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October 2, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright October 2, 2009 Rian Thum. Used by permission.


One of many disturbing long-term effects of the recent violence in Urumqi is an increased ethnicization of anger on all sides. Ethnic tensions are of course nothing new in Xinjiang, and ethnically targeted state policies have long made it difficult to distinguish between anti-government and ethnic discontent, but until now Uyghur resistance has been aimed at the state. The recent Urumqi uprisings represent a significant redirection of anger along more clearly ethnic lines.

The interactions between Uyghur and Han citizens vary with the uneven demography of Xinjiang. In the provincial capital, Urumqi, Uyghurs are a minority. This means that Urumqi Uyghurs frequently encounter intense racism, but also that they deal with the Han in a wide variety of contexts, many quite friendly. Uyghurs in Urumqi often draw clear distinctions between grievances against the Han and the government. However, it is important to remember that most Uyghurs do not lead the daily lives of minorities. In Southwestern Xinjiang, where most Uyghurs live, Uyghurs constitute the majority. In rural Uyghur areas, the sight of a Han person is rare, outside of interactions with officials and police who have been sent from elsewhere to implement state policies. It is not surprising then, that in the traditionally Uyghur areas of Southern Xinjiang, the line between anti-government and anti-Han discontent is thoroughly blurred. When expressing grievances, it is not uncommon for Uyghurs in the South to name the Han (khӑnzulӑr), the government (hökümӑt), or even the Communists (komunistlӑr) interchangeably as the targets of their anger.

In many ways, the increasing ethnicization of Uyghur grievances is not surprising. A small number of the state policies that anger Uyghurs, such as the ban on religious education before the age of eighteen and strict regulation of speech, technically apply across ethnic boundaries, though they are enforced more vigorously for Uyghurs. However, most of the controversial state policies are, in fact, ethnically defined. Police confiscated the passports of Uyghurs (and not Han) in 2007, and continue to require enormous cash deposits from Uyghurs who want to travel abroad. New educational policies have been announced, and partially implemented, that will force Uyghur children to receive all of their elementary schooling, including subjects like math and science, in the Chinese language, while Han children in Xinjiang have no requirement to learn any minority languages. Although state policies toward Islamic practices among the Hui have loosened up dramatically in recent years, Uyghur Islamic practices are increasingly circumscribed. In the last ten years, for example, the major shrines of Orda Padishahim (near Yengisar), Khüjӑ Padishahim (near Yengisar), and Üjmӑ (near Khotӑn) have been closed to worshippers. The hajj has become much more difficult for Uyghurs, while the number of Hui hajjis has skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the two major policies that benefit minorities alone – exceptions to the one-child policy and lower university admission standards for students who did not attend Chinese-language schools – stoke Han resentment. Further complicating ethnic policy is the fact that the powers that design these policies are disproportionately Han, as Uyghurs, who are underrepresented in the ranks of officialdom anyway, tend to occupy lower posts.