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Jul 2, 2013 | 10:16 GMT

5 mins read

China's Struggle to Contain Ethnic Unrest Continues

China's Struggle to Contain Ethnic Unrest Continues

Violence has been escalating in China's restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region once again, highlighting the country's struggle to maintain stability in its ethnically diverse border regions. In past weeks, several deadly clashes have erupted in the province, many of them directly targeting local police and security forces. In response, and ahead of the fourth anniversary of similar bloody riots that left nearly 200 people dead in Xinjiang on July 5, 2009, the military and other authorities have ramped up security in the far-western region.

Unrest is common in Xinjiang, where ethnic and religious minority groups resent Beijing's heavy-handed attempts to establish central control as well as the influxes of Han Chinese settlers into the region as part of Beijing's effort to dilute the ethnic concentration. As a result, Beijing has been experimenting with more conciliatory policies toward the minorities. However, with Beijing struggling to balance its desire for improved minority relations with the imperative to maintain stability along the Chinese periphery, the escalating violence in Xinjiang may make such policies more difficult to implement.

On June 26, 35 people were reportedly killed after authorities opened fire on what state media called a knife-wielding mob that had attacked police stations and other sites in the Lukqun township of Turpan prefecture, a wealthy and culturally diverse part of northeastern Xinjiang that has been largely immune to ethnic tensions. Two days later, state-owned media reported a violent confrontation with authorities outside a mosque in the southern prefecture of Hotan that purportedly left two ethnic Uighurs dead. This was followed by another incident June 29 in a nearby county in Hotan, during which more than 100 people on motorbikes reportedly attacked a police station, according to state media, while another group attempted to "incite trouble" at a local shopping area.

Recent Attacks in Xinjiang

Recent Attacks in Xinjiang

While details about the violence in Hotan remain unclear, Chinese officials said a 17-member terrorist group provoked the riots in Turpan in a premeditated attack. In recent years, the term "terrorist" has no longer been reserved only for specific groups, such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, but has been applied more generally to any organization behind clashes. However, state media this time specifically said Syrian rebels had trained the local Muslim extremists who incited the violence. Due to the ambiguity and lack of neutrality in local reporting, it remains difficult to discern whether the various incidents were coordinated or connected to earlier clashes.

In response to the attacks, Beijing vowed to "crack down on terrorist groups" in the region. The government increased security patrols in the area and staged a large-scale military exercise June 29, when the army used tanks and other vehicles to shut down access to several streets in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

Beijing's Failing Strategy

Meanwhile, the central government is also facing ethnic issues elsewhere in China. In neighboring Tibet, for example, self-immolations and protests have continued sporadically in recent months. Similarly, to the east, ethnic distrust between Mongolians and Han workers was on the upswing following a series of protests since 2011, reflecting deep-seated tensions over the region's rapid economic development and influx of ethnic Han

Ethnic unrest in China differs in cause and scope from one restive region to another. And taken individually, each incident may not pose a serious threat to central government control. Combined, however, the recent clashes highlight the persistent and complicated nature of the stabilization challenges facing Beijing in ethnic regions around the country.

Unlike the Soviet Union, which dealt with restive ethnic minority groups, in part, by moving them from their homelands and gerrymandering borders to keep them from becoming too powerful, China has allowed most of its ethnic minorities to remain concentrated on their traditional lands. Beijing's strategy has instead focused on diluting minority populations by moving ethnic Han to the border regions. Han settlers are given economic incentives and sometimes come to dominate certain segments of the local economy and political machinery. In Inner Mongolia, for example, ethnic assimilation has become quite substantial, with ethnic Han now accounting for more than 75 percent of the province's population. Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, where large-scale relocations did not begin until the 1960s, the Han population nearly matches that of the ethnic minorities. Han inflows have exacerbated ethnic tensions due to disparities in social status and economic advantages.

At a policy level, ethnic populations have enjoyed several privileges unavailable to the Han. For example, the minorities have largely been exempt from China's one-child policy and other regulations that have been unpopular among the Han. However, for the ethnic minorities the lack of influence over lawmaking and policy, religious and cultural differences with the Han and feelings of economic exploitation have led to widespread distrust of and antagonism toward Beijing's control.

Since ethnic tensions began escalating in 2008 and 2009, the central government has responded by tightening security and accelerating economic development in the border regions. Beijing hoped that prosperity in the border provinces would alleviate resentment among the ethnic population, but economic growth has evidently failed to stabilize the regions. Instead of recognizing the primacy of the underlying political, religious and cultural causes of the unrest, Beijing has continued to rely on security measures to attempt to defuse tensions. 

For Beijing, controlling Xinjiang and other regions with large minority populations is necessary not only to prevent social instability but also to preserve the regions as vast buffer zones that shield China's core. An excessive emphasis on maintaining security and alleviating tensions by promoting economic growth has increasingly proved to be counterproductive.

A Possible Policy Shift

As a result, the new leadership in Beijing has signaled a willingness to consider more conciliatory policies in the border regions. In May, the central government tapped Yu Zhengsheng, a senior political adviser, to oversee Xinjiang affairs, replacing the country's security chief — a move possibly meant to signal a softened line in Beijing. This was reportedly followed in June by a shift in policy to allow the Dalai Lama to be worshiped as a religious leader in certain parts of Tibet, ending an informal ban in place since 1987 — a key grievance among Tibetans. Beijing is also now permitting senior Buddhist monks to oversee important internal affairs within the temple, ostensibly a move to reduce the role of security forces in Tibetan religious affairs.

This new approach appears to be tentative and narrow in scope, and its effects remain to be seen. However, the recent moves might signal that Beijing's policy logic is indeed evolving toward a more pragmatic approach to the buffer regions. Perhaps to avoid being seen as softening, Beijing denied that there has been a policy shift altogether. Nonetheless, the severity of the recent violence may discourage Beijing from moving forward with any conciliatory policies, or at least make reforms more difficult to implement, since the central government still needs to maintain security in the buffer regions. Whichever direction it takes, Beijing will be forced to walk a fine line.

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