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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.

Pole-arization in Europe

Across the Western world, from Hungary to France, and even to the United States, 2016 has been a year of triumph for nationalist conservatives. Spurred on by the massive influx of Muslim immigrants to the West, the fear of terrorism and otherness has risen to the forefront of both American and European politics. Among these nations is Poland, the former Soviet Republic which has long been a beacon of hope in Eastern Europe. As a leading NATO ally, a growing economy, and the first republic to peacefully unburden themselves of Moscow’s chains, Poland has demonstrated to the rest of the Slavic peoples that it is possible to move on from Communist oppression and join in the prosperity of the West.
Many Polish citizens, however, have been left behind by the rapid growth brought on by Poland’s admittance to the EU in 2004. As may be familiar to European and American readers alike, most of the government and EU development programs went toward cities and the surrounding areas, leaving the countryside in its original dilapidated state. Rural Poland is by no means a third-world country, and yet the unemployment in Podkarpacie, one of Poland’s most conservative provinces, is at 13.2 percent compared to the 9.8 percent national average. As young workers leave their ancestral homes to find work in the cities, they bring with them their labor potential and their progressive views. The result is an increasingly impoverished countryside, with increasingly conservative views.
Jaroslaw Kaczinski’s “Law and Justice Party” promises to solve the nation’s problems. How? By barring immigrants, of course!
It is perhaps easiest to understand Poland’s conservative streak in terms of its southern neighbor, Hungary, whose Fidesz party has gone in much the same direction, though earlier and more dramatically. At its conception, Fidesz represented Hungary’s liberal, anti-communist youth. Eager, like Poland, to join the European community after the Soviet collapse, a sizeable portion of Hungarians put their support in the pro-integration, pro-trade Fidesz, and its leader, Victor Orban. Over the years, however, the stance of Fidesz has taken a sour turn. In 2010 Victor Orban became Prime Minister, after having served a term in 1998-2002. In that time his liberal, global agenda reversed, and Orban became an advocate for closed borders and limited EU meddling in national affairs. He voiced a sentiment that many Europeans had felt afraid to suggest: that immigration was a plague, not just on Europe’s growing economies, but on its mosaic of unique, age-old cultures. In 2015, Orban’s administration succeeded in erecting a double-layered barbed-wire fence along the southern border, complete with guards and water cannons to drive off any refugees who would come expecting to find prosperity in their country.
Kaczinski is among a host of European leaders to draw from Orban’s example, though in this case he controls an economy four times that of Hungary, in a location that is strategically imperative for NATO’s control of Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea. Speaking no language besides Polish and obsessed with the memory of his dead twin, Lech, Kaczinski took over the leadership of what was his brother’s party, clamping his grip on Parliament and molding the image of a quiet but fiercely nationalist eccentric. He has scarcely ever left his country, and relies entirely on cabinet reports to acquire information about the world outside Poland. Both the president and prime minister of Poland are widely recognized as Kaczinski’s pawns, though he himself bears only a middling political office. This party-boss approach has officials within and outside his country fearing for the future of genuine democracy in Poland.
Kaczinski has used his power to reconstitute the branches of government, effectively neutering the Judicial branch while purging the public TV and radio stations of any non-conservative messages. Though private stations do exist and claim a majority of the nation’s non-internet media consumption, Kaczinski’s use of public infrastructure to spread PiS propaganda is troublingly reminiscent of the USSR’s complete control over its public’s access to information. Coverage of liberal protests has almost vanished; the emphasis now lies on programs relating to Polish identity, like the Pope’s visit to the dominantly Catholic country this year.
Whatever the future may hold, it is certain that Europe, and, indeed, the world, faces an unprecedented dilemma: do we, as one world, come together to build connections, trade, and diversity on all levels, or do we remain, as the human race always has, in a scattering of isolated tribes?