Daniel Urchick is a defense and foreign policy analyst.  Daniel tweets at @DanielUrchick.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Unrest and separatist tendencies amongst the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang Province, People’s Republic of China (PRC)

Date Originally Written:  March 08, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  April 27, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The article is written from the perspective of a PRC government official offering options for countering ethnic violence, separatism, and extremism amongst the Uighurs in Xinjiang. 

Background:  Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs comprise an estimated 42 percent of Xinjiang’s population of 19 million.  Uighur unrest was historically sporadic and easily suppressed but since 2008 Xinjiang has seen a slow, but noticeable rise in violent activity that appears to be aimed at local actors, such as the local government structure, state security forces, Han immigrants, and Uighur “collaborators,” rather than at the Chinese Central Government in Beijing.  Some Uighurs have called for total independence from the PRC due to cultural oppression.

Uighur terrorism has allegedly occurred across the PRC, including dual bombings in Yunnan Province in 2008, a bombing in Tiananmen Square in 2013, and a knife attack at Kunming Airport in Yunnan that killed 29 and injured 143 in early 2014.  In late February 2017, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a video of Uighur members who claimed they would shed rivers of blood in the PRC and avenge the oppressed[1].  This video marked the first time Uighur militants had officially been tied to ISIS[2].

The PRC has increasingly relied on a heavy-handed and repressive approach to security operations in Xinjiang.  The arrests and detention of protesters, even peaceful ones, are estimated to be well into the tens of thousands, with an estimated 1.8 executions occurring weekly in 2008[3].  Tens of thousands of PRC security components currently operate in Xinjiang[4].

Drivers of Uighur unrest may include being barred from 95 percent of the civil-service positions in Xinjiang[5], being forced to teach Mandarin in Uighur schools, and, until recently, anyone under 18 was prohibited from entering a mosque.  Despite efforts to placate the Uighurs with promises of foreign direct investment, increased employment opportunities, and modernization projects, the majority of these opportunities are still reserved for the Han Chinese.

Significance:  Xinjiang links the PRC to Central Asia and the greater Middle East geographically, ethnically, and religiously.  The problems of ethnic separatism and religious extremism in the Middle East and Central Asia flow into Xinjiang.  For this reason, in addition to poor administrative practices, there is a small, but growing problem with separatism and terrorism in the region.  Fear of an ISIS-like organization forming in Xinjiang, combined with a theoretical collapse of adjacent Tajikistan, has spurred the PRC into creating an entire security organization: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Option #1:  The “Alaska” model— Reward the Uighurs with economic dividends based on exploiting Xinjiang’s resources.

Risk:  Economic dividends have historically been reserved for Han Chinese who may grow agitated with the loss of an exclusive “perk,” causing them to lash out at the local and Central Government.  Unhappy Han may direct their frustrations towards the Uighur population, who may respond to violence with greater violence, exacerbating the situation.

Gain:  Opening resource management to the Uighur population will co-opt Uighur elites and likely remove environmental concerns and wealth imbalances as a historical justification to protest resource exploitation in Xinjiang.  Option #1 places the onus of environmental degradation on the Uighur elites vice the local and Central Government.

Option #2:  The “Scotland” model— the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintains direct control of international and interprovincial trade, as well as military and police functions, but cultural autonomy exists in exchange for loyalty.

Risk:  This model allows the Uighur identity to grow unchecked, which may develop to a point of seeking greater separation from the rest of the PRC.  Misplaced faith in Uighur officials by the CCP could create Uighur opposition leaders in future periods of unrest and rising tensions.  The granting of such a high-level of autonomy to Xinjiang may spark calls for similar policies in other ethnic minority regions in the PRC.

Gain:  The PRC government maintains control of local security apparatus while receiving maximum economic benefit to be distributed as it sees fit.  True autonomy for the region reduces international and domestic criticism of PRC governance in the region.

Option #3:  The “Hawaii” model— Calls for the creation of an “indigenous people’s organization” to communicate with local officials about ongoing and future disputes with the government or Han population.

Risk:  The creation of the indigenous people’s organization could result in a legitimate alternative authority to the Central Government in Beijing, which, in turn, could eventually organize the Uighur population to formally challenge PRC government authority.  This organization may create avenues for Uighurs who support violent extremism to move into positions of authority.

Gain:  This indigenous people’s organization places an administrative barrier between the local government and Uighur population’s criticism and frustrations.  Both the Central Government and local government can use this organization as a scapegoat when tensions flair, while staffing it with vetted personnel. 

Option #4:  The “Australian” model— Special privileges are granted to minorities, such as no birth restrictions, tax exemptions, and assured education.

Risk:  Special privileges conferred to the Uighurs risk increasing resentment among the Han population towards the Uighurs, leading to increased hostility and even greater inter-ethnic violence.  Even more worrisome, the Han populace in Xinjiang, and around the PRC, may become resentful of the Central Government for withholding highly coveted privileges.

Gain:  Removing restrictions that apply to the rest of the country promotes a sense of exceptionalism in the Uighur population, encouraging loyalty to the PRC.  Assured education encourages educated Uighurs to become local elites and support the Central Government that supported them.

Option #5:  The “West Bank” model— Government promotion of cultural and Islamic tourism to Xinjiang Province.

Risk:  Exposes a larger portion of the PRC populace to Islam, increasing the potential for conversion to a religion that believes in an authority other than the Central Government in Beijing.  Islamic tourists to Xinjiang could bring ideas about Islam and its role in society and government that the PRC government views as destabilizing, further increasing tensions.

Gain:  Uighurs are potentially exposed to more moderate Islamic ideas on a wider scale, rather than radical Islamist ideas that proliferate under or due to government suppression.

Other Comments:  The models presented above can be found with greater detail in Dru Gladney’s 2003 paper “Responses to Chinese Rule in Xinjiang: Patterns of Cooperation and Opposition,” published in the Mongolian Journal of International Affairs (http://www.mongoliajol.info/index.php/MJIA/article/viewFile/122/123).

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Katie Hunt and Matt Rivers. “Xinjiang violence: Does China have a terror problem?,” CNN, December 02, 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/02/asia/china-xinjiang-uyghurs/

[2]  Ryan Pickrell. “ISIS Vows To ‘Shed Blood Like Rivers’ In First Threat Against China,” Daily Caller, March 1, 2017. Retrieved from: http://dailycaller.com/2017/03/01/isis-vows-to-shed-blood-like-rivers-in-first-threat-against-china/

[3]  Drew Gladney. “Responses to Chinese Rule in Xinjiang: Patterns of Cooperation and Opposition,” The Mongolian Journal of International Affairs. Retrieved from: http://www.mongoliajol.info/index.php/MJIA/article/viewFile/122/123

[4]  “Xinjiang deploys over 10,000 armed police in latest show of force after terror attacks,” South China Morning Post, February 28, 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2074711/china-stages-another-huge-show-force-xinjiang-wake

[5]  Preeti Bhattacharji. “Uighurs and China’s Xinjiang Region,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 29, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.cfr.org/china/uighurs-chinas-xinjiang-region/p16870