In the wake of the Kunming massacre, the mood in Beijing is more choleric than somber. President Xi Jinping immediately announced a nationwide crackdown on terrorism and military troops were rapidly posted at train and bus stations throughout the country. Armored vehicles now patrol Kunming, Xinjiang natives have been told to register themselves at local police stations in Qinghai province and in Guangxi province authorities have asked citizens to report if they see anyone from Xinjiang — anyone at all.
President Xi also issued a gag order on local reporting, with coverage in Kunming Daily and Yunnan Daily provided by Xinhua reporters in Beijing. Meanwhile China Daily featured a front page photograph of President Xi shaking hands with an ethnic Uighur member of the PCC (China’s Senate). But strengthening national unity goes beyond public cries for concord and front page handshakes. It also involves eliminating the perceived cause of the conflict, and the national narrative is that this cause has more to do with nomadism or Islamist ideology than the fact that employment opportunities for Uighur people, even in their homeland province, are dismally inadequate. In 2009 Ilham Tohti, economics professor at Beijing’s Central Nationalities University and an ethnic Uighur, spoke with Radio Free Asia and suggested jobs might be the key to settling unrest.
But rather than address economic pressures, the government continues to focus on Islam as the catalyst. In 2013 police in Xinjiang began harassing women in head scarves and men with beards. Radio Free Asia reported how one man, with no prior record of violence, stabbed a police officer when he was forced to shave. Ehmetjan Niyaz, an intelligence agent with the local security bureau, commented that they had been advised to investigate men with beards. In Xinjiang, that essentially means all Uighur men.
In other words, the more Beijing singles out Muslims as a means of burking separatism, the more separatist Xinjiang Muslims become. Gardner Bovingdon, Professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University and author of The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land, writes “the closure of mosques, supervision and dismissal of clerics, and the prevention of religious practice by the young — has made Islam in Xinjiang more rather than less political”.
Another government strategy has been to manipulate the demographics of the region. Of the 60% of Xinjiang’s population that is not Uighur, Kazakhs constitute 7% with Hui being another 4.5%. The remaining dozen or so minority groups collectively make up 8.5% while the final 40% is entirely ethnic Han. According to Dr Stanley Toops of Miami University, from 1953 to 1964 the presence of ethnic Han rose from 7% to 33%. Since the 1970s, this number has remained stable at around 40%, making it one of the fastest demographic shifts in Chinese history.
In 2007 Gaël Raballand and Agnès Andrésy published an article entitled “Why Should Trade between Central Asia and China Continue to Expand?” In it, the authors describe how the Xinjiang Construction and Production Corps, also known as the bingtuan, was created in 1954 to encourage the movement of Han Chinese into the region by creating infrastructure there. In addition to creating an ethnic Han workforce to outnumber local Uighurs, the bingtuan also helps ensure locals remain calm with a security force of more than 120,000 heavily-armed troops. As The Economist points out, propaganda is par for the course:
“A museum in Shihezi, a city in northern Xinjiang controlled by the corps, displays a photograph of members of the bingtuan militia armed with rifles, crouching behind a wall during a 1990 uprising by Uighurs near the city of Kashgar. The militia, says the caption, played an important role in crushing the unrest. Amnesty International, a human-rights group, says 50 Uighurs were killed in the incident, including some who were shot while running away.”
Morris Rossabi, who teaches History at Columbia University, points to the Tang Dynasty as the origin of the bingtuan. Famously cosmopolitan, the Tang Dynasty celebrated the Turkic culture of present-day Xinjiang, staffing its frontier armies with Turkic soldiers and even allowing some, like the great Ashina Se’er, to rise to the rank of Tang general. This helped frontier lands become self-reliant and even afforded some measure of political autonomy. The bingtuan follows this tradition by providing Xinjiang the means for economic self-reliance, yet deviates sharply by staffing its workforce with ethnic Han rather than local Uighurs.
With Xinjiang currently contributing roughly 4% of the nation’s GDP (primarily through oil reserves) as well as Beijing’s Western Development policy, which hopes to see China’s western provinces contribute greatly to the nation’s economy, Uighurs will remain a minority in Xinjiang for the foreseeable future. Dr Ilham Tohti has stated he is not opposed to state-orchestrated migration policies, but that these policies need to be carefully reviewed, pointing that if there are enough jobs to warrant the migration of millions of ethnic Han into the region, then why aren’t there enough jobs for the people already living there?
In 2006 Dr Tohti launched a website promoting understanding between ethnic Han and Uighurs, but in 2009 it was shut down and Dr Tohti was arrested. He was released shortly before President Obama’s visit to Beijing but in January 2014 the BBC reported he had again disappeared, that his family had no knowledge of his whereabouts and that the government was charging him with separatism — a crime punishable by death.
For now, events like the Kunming massacre serve to further Beijing’s program of economic development in Xinjiang by providing carte blanche to those who view ethnic identity as a major roadblock to China’s economic future and by giving Xinjiang politicians an easy scapegoat when they fail to provide economic paths of opportunity.