China’s province of Xinjiang is the largest administrative division in China and is home to a mostly Islamic population which comprises mostly those in the Uyghur and Han ethnic groups, though with a larger population of non-Han. Xinjiang’s 10 million Muslims have had historical tensions with the central Chinese government and have felt disillusioned with their Chinese identity, especially as Beijing is further away from the province than Afghanistan.
The area is rich in oil and minerals and is China’s largest natural gas-producing region. Unsurprisingly its land is being highly developed by China, but this had led to an increased presence by the central government and a transformation of cities, such as Kashgar, as a result of the new economic investment. However it was hoped by the central Chinese government that economic investment would lift people out of poverty, which would ease ethnic tensions and create stability in the region, though it seems that the cultural change imposed by the Chinese government has increased tensions in Xinjiang.
The 2009 riots in were obvious examples to Xinjiang’s historical conflict with China. On July 5th there were riots in Urumqi, in which 200 people died, most Uyghurs and male, after protestors appeared to single out Han-Chinese citizens on the basis of their ethnicity. This was made even more violent after the Chinese military appeared to hand out metal poles to Han-Chinese citizens, which resembled those used by mobs in attacks between civilians. Also, in 2008, also there were demonstrations at the time of the Chinese Olympics and there have been further conflicts in the 1990s in Xinjiang, showing the recent ethnic tension that has built up in Xinjiang.
Recent terrorist action has been the result of cultural conflicts. Many Uyghurs have felt that their culture is being threatened; according to the BBC, government officials have ignited social tensions by imposing Chinese culture on the region, forcing men to shave their beards and women to stop wearing veils. Others, outside of China, have called for a holy war in pursuit of an independent nation. The violence from the 23rd of April has resulted in 21 people dead, 15 of which were police and local officials, after clashes between terrorists and government police forces, as separatist forces have become more violent. According to Deputy Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei weapons were seized along with flags belonging to the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
This is far from the first Chinese internal dispute with its citizens, with tension in Tibet still high, and the increased presence by government officials is likely to only further ignite hostility. It’s unsurprising that a country as large as China, with a population as diverse in many regions, that many have called for independence and greater cultural freedom. However, with an increase of Western journalism in China, and a greater international significance in the region, will the new regime protect its economic interests with violence and domination, or with greater independence granted to its people? This, as well as conflict within China elsewhere, may decide the future decade of power by the current Chinese regime and their future liberal policy or social crack-down. Personally, I believe that although this may be a new, more liberal, Chinese government, the economic importance of the region will outweigh personal liberty and the future of Xinjiang will be one of reduced freedom and greater presence from the Chinese authorities.