Xinjiang's Troubled History

The bloody events of mid-July in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, in which hundreds of people lost their lives, have their roots in a clash of cultures that is at least 1,400 years old. In 657, the western Turks surrendered to the army of the Tang dynasty and the area of what is now Xinjiang became part of China, with the name 'Protectorate Pacifying the West'.

Pacification, however, has never made it much past the talking stage. The conflict between Uighurs and Han Chinese over Xinjiang is similar to that of the Arabs and Jews over Palestine, an intractable struggle over history, religion, blood and ownership of the land.

The Uighurs themselves arrived in the region from the Mongolian plains in the middle of the ninth century and established control over much of it until the Mongol conquest in the early 13th century. After the Mongol empire collapse, the region split into warring kingdoms, one of them called Uighurstan. In the 17th century, the Mongolian Dzungars established an empire over much of the region.

In 1759, a Qing general recaptured the region for the emperor. Fearful of the Dzungars, he ordered their extermination, killing more than one million people, in an ethnic genocide. During the decline of the Qing and early Republic period, there were frequent rebellions, as Uighurs and other groups sought to exploit the weakness of the central government. In the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire sent teachers and imams to Xinjiang, whose elite sent their children to study in Turkey. The Uighurs of Kashgar proclaimed the first East Turkistan Republic on November 12, 1933; it lasted only three months before a Chinese warlord named Sheng Shicai took over Xinjiang and ruled it for 10 years. Uighurs called him 'a butcher'.

They gave the same name to Wang Zhen, the man who did more than any other in history to bind Xinjiang to China. In 1944, with support from the Soviet Union, the Uighurs proclaimed the second East Turkistan Republic in three districts of northern Xinjiang. It lasted five years, until Wang's Communist army conquered the region. From October 1949, as Communist Party chief and military commander of the region, for each Chinese soldier killed, Wang ordered the execution of five men in the village where the killing took place.

In 1954, Wang set up the Production and Engineering Corps, in Chinese Bingtuan or military group'. They were demobilized soldiers who became militia farmers, similar to the Jews who migrated to Palestine before and after the establishment of Israel. They now number more than 2.5 million and produce much of the region's cotton, tomato, fruit and other farm crops. They have also developed mining and mine-related industry and have a dozen listed companies. The corps has its own education system, including two universities, a newspaper and television stations.

By 1964, thanks to Wang's policies, the Han percentage of Xinjiang's population had quadrupled from six percent, or 300,000, in 1949 to 32.7 percent in 1964. In 1949, the Uighur proportion was 75 percent.

Wang's brutality was too much even for Mao Zedong, who fired him from his post in Xinjiang in 1956. But Wang remained a senior figure in the Communist party and army and an advocate of military force in Beijing in May 1989. He remains a hero among the Han in Xinjiang. his ashes were scattered over the Tianshan Mountains north of Urumqi after his death in March 1993.

In the 2000 census, Han accounted for 41 percent of the region's population against 45.2 percent for the Uighurs. If the current rate of migration continues, the Han will become the majority within 20 years or sooner

A research paper published by the Bingtuan in August 2003 said that study of the Uighur language was useless.

"Our long-term aim is to Sinicise the local population. We must first destroy the Uighur language. We must encourage large-scale migration." The report stated. It advocated the Israeli example and establishment of large Bingtuan settlements in the five areas of Xinjiang where the Uighurs account for more than 50 percent of the population, including Hetian and Kashgar, where support for the ETR is strongest. "The Bingtuan method is to choose places where no-one is living, to avoid giving Uighurs the idea that we are stealing their land. Introducing water will improve the local economy and living standards of Uighurs and block the growth of terrorism."

During the 1950s and 1960s, Han migration was compulsory or nearly compulsory. Soldiers stationed in Xinjiang were ordered to settle there, families with the 'wrong class background' were ordered to send a member there and political prisoners were sent there to work. Since the 1990s, the migration has been driven by economic incentives. Xinjiang's nominal gross domestic product in 2008 was 420 billion yuan, against 220 billion in 2004, thanks in part to large government investments in industry and infrastructure and incentives to new settlers. China's dramatic economic growth has driven up prices of the farm, oil and mineral products which are the mainstay of the economy. Its oil, gas and petrochemical sectors are booming.

Ironically, while Han settlers arrive, the Uighurs are going, or being sent, to cities in the east to work. The program began in 2000; in 2002, the number of migrant workers was less than 300,000 and has reached nearly 1.5 million now. Residents of Kashgar, one of areas affected, say that families who refuse to allow their children to go will be fined up to six months of their income. The program has both economic and political objectives – to provide work and skills to the unemployed and income to their families and to remove possible recruits for violence and put them into a 100 percent Han setting. It was violence between these migrant workers and their Han colleagues in a factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong, that sparked the recent violence in Urumqi.

Directing these policies is Wang Lequan, the Communist party chief of Xinjiang and head of the Bingtuan since December 1995 and working there since 1991. It is by far the longest tenure of any provincial or regional chief in China. He has been a member of the Politburo since November 2002, a result of Beijing's fear of Islamic terrorism after 9/11.

One major obstacle to 'Sinicization' is the very low rate of marriages between Han and Uighurs. Families on both sides fiercely oppose such unions because of differences of religion, language, diet, customs and family ties. By contrast, Han marriages with Hui and Kazakh people are common.

Like the Palestinians, the Uighurs are largely helpless to oppose the long-term strategy of Beijing. The World Uighur Congress, based in Munich, says: "Han Chinese are colonists who want to replace us with their own people and assimilate those of us who remain, wiping out our culture."

Wang Lixiong, one of the few Han intellectuals to publicly support the Tibetan and Uighur causes, said that Beijing's policy of 'stability' was every day losing the hearts of local people. "Xinjiang may become the next Middle East or Chechnya. Conflict in the future will become more and more intense. The policies are turning one race against the other. In this vicious circle, the contradictions are intensifying and push the two sides further and further apart and could cause changes that are irreversible."