CHINA'S WILD WEST
Thousands of miles inland, on China’s western frontier, lies a vast, sparsely populated region called Xinjiang. The majority of its inhabitants are Uighur Muslims, a Turkic people who have more in common with their Kyrgyz and Kazakh neighbours than with the Han Chinese who have colonised them. This minority is struggling to defend its culture and traditions as China continues to dilute its population through government led Han migration.
In China’s “Great Western Development Drive”, a campaign launched in 2000, Xinjiang and its natural resources were identified as crucial to China’s energy-hungry economy. As with similar policies in Tibet, the Chinese government offers economic incentives to draw Han people to these frontier provinces, ostensibly to ‘promote stability’ and encourage development. Decades of enforced migration have brought the Han population in Xinjiang from 5% in the 1940s to around 40% today.
Surprisingly, when launching the project in early 2000, the Chinese government drew comparisons between its strategy of development to that of the opening of the American "wild west" in the early 1900s. It even commissioned a detailed study of the "Take-off of the American West in the Early Decades of the Last Century." Today, China stands at the beginning of what many scholars predict will be the "Chinese century". It is believed that sometime within the next 20 years, China will surpass the USA as the world's largest economy. But at what price?
The influx of Han migrants has fuelled Uighur discontent as the two communities compete over limited jobs and resources. Escalating tensions have led to the imposition of a significant military presence to suppress what Beijing calls a growing “terrorist threat”. Not only are the the Uighur community discriminated against at work, but they now live under constant surveillance, with religious practice and freedom of movement strictly controlled by government representatives.
In July 2009, this simmering ethnic conflict boiled over into open violence as Uighur demonstrators gathered in the region’s capital of Urumqi. Street protests degenerated into mass riots with Uighurs attacking Han Chinese migrants who in turn retaliated. The Chinese police force then responded quickly and brutally. Hundreds of people, both Uighur and Han, were killed in the street fighting and in the proceeding weeks, countless Uighur men simply “disappeared”. In an attempted information lock-down, the Chinese government cut internet connections and limited mobile phone communication for ten months after the riots.
Today, the relationship between the Uighur community and Han authorities remains tense. Though Muslim Uighurs are still the majority in Xinjiang, they live under significant restrictions, limiting religious and cultural expression, as well as social freedom. In a land officially known as the “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region”, the notion of autonomy is a hollow concept rather than a reality.