Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 15:02 GMT

Economic change puts social pressure on Uighurs in China's Xinjiang province

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Jack Carino
Publication Date 25 July 2007
Cite as EurasiaNet, Economic change puts social pressure on Uighurs in China's Xinjiang province, 25 July 2007, available at: [accessed 22 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Jack Carino 7/25/07

The intersection of Ba Ying and Siao Tong streets in the western Chinese oil city of Korla could pass for suburban California. Shopping malls jostle for the attention of the well-heeled passersby, while the nearby river is lined with pristine walkways, parks, and sculptures.

Down the road, looming apartment buildings hem in a patch of houses owned by Uighurs, the dominant ethnicity in China's western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Soon to be demolished, the old, low-slung homes signal Korla's conversion from backwater to boomtown – and give a hint of the tensions between locals and newcomers as China strives to develop its farthest reaches.

The construction of a new Xinjiang has accelerated rapidly since Communist Party leaders introduced the great western development strategy – popularly known as the Go West policy – in 1999. The idea was to spread China's remarkable growth beyond its coastal cities to the interior, a vast tract that includes less than a quarter of the country's population but half of its 80 million people living under the official poverty line.

"The government very clearly, from the late nineties, identified the growth in inequality between western China and eastern China as a matter not only of economic concern, but also political concern – [that] the growing gap would actually create a kind of potential for unrest," said Indiana University's Gardner Bovingdon, a specialist on the region. The central government therefore began encouraging private investment and immigration, he said, while sponsoring large infrastructure projects aimed at improving the area's overall economic well-being.

Xinjiang was a particular target. Communist planners were eager to exploit its abundant natural resources and head off separatist sentiment among Uighurs, which had occasionally flared into violence. On paper, the plan appears to be working. Official statistics show a steady increase in annual GDP growth rates for Xinjiang since 2000, passing 10 percent in 2004 and 2005. The region's potential also attracted a flood of migrants, mostly from China's poorer provinces such as Sichuan and Henan.

For Xinjiang-bound immigrants from the country's packed interior, Korla and similar cities are attractive for their abundance of resources and relatively small population. But the newcomers, mostly members of China's predominant Han ethnicity, are not filling a vacuum. Some analysts suggest that rather than building a more inclusive Xinjiang, the steady import of Han culture, commerce, and architecture is pushing Uighurs further towards the margins of Chinese society.

Economic inequalities are compounding the social strains. Most of Xinjiang's growth has been confined to the North, where Han make up a majority of the population, while much of the Uighur South remains poor. According to government statistics from 2000, average incomes in the region's richest city – Karamay, a northern oil town – were more than 25 times higher than those in its poorest district of Hotan.

Given Go West's questionable benefit for the populations most in need, some observers contend that China's support for development via immigration is actually an attempt to dilute the Uighur population and curb nationalist sentiment. Some Hans reportedly refer to the concept as "mixing sand."

"It's entirely possible that, in objective terms, economic growth and modest Han immigration is conducive to the economic benefit of all, but what's also pretty clear is that it reduces the political influence of Uighurs in their region," Bovingdon said.

In a 2003 paper on the subject, regional analyst Matthew Moneyhon went further. "Although construed as an effort to alleviate poverty and bridge the growing gap of economic disparity between the eastern and western regions, Go West is actually an attempt to quell ethnic unrest, solidify the nation, and legitimize the current regime," he wrote.

The Chinese government dismisses such allegations. At most, Bovingdon said, the government will allow that the local population lacks "the entrepreneurial spirit to develop the economy on its own," and needs guidance from experienced outsiders "who just happen to be Han."

The two worlds of Xinjiang – one Han, the other Uighur – appear to operate in parallel. Cities in the region tend to be divided into ethnic neighborhoods. Uighur university students in the regional capital, Urumqi, say they rarely interacted socially with their Han classmates.

"We have no Chinese friends, only acquaintances," said one. As an example of the cultural gap between the two groups, he described how Han students' practice of washing themselves in dormitory bathrooms – a public display that offends many Uighurs, who are Muslim – led to conflict.

While such anecdotes indicate that the "harmonious society" so often invoked by Beijing remains a long way off, China's Xinjiang policy may be succeeding in the more immediate goal of dampening support for separatism. The region's economic growth, coupled with an ongoing, harsh crackdown on Uighur nationalism, has led to a sharp decline in political unrest since the beginning of the current decade, Bovingdon said.

A Han businessman from Korla said that was the point all along. "The central government doesn't care about whether the economy develops," he said. "They just want it to be stable."

Editor's Note: Jack Carino is a freelance photographer who specializes in Central Asia.

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