In 2009, unrest in the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang resulted in the most violent protests in China since the iconic Tiananmen Square protests, and generated Western speculation regarding the extent of tension in the region.
Since Chinese authorities exercise tremendous control over both domestic and foreign media, journalists are rarely allowed to investigate or report on incidents such as the Xinjiang riots, and as a result Western observers have been left in the dark concerning the long-term ramifications of these protests.
Despite a few isolated incidents – most notably an alleged airplane hijacking in the summer of 2012 and an alleged jihadist plot a few months ago – the region has been comparatively quiet since the 2009 protests, until recently, with renewed riots leading to at least 35 deaths, according to state media. This incident clearly shows that, despite a heavy Chinese security presence in the region, ethnic tensions appear likely to continue unabated, and are likely to place Chinese economic interests such as resource extraction at substantial risk.
Tensions in Xinjiang center around the presence of the Uighur minority group. Uighurs, which comprise 46 percent of Xinjiang’s population, have frequently come into conflict with members of the Han ethnic group – the same ethnic group which dominates Chinese society and politics, and comprises 39 percent of Xinjiang’s population.
Uighurs maintain their own cultural identity outside of the dominant Han identity, and are mainly Muslim, in contrast to the beliefs of both the Han and China’s ruling Communist Party. The BBC has reported that that the recent protests were sparked when governmental authorities attempted to pressure men within a family to shave their beards, and attempted to force women to remove their veils – despite Chinese claims that the attacks were instigated by foreign terrorists.
Were ethnic tensions the only issue related to Chinese control of Xinjiang, it might be relatively easy to work out a political solution to the problem. However, Xinjiang’s copious mineral resources complicate the situation. Chinese authorities view the province as a vital source of precious minerals and the region is poised to become a key producer of coal and natural gas. This resource boom exacerbates tensions between Han Chinese and Uighurs, drawing an influx of Han immigrants to the region in search of economic benefits that Uighurs feel are not being shared equally between the ethnic groups.
Additionally, increased mining and resource extraction threaten the grasslands used by ethnic Mongols and Uighurs to graze their herds, only further straining tensions.
The recent outbreak of protests indicates ethnic tensions within Xinjiang appear unlikely to disappear anytime soon despite a strong governmental response. These tensions threaten to disrupt resource extraction and commerce within the province. The central Chinese government takes these concerns extremely seriously, as is evidenced by a recent top level Communist Party meeting regarding the subject presided over by President Xi Jinping, as well as by the recent dispatch of two high level officials – one of whom is a member of the Politburo, the other of whom is a member of the Politburo’s prestigious standing committee – to Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, to restore order.
These actions, combined with a heavy security presence, may or may not be successful at pacifying Xinjiang in the short term, but appear unlikely to do anything to resolve the fundamental tensions affecting the region.