Unrest in the Rimlands

Published on Author Asher
China’s Rimlands (Autonomous Regions)

According to a report from The Economist, twelve were killed last Friday (the 24th) in yet another instance of sectarian clash in Xinjiang Province, China. On the 15th, Chinese authorities had arrested Ilham Tohti. Accused of, among other things, “separatist activities,” Mr. Tohti is a professor, economist, and member of the Uighur minority native to Xinjiang. He has been arraigned before (once after a clash in 2009 that resulted in 200 deaths, and again when trying to board a plane to take a teaching position in the US last year). As is often the case in violent disputes such as these, some consider the Muslim rebels freedom-fighters while others (including the central government) consider them terrorists. For China, avoiding clashes like these should be matter of improving the welfare of Uighurs and spreading a message of national identity and unity. It has failed in this effect with its top-down development approach (which Mr. Tohti criticizes) disproportionately benefiting the ethnic Han transplanted to the region, and leaving the Muslim Uighurs in destitution and lacking representation.

These same tensions, which often erupt into violence, also plague China’s other “rimlands” or “borderlands,” as Robert Kaplan describes them in The Revenge of Geography: those provinces which the central government has, for good reason, designated as “Autonomous Regions.” These include Xinjiang and Xizang (Tibet) to the West, Guangxi in the South, and Ningxia and Nei Mongol (Inner Mongolia) to the North. Kaplan describes these territories as being crucial to China’s geopolitical might, for (while they have historically been the major threat to China’s stability, i.e. invasions from the north-west steppe) they form a protective, if artificial, “buffer zone” and border around China’s fertile cradle. Moreover, the desert plateaus of Xinjiang and Tibet act as a passageway into Central Asia, while the steppes of Ningxia and Inner Mongolia act as a passageway into the Russian Far-East, and Guangxi into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean (described by Kaplan as a critical geopolitical and geoeconomic pivot to which China seeks access through a newly-open Myanmar). What is more, Tibet holds massive underground and glacial freshwater reserves, the headwaters of the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Indus, and Sutlej Rivers, as well as significant deposits of oil, copper, iron, uranium, lithium, chromite, and gold. Xinjiang also holds massive deposits of oil, natural gas, coal, salts, metals, and rare-metals. From Inner Mongolia, Han Chinese are spreading into Russia in vast swaths, along with their roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure. These same roads and pipelines are extending west from Xinjiang into Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and the rest of Central Asia: thus China’s sphere of influence has grown much larger than its own borders.

So how then can China protect itself from the separatist movements within its own rimlands? It has over the past several decades adopted the approach of forcibly and non-forcibly transplanting hundreds of thousands of ethnic Han into these areas while rapidly building roads and infrastructure to cement their territorial claims and violently putting down any protest. However this approach might actually be fanning the flames, so to speak, as it has generally had a neutral-to-negative rather than positive effect on the native populations. Religious, ethnic, and national identity, which has been the basis for these clashes, has only been supplemented by the tensions which have arisen from mass migration and epidemic economic inequality across purely ethnic lines. To quench these sectarian flames, China may need to adopt a softer approach of taking concrete steps to promote the welfare of native peoples, allowing for peaceful protest and freedom of speech, as well as spreading a message of religious and ethnic tolerance and national–but multicultural–identity. Only time will tell how successful the central government is at doing this.

4 Responses to Unrest in the Rimlands

  1. There’s obviously no easy answer, and some of the violence originates among Chinese “carpetbaggers” and not the Uighur majority. My sense is that the local (Chinese) government has also been rather quick to resort to repression; the stick looms larger than the carrot. And that may be in part because local politicians, often ambitious and wanting to get up and out as quickly as possible, are sensitive to the time lags: economic policies take time to implement and mean you have to be constantly asking for money without being easily able to show results. Dissidents – who may include business rivals and people merely complaining about land grabs – have no power, only an ability to make a little noise. If they’re in jail, no noise. So if you can just make that work for the 2 years of your rotation in Tibet (Xizang) or Xinjiang….well, that the next round of protests, perhaps over a land seizure, requires real brutality is your successor’s problem. And since your successor is likely a potential rival, well, there’s a side benefit.

    • Yes, the permanent Han population in Xinjiang has risen from 6.7% (220,000) in 1949 to 40 percent% (8.4 million) in 2008. Meanwhile, though Uighurs makeup just 0.76% of China’s population, they makeup 45% of Xinjiang’s population (thus still the majority). And yes, the strategy of the central government has been violent repression–and some fraction of the violence certainly begins with the Han migrants. However the Muslim Uighurs have been the instigators in most of the violence in Xinjiang–whether they are justified because of the oppression and socioeconomic inequality the face, as Mr. Tohti would argue, is another question. Also, thank you for pointing out the limiting factors to taking the “soft approach” I claim would work better, but that the government has seemed to avoid (that is, violent oppression and jailing of dissidents being much easier in the short term than economic and political reform to improve minorities’ welfare).

  2. Unfortunately it’s hard to obtain independent news of incidents in Xinjiang. I have a friend [former speaker in Econ 274] who happened to be traveling there when violence first broke out in 2009. His observation (helped by fluent Chinese) was that the issue began with actions by Chinese thugs, likely migrants who’d not found the promised pot of gold that would be there for any Han who moved into the backward West.