On Sunday, more than 1,000 Uighurs clashed with police in the western Chinese city of Urumqi -- marking one of the country's bloodiest ethnic conflicts in recent years.
The government's crackdown on the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking
Muslim minority group that has long chafed under Beijing's rule, was nasty,
brutish, and short. Overnight curfews were imposed. Thousands of police
officers dispersed. President Hu Jintao left the G-8 summit in Europe to focus
on putting out fires at home. But not all aspects of China's policies toward
Uighurs and other minorities are characterized by such precision.
If you visit Xinjiang, the restive province that's home to China's
roughly 8 million Uighurs, you'll realize there's a gap -- often a chasm --
between official intention on minority issues and what happens in practice.
Sometimes the government's missteps appear to be the product of malevolence,
sometimes of ignorance. The results are both tragic and absurd.
On bad days, the tragedy is obvious: More than 150 people,
Uighur and Han Chinese, have died in recent riots. But there is also a thread
of dark comedy, a continual drama of miscommunication and miscalculation, as
Han authorities try to hamstring the practice of Islam and local politicians
try to at once appease and suppress the Uighurs.
On paper, Islam is one of China's five officially recognized
and legal religions. And the central government, in order to foster a
"harmonious society," aims to help all minority peoples prosper alongside their
Han neighbors. But in practice, ethnic policies as implemented alienate and
inflame the largely Muslim population of Xinjiang. Tensions run high, liable to
erupt at even distant provocations. (The spark that lit last Sunday's riots was
the mistreatment and murder of Uighur factory workers in faraway Guangdong
Recently, Robert D. Kaplan argued
in The Atlantic that, on purely
pragmatic grounds, in the case of Sri Lanka, repression worked. Other writers have recently made similar
assertions in the case of Xinjiang. One line of argumentation indeed holds
that China's uncompromising stance toward its ethnic populations may be
unsavory to Westerners, but is in fact the surest way to keep the peace.
If only Beijing's iron fist were so dexterous. China's
government is indeed effective at disbanding protests, building skyscrapers,
and staging high-profile spectacles like the Olympics. It's also proved
relatively adept, to its credit, at managing the financial crisis and keeping
But you don't have to look far for signs of breakdown or
miscoordination. Take the embarrassing wavering over Green Dam, the
much-maligned Internet nanny program; or last year's scandals over tainted milk,
an economic and international public relations disaster for Beijing. China
routinely looks more vulnerable from the inside than the outside, and its volatile
minority affairs are just another example.
Ultimately, China is more adept at creating fearsome
impressions in the moment -- grand like the Olympic Opening Ceremony, or cruel
like the crackdown on protestors -- than at maintenance. When you look close,
it's apparent how much muddle there is beneath the surface, especially when
authorities attempt to formulate policy around something they don't truly understand.
The Uighurs, as well as Islam itself, mystify China's
secular leadership. In Xinjiang, a vast western province -- three times the
size of France and bordering eight countries -- China's long-term policy toward
minorities is puzzled in principle, capricious in execution, and the result is
much suffering on the part of both Uighur and Han. Far from containing tension,
the heavy-handed approach fans the flames. It is a brutal kind of confusion.
Xinjiang has been called the "Texas of China," and it
certainly exhibits a rough-and-tumble frontier feel. Oil and mineral wealth
have in recent years attracted Beijing's attention, and an influx of Han
businessmen, swashbucklers, and entrepreneurs migrating from east China. When
the western desert territory was incorporated into the People's Republic, the
Chinese leaders selected as their provincial capital Urumqi, a city
undistinguished by landmarks or history. In a region with a long and storied
past, and a landscape dotted by historic mosques and the sites of famous
battles and tombs of Uighur kings, the new capital was a relative blank slate.
It seemed a place that new settlers could, in effect, start over.
But, on the face of it, official policy in Xinjiang is not
to erase Uighur history or identity. Indeed, special efforts are made to
highlight certain aspects of the past. Airport gift shops sell books printed by
Han publishing houses about the charming customs of Xinjiang's minority groups.
A stream of tourists, international and Han Chinese, comes to visit the
historic old towns in cities like Kashgar, located in southwest Xinjiang. The
local government is flirting with, or at least trying to make a few yuan off
of, what the spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in London described to the
BBC's Radio 4 as the region's "multiculturalism."
Outside Urumqi, the troubled provincial capital where
Sunday's riots took place, new highway signs are posted in both Mandarin
characters and the Uighur language, written in an Arabic script. But there's a
danger of getting lost if one tries to follow those signs. If you ask the local
Uighurs, they say that what passes for signage in their language is often
nonsensical transliterations, a version of "Chinglish" in Uighur. There's
ornamental appeal, sans utility -- evidently Uighurs weren't consulted in
planning or proof-reading.
Special funds are allocated by the central government for
religious affairs and poverty reduction bursaries in Xinjiang, as in other
western provinces. But how are they spent? Take the "Xinjiang Minority Street"
project in downtown Urumqi. It's a five-story market complex with an
exotic-looking exterior, dominated by pale yellow turrets and fanciful
archways, with numerous stalls and winding staircases inside. A placard by the
entrance proudly announces that it was built in 2002 for the benefit of Xinjiang's
minority people, as a place to sell their ethnic handicrafts, for the hefty sum
of 160 million yuan (around $23.4 million).
But inside, most of the stalls, if they were ever occupied,
are now empty. A few are home to Han jewelers selling jade trinkets. The paint
is beginning to peel. A Chinese hostess stands outside a deserted restaurant
with décor resembling how Walt Disney might imagine Arabia. In short, this is
what a boondoggle looks like. Or rather, it's how local officials and
contractors conceive of what Uighurs want (or at least how they can capture
funds Beijing sets aside for minority affairs), without much consultation with
Uighurs themselves. Sadly, the building sits adjacent to what is in fact the
heart of the city's Uighur district, where families live in one-story shanties
of brick and mud that could badly use money for repairs.
The building, a work of pure architectural and promotional fantasy,
epitomizes the vast disconnect between how Han officialdom envisions China's
minorities and how Uighurs see themselves, and Islam.
Last year I was in Kashgar during October's Golden Week -- an
extended national holiday commemorating the founding of the People's Republic
of China. My hotel sat on the grounds of the former Russian consulate -- a
reminder of when Western powers fought over influence in Central Asia. That
afternoon Chinese state television was showing continuous coverage of the
Golden Week celebrations, including parades of China's officially-recognized
minority peoples in bright costumes, singing and dancing, and saluting the
legacy of New China.
But outside, residents of Kashgar were gathering to mark a
rather different festival: the end of Ramadan, the month-long fasting period for
Muslims. The final day of Ramadan, when the fast is broken and people
celebrate, is called Rozi Festival. Annually, 10,000 men and their families
from across southwestern Xinjiang travel to Kashgar to commemorate the holiday
outside the ancient Id Kah mosque.
The sight of thousands of devout Muslims kneeling on
unfurled prayer mats in a ceremony unsupervised by the state of course makes
local authorities deeply nervous. The government hasn't razed the mosque or
explicitly prohibited worship, but it has recently erected a giant TV screen in
the public square facing the mosque. Kazakh soap operas are now screened at
regular intervals throughout the day, timed to coincide with daily services. Unsurprisingly,
this hasn't had much impact on mosque attendance.
One night I asked a Uighur man headed into Id Kah mosque
about the TV. "If they put it somewhere else, people would be happy," he said.
"But not here -- here it makes us angry."
Miscalculations about Uighurs and their religion have graver
Beijing claims that new industry and oil exploration in
Xinjiang is bringing wealth into the region, benefiting both Han and Uighurs.
Yet according to the Asian Development Bank, income inequality in Xinjiang
remains the highest in all of China. Hiring discrimination is a substantial barrier,
often fueled by the Chinese Communist Party's perplexed attitude toward
religion. "You have a party that is primarily Han and officially atheist,"
explains Gardner Bovingdon, professor of East Asian and Eurasian studies at Indiana
University. "The party doctrine is founded on notion that religion is a
mystification. It requires its members to be atheist; any party member or
teacher in Xinjiang must renounce Islam."
The vast majority of the new jobs in Xinjiang are
state-affiliated: Construction crews, bank clerks, police officers, nurses and
school-teachers all work for the government (there isn't much private business
on the frontier). Many of those positions are off-limits to publicly observant
Muslims. The state-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the largest
development company in the province, for instance, not long ago filled, by
mandate, 800 of 840 new job openings with Han Chinese.
Such policies exacerbate inequality and rile ethnic
tensions. But do they also help the government squash would-be separatist movements?
Most analysts do not believe that religion itself, or
radical Islam, animates pro-independence factions in Xinjiang. To target actual
separatists, more precise strategies could be envisioned. "The way to respond
to a small minority in a society is not to prevent the religiosity of an entire
population," Bovingdon explains. "That's counterproductive, and makes plenty of
And yet, that appears to be precisely the strategy the local
government has adopted. Since 2002, when the U.S.-led "war on terror" gave
China cover for greater surveillance of its own Muslim populations, the
Xinjiang public security bureau has increased crackdowns on what it deems, with
alarmingly broad brushstrokes, the "three evils" of "separatism, religious
extremism and terrorism."
In practice, this means that loudspeakers in mosques are
banned in Urumqi; families hosting dinner parties during religious festivals
must register with the government; the interiors of even small rural mosques
are plastered with tawdry government propaganda, and routinely visited by Han
inspectors (who don't bother to doff their shoes when they enter and check log
books). Although Islam is not officially outlawed, Uighurs are subject to a
litany of intrusions on daily religious life, which leads them to see the
government as an antagonistic force. As one man in Kashgar told me, "Because I
am born a Uighur, I am a terrorist -- that is what the government thinks?"
The authorities' overreach is also clear in the way security
policies target children. During certain religious holidays, anyone under 18 is
barred from entering a mosque. In Kashgar, communal meals are imposed at school
during the fast period of Ramadan, and attendance is required at special
assemblies timed to coincide with Friday prayers. There's no reason to treat
every Uighur child like an aspiring terrorist or separatist, unless the aim is
truly to stamp out religion from next generation. But this tactic would seem a high-stakes
gamble for the CCP.
Andrew Nathan, chair of the political science department at Columbia
University, explains, "This is the Chinese style toward religion -- the
government is very suspicious of religion. In Xinjiang, separatism is the thing
they want to avoid. They conceive of the separatists as people who are
religious fundamentalists. They're making a logical leap of faith. It produces
resistance. It produces deep resentment."
And there are some indicators that China's attempts to curb Islam
in the name of assimilating the Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang are
woefully backfiring. Even as the local government has tightened its
"counterterrorism" policies in recent years, the U.S. Congressional Commission
on China has determined, the level of unrest in the province has actually increased. Last year saw a string of bus
bombings and attacks on police in southwest Xinjiang; Sunday's bloody riots in
Urumqi were the worst in many years.
"China's attempts to suppress Islam," a recent Human Rights
Watch report concludes, "is a policy that is likely to alienate Uighurs, drive
religious expression further underground, and encourage the development of more
radicalized and oppositional forms of religious identity."
Commenting from a different angle, Richard Weitz, director
of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, finds
broader regional security implications. "A lot of Chinese problems do appear to
be a bit of their own making," he said. "They justify a lot of what they're
doing in the name of counterterrorism, but we fear it might also exacerbate a
terrorist threat. Of course, the same could be said for some U.S. policies -- look
at Iraq and Afghanistan."
Misunderstanding the Uighur culture and religion, the
Chinese authorities fear the worst. And
their current policies seem more likely to foster resistance and resentment
than peace and passivity. Perhaps the backlash is already beginning.