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Alienated People and an Overcautious state in China’s Xinjiang

Avinash Godbole was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • August 09, 2012

    The People’s Republic of China continues to give out contradictory signals on the question of ethno-religious identity among its minorities. While its desire for economic prosperity in Xinjiang may be achievable, it has not seemingly found any solution to the sense of alienation felt by the local Uighurs. In yet another instance that demonstrates this dichotomy clearly, the provincial authority in Xinjiang has advised some sections of the ethnic Uighur Muslim citizens of the province, including Party cadres, civic officials and students, to “eat properly, study and work” during the holy month of Ramadan. This order remains in place in Hotan and Kashgar, which had witnessed ethnic violence in the recent past. The instruction proffering this advice also goes on to clarify that it is only a directive and that the authorities are not forcing the people to eat during Ramadan.1 However, other reports suggest that a statement in this respect urges the “party leaders to bring "gifts" of food to local village leaders to ensure that they were eating during Ramadan”. 2 As showcased by this instance of misplaced care of the Chinese state for its citizens, there is ample reason to argue that China’s Xinjiang policy itself is misplaced at multiple levels. In the year during which China wants domestic stability more than ever before as it prepares for a power shift at the highest level of the party and as it faces tensions in its immediate neighbourhood, such a move could possibly backfire and only add to China’s problems in the restive northwestern province.

    While there is no denying the fact that some form of ethnic violence is prevalent in Xinjiang, this instance of gratuitous advice shows that the state is unwilling to differentiate between devout Muslims and those with extremist tendencies. For example, one statement notes that the government is “making sure the children are not misled or hurt by criminals or terrorists during Ramadan, when extremists try to take advantage of religious sentiment”. 3 Clearly, the party-state does not know how to do things in different ways in order to achieve that elusive ideal of harmony that the highest leadership harps upon in speech after speech. In addition, by showing unwillingness to make this differentiation, it is also likely that such statements would add to the stereotypes prevalent in Chinese society. It is worth recalling here that the 2009 factory riots in Guangdong, which led to the bigger riots in Urumqi, had started because of stereotypes about the attitudes and lifestyles of the minorities.

    Parts of Xinjiang have seen recurrent violence since the 2009 Riots. Earlier this year, there was violence in Hotan and, recently on 29 June, there was an alleged hijack of a flight from Hotan to Urumqi. In the latter instance, two hijackers died of wounds sustained during their scuffle with the crew and passengers while the fate of the other hijackers remains unknown. While the Chinese government went ahead and paraded and felicitated the crew of that flight, it has remained tight-lipped about the political and individual identities of the alleged hijackers. However, Uighur human rights groups active outside China have alleged that the incident was a fight over seating that took a racial turn and two innocent Uighurs lost their lives.

    While at one level China acknowledges its ethnic diversity and recognises it in its Constitution, much remains to be done about sensitisation of the subject of diversity. Thus, a substantial number of communist party officials remain insensitive to the finer aspects of diversity and issue orders, such as the one about not fasting during Ramadan, that are highly biased. While on the face of it this move was aimed at ensuring peace by separating religious sentiments from fundamentalist elements in society, it amounts to interference in the core values of the minorities’ religious belief.

    Experts suggest that while such directives were there even earlier, this time around it has been done in a more vocal manner. This year, China is likely to select its next President and Premier if everything goes as planned. Domestic and international stability before the Party Congress are perhaps the most crucial elements of this plan. Consequently, China is virtually on high alert. At the same time, the party-state has also allowed the flaring up of its brand of ethno-nationalism to the extent that it targets outsiders. Thus, this directive in Xinjiang is also a part of this stability oriented strategy.

    China has pumped a huge amount of money into Xinjiang for the province’s economic development. It continues to work within the objective of further integrating Xinjiang with the rest of China by expanding road and rail networks at a breakneck pace. However, at the policy level, it does not know how to handle the difference as far as the belief system of the people of the province is concerned. The more the state pushes for domestic harmony, the farther this objective seems to be moving from its reach.

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