deng Xiaoping's announcement of economic reforms in China in 1978 was soon followed by somewhat more tolerant cultural and economic policies in Xinjiang, though signally without relaxation of political controls. After public demonstrations in Xinjiang in 1988 and 1989 and a violent uprising in 1990, Deng ordered a crackdown in that province. The political clampdown in Xinjiang was accompanied by new restrictions on culture and religion that have remained in place up to the present.

Both long-standing and recent policies by leaders in Beijing and Ürümci have combined to deepen discontent among Uyghurs, and the official refusal to allow open expression of dissatisfaction in the region has only increased that discontent. Invariably harsh responses to demonstrations have left the field of overt political action to the violent and desperate while failing to address the concerns of the majority. The multifaceted repression of religion—including the closure of mosques, supervision and dismissal of clerics, and the prevention of religious practice by the young—has made Islam in Xinjiang more rather than less political in the Reform era. And while Beijing has decentralized economic authority during the Reform era, it still wields considerable economic influence in Xinjiang, abetted by the region's disproportionate concentration of state enterprises and dependence on subsidies. The pattern of economic development in Xinjiang has ensured the further stratification of the labor market, a stratification that is often blamed for strengthening oppositional identities and aggravating intergroup friction around the world. The mining and export of Xinjiang's oil and gas according to Beijing's dictates and by an almost entirely Han Chinese workforce has increased Uyghurs' sense of exploitation. Heavy Han immigration into the region and the consistent choice of Han officials for the top positions at all levels of Xinjiang's party bureaucracy strike many Uyghurs as colonial practices. Finally, both Han immigration and state policies have dramatically increased the pressure on Uyghurs to assimilate linguistically and culturally, seemingly contradicting the explicit protections of the constitution. This pressure has deepened the popular perception of a gulf between Uyghurs and Hans.

To suggest that Chinese policies in Xinjiang have been a key source of conflict is to imply that more moderate policies would have provided a better outcome. Historical counterfactuals are notoriously shaky ground for comparison. Furthermore, the frequency of ethnic conflict and violence in Xinjiang during the Republican era might have led us to expect both to continue after 1949. The argument here is not that ideal policies would have eliminated discontent and friction entirely. Instead, this paper contends that, had the CCP hewed more closely to what international legal scholars describe as the minimal principles of autonomy, Xinjiang would have seen less conflict. It also argues that the particular departures of Chinese practice from that minimal model exacerbated regional conflict in specific ways.

There is considerable disagreement on how conflict might be reduced in Xinjiang. Many Uyghurs and foreign observers assert that rigid policies and crackdowns on dissent have precipitated the protests and violent episodes of recent years. In contrast, Chinese officials and scholars claim that the lax PRC policies of the 1980s allowed separatist organizations and Islamic extremists to grow in number in the region and become more influential. Careful attention to the modern political history of Xinjiang demonstrates that the former view is more plausible. Organized protest and violence emerged in the region long before the 1980s. Furthermore, dissatisfaction since then has not been confined to Islamists and separatists advocating violence; ordinary Uyghurs have expressed profound discontent with Chinese rule in Xinjiang.

Beijing's policies could have been moderated, and they can still be ameliorated now. Sadly however, the September 11 attacks have eliminated Chinese leaders' incentives to enact moderate policies. The announcement of the global "war on terror" appears to have emboldened Beijing to respond to dissent by tightening its grip on the region, and thus to diminish further the small amount of autonomy Uyghurs and others currently exercise. Chinese policy advisors have recommended precisely this recourse. But further reduction in the scope of autonomy in Xinjiang is avoidable and certain to exacerbate discontent.


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