Region Profile: China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region

Though China’s encroachment in the South China Sea has rightly deserved the scrutiny it’s seen in the eyes of the media, there is another, much more insidious policy underway on the other side of the world’s most populous nation.

Meet the Uighurs.

If you haven’t heard of them, don’t worry: you won’t find “Uighurstan” or the equivalent on any geography quizzes, or on the map for that matter. Xinjiang (or “New Borders”), as it is called by the Chinese, is a Central Asian region that has long been conquered by empire after empire, most recently by the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  The Han presence in Xinjiang goes back millennia, but it has been by no means constant. The Chinese first occupied the area during the Tang Dynasty (pictured below), in order to maintain greater control of the Silk Road. Their hold was tenuous, however, local and Tibetan forces along the Silk Road intermittently seized control of the Road  until the Tang Dynasty’s collapse c. 900.

(borders are approximate; other sources show much narrower band of control)
(Borders are approximate; other sources argue much more limited Chinese control at the time)

As is common among desert regions, Xinjiang has been often invaded but rarely controlled. Gokturks, Mongols, Tibetans, and Russians play as crucial a role as the Uighurs or Han in its history. It was ultimately the Uighurs, a Turkic nomadic people with a long history in the steppes of Central Asia, who settled the region, subsequently adopting a lifestyle of agriculture, pastoralism, and trade. Even to this day, a few hunters and Silk-Road traders preserve the ancient traditions of the semi-nomadic Uighurs. The first Uighur kingdom in the region was founded around 1000 AD, and it was around this time that a majority of Uighurs began converting to Islam.

Western Tourists on a caravan ride through the Taklamakan Desert, Xinjiang, China
Western Tourists on a caravan ride through the Taklamakan Desert, Xinjiang.

But recently, however, Xinjiang’s most recent conquerors have taken measures to ensure that their control remains permanent. Unlike the Tang, the modern Han Chinese have adopted a policy of settlement rather than occupation. In the past half-century, the population has shifted from almost entirely Uighur to majority Han:

Since 2008, the Han population has grown even more, to just over 50%, though the numbers are contested.
Since 2008, the Han population has grown even more, to just over 50%, though the numbers are contested.

The Han have moved into the area en masse to capitalize on President Xi’s ‘pet project’ of reinventing  the Silk Road for modern oil and food industry transport, settling mainly in administrative strongpoints like the ancient trade city of Urumqi. Many of the biggest cities are concentrated in the north of the region, along the path of the old Silk Road.

Population demographics by district in Xinjiang. Red is Han, Black is Uighur. A prominent north-south divide is visible.
Population demographics by district in Xinjiang. Red is Han, Black is Uighur. A prominent north-south divide is visible.

Many native Uighurs have not taken kindly to the usurpation of their   homeland. Some have reacted violently, launching terrorist attacks against Han settlers in the region as well as larger cities in China proper. In 2009, a riot in Urumqi against the Han led to 200 deaths. As a result of these attacks, and the global stress on anti-terrorism efforts after 9/11, China has had comparative free reign in suppressing Uighur separatist efforts. It certainly doesn’t help the Uighur cause that Islam is a key part of their group identity and one of the many rallying points against the officially atheist People’s Republic.

Commentators have condemned the Chinese government for (what they view as) exaggerating the extremist tendencies in Xinjiang to further their own ends. Though China recognizes the 55 minority ethnic groups living within their nation, almost all power resides with the Han or (to a lesser extent) the closely-related Hui. Since the consolidation of China’s modern borders in the Communist takeover following WWII, two other sizable minorities have been severely oppressed. In the province of Inner Mongolia, the Mongolian population has either been out populated or entirely assimilated by the Han. In Tibet, religious persecution has forced the Dalai Lama and many other Tibetan (Theravada) Buddhists out of the country. The Uighurs, however, seem to be under cultural attack from the Han, who (perhaps deliberately) place advertisements offensive to Islam in religiously-significant cities, or force students to break fast during Ramadan. Whether these actions are deliberate, or a result of cultural misunderstanding, is difficult to discern. Perhaps that is exactly how China wants it.

Provinces, districts, and autonomous regions of China.
Provinces, districts, and autonomous regions of China.

In this era of growing tribalism, it is troubling, though hardly surprising, to see a nation with the power to supplant a centuries-old ethnic group in only a few decades. The world has changed since the genocides of the early 20th century, but newer, subtler methods have come to supplant genocide by force. Genocide by industrialization, by destruction of culture, and by out-population, are the weapons of the age. Demographically, Xinjiang’s destiny is already set: even if all the Uighurs united, they would be numerically outmatched by the Han in Xinjiang alone, not to mention the rest of China. The Han are richer, stronger, better-trained, adapted to the modern world, and simply too big to be stopped. The only choice left to the Uighurs is to dwindle as a minority in their own home, one more victim in the global march towards consolidation and the cultural domination of superpowers.

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