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Oppression in Xinijang province

Third installment of the PN blog series about grassroots activism in China.

On the 25th June more than 35 civilians and members of the police force died in a small town called Lukqun, Xinijang province, China.

It is difficult to get a clear picture of what has just happened in Lukqun: the official Chinese version talks of a terrorist attack by an Uyghur group of dissidents aimed at a local police station which resulted in 24 policeman and civilian deaths; two days after the massacre the official version acknowledged an higher number of deaths among civilians, divulging the news of 35 total deaths resulting from the attack. Other sources, including some related to Uyghur’s diaspora movements, reported as many as 42 deaths among the local population and describe how the city had been flooded with police force in the days prior to the 25th leaving the impression that this incident had been planned in advance by the central government.

What is know for sure is that this is not an isolated episode of violence as in falls among a long-lasting history of repression suffered by the Uyghur population perpetrated by the Chinese central government.

Xinjiang is a borderland and traditionally Muslim region in the North-West of the country with claims of independence, nowadays, however, just around 45% of the local population belongs to Muslim ethnic minorities, commonly recognised as Hui groups, among which Uyghurs are the most prominent.

Since the establishment of the Chinese nation state in 1949 and the inclusion of this region within its borders, the relations between the central government and Xinjiang have been characterised by an unequal balance of power; in fact not only has China forcibly occupied the region but since then it has also perpetrated policies that resemble to an internal colonisation of Xinjiang.

In the process of nation-building Uyghurs have been rendered to the margins of the nation state and of its society; in the 1950s and 1960s a discourse of harmonisation of peoples was put in place, including Hui groups into the bigger Chinese population, thus denying any form of autonomy. In the 1980s, however, following a revival of Uyghur nationalism a shift in national policies occurred and the Hui became the new target of a shift in the political discourse: they thus have started being depicted as a threat for the Han, the majoritarian ethnic group in China which constitutes 91% of the total population. Most specifically, in 1996 the ‘Strike hard campaign’ was launched, the offical aim which was to counter crime but especially targeted so-called separatist nationalism and illehal religious activities in Xinjiang. On the other hand, in 2001 the ‘Go West’ campaign was launched which encouraged ethnic Han Chinese citizens to relocate in border areas such as Xinjiang: in this way, the demographic balance in the regions has been completely altered, and at the same time, the key departments and organs of Xinjiang administration have largely remained in the hands of Han Chinese Communist Party memebers.
This has led to a situation where Hui and Uyghurs have become a minority of strangers in their own homeland. Meanwhile, Hui citizens are adversely incorporated into the local and national labour market, in part due to the fact that they are also not offered equal access to higher education.

Political marginalisation has gone hand in hand with material expolitation: Xinjiang is a land rich of gas and of other natural resources, and these have been largerly exploited by the Chinese governement, without compensation for land-grabbing and for development induced displacement. Hui have been victims of Chinese development and are kept at the margins of the society.

In a response to the governement's oppresion, some groups among the Uyghurs have historically taken part to separatist movements and connections to Jihad have been reported. This has been instrumental in Beijing’s negative depictions of the Uyghurs: in more recent years, having joined the global war on terror the Chinese central governement has denounced and conflated the terrorist activities of Uyghur separatist groups with the war on terror, thus finding a pretext to legitimise its policy in Xinjiang in the eyes of the international community.

In 2009, the central government clammed down on a local pacific demonstration leading to more than 200 civilian deaths according to official Chinese sources. Since then, China has instrumentally used the discourse of the war on terror to keep close surveillance on minorities’ activities and to implement restrictive policies on the Muslim ethnic groups; as in the case of other minorities around the country, in Xinjiang, Huis are not allowed to teach their language in schools or to freely express their religious faith.

Just in the last few months, and on more than one occasion, there have been episodes of violence and tension between the police and Uyghurs: in April around 20 people were incarcerated and sentenced to between 2-to-6 years of reclusion for downloading extremist religious material from the internet; also in April another episode of violence occurred in Kashgar, a city at the border with Pakistan, where some 25 people died in a clash between the police and civilians; and now the latest episode is the one of the 25th June, which involved the highest number of deaths since 2009.

Huis and Uyghurs, although oppressed for decades by the Chinese central governement, remarkably lack crucial international support in their struggle for independence. They don’t have such an emblematic character such as the Dalai Lama standing on their side as the Tibetans do and by being Muslims they have also been targets of Islamophobia. Even an actor as big as the EU is missing to direct real criticism to China regarding repression of political dissidents, religious groups and ethnic minorities. Accordingly, in the Uyghur case, although they have been repeatedly killed, exploited and displaced by the Chinese government, media in the Global North have denied them proper attention and thus effectively taking the side of China in the process of their marginalization.  

LS is a graduate student in development studies at SOAS, London; before moving to London she lived in China for two years, between 2010 and 2012, studying, travelling and working. This post is the third installment in a series on Chinese grassroots struggles to be published on the Peace News blog.

The first part of this series, 'Ignoring grassroots struggles in China', is available here.

The second part of this series, 'China's dream', is available here.

Resources

Facebook page of the World Uyghur Congress.

The Uyghur American Association

The World Uyghur Congress