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Ethnic violence and the rise of Uyghur tensions in China

Five Uyghur suspects have been detained in relation to a Tiananmen Square incident earlier this month. What do we know about the ethnic minority? Weibo/@jing_oppa

Flash occurrences of ethnic violence are on the rise in China. Last month, five Uyghur suspects were detained in connection with a car explosion in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which claimed the lives of two people and injured 40.

On June 26 and 28 – close to the fourth anniversary of the July 2009 Urumqi riots – 35 people were killed in two outbursts of violence between Uyghurs and security forces in Xinjiang.

Suffice to say, relations between the nearly ten million Uyghurs (a Turkic, mostly Sunni-Muslim group) and the Han Chinese (China’s predominant ethnic group) have been tense. What explains the rise of Uyghur unrest in China? And how will the Chinese government respond?

Religious repression

State policies that limit ethno-religious practices are a major contributing factor behind Uyghur and Han tensions. For instance, public sector employees are forbidden to wear Islamic headscarves and coverings (including the doppa cap for males) or fast during Ramadan.

Individuals under the age of 18 are not allowed to enter Islamic religious places (such as mosques) or pray in schools. The study of the Qur'an is only permitted in designated government schools, and Imams cannot teach the Qur'an in private. There are documented accounts by Muslim Uyghurs who report that government informers regularly attend prayers in their local mosques.

Chinese authorities have also slowly phased out the use of the Uyghur language in the majority of schools and universities, leaving Mandarin Chinese as the main mode of instruction.

Socio-economic disparities

Perhaps the most significant factors behind current ethnic tensions are socio-economic. The economic inequalities between Uyghurs and Hans are intensified by increasing Han migration to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Simply put, Hans earn more than Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Hans are over-represented in professional and managerial jobs, with more than 35% of the Han working population employed in the sector, in comparison to 13% of Uyghurs.

This inequitable distribution stems in part from Uyghurs’ and Hans’ reliance on varying social networks for information on job openings. There is a tendency for Uyghurs to hold low-status and low-paying positions, particularly in the service sector, while Hans occupy positions in high wage and status positions. In effect, these positions become a proxy for available social networks for job information, reproducing occupational divisions.

Disproportionate access to the labour market creates and reinforces existing spatial divisions, with wages determining residential location. Uyghurs and Hans reside in relatively closed ethnic communities and seldom meaningfully interact with each other. This does not bode well for economic, social and political integration in the short and long-term, and will only intensify perceived (or real) differences between Hans and Uyghurs.

The 2009 Urumqi riots arose over tensions between Uyghur and Han workers in Xinjiang. EPA/Diego Azubel

Government responses

The Chinese government’s response to repeated expressions of Uyghur unrest has consisted of oscillating “soft” and “hard” policies. The soft approach is exemplified by funding the building and upkeep of mosques. Given that there are more than 20,000 mosques in Xinjiang – according to the State Council Information Office – this is a significant endeavour.

Further, the state has provided preferential policies in education for Uyghurs (as well as for other ethnic minorities), which consist of bursaries, scholarships and reduced exams scores for university admission.

The “hard” approach is represented by increasing the visible security presence surrounding Uyghurs. The Chinese government has also worked to “re-educate” and “reform” religious leaders to ensure they do not advocate Islamic “fundamentalism” or “radicalism” as defined by the state, or forge connections between the approximately 21-23 million Muslims in China.

The present response to the recent violence will follow the “hard” approach. There will be an increasing security force presence in Xinjiang and random checks of Uyghur activities across the nation. In Xinjiang, in particular, the revamped security grid-system to “manage social control” will be employed. This consists of riot-proof HD cameras, policing boxes, and increased 24-hour inspection routes.

The Chinese government have been keen to paint the recent incident as an act of Uyghur terrorism. However, we should see the Tiananmen Square incident as an individual act of terrorism, rather than an act of group-sponsored terrorism. There is no substantial public evidence to suggest otherwise.

Future prognosis

In the short term, ethnic tensions will be suppressed, as they have been in the past, with the use of “hard” policies. However, “soft” policies will eventually be re-employed.

In the long-term, state policies do little to address the main reasons for ethno-religious tensions among Uyghurs. Left unattended, this will lead to increasing acts of ethnic violence in the future.

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