Xinjiang Source recently spoke to L*, a Han Chinese academic born and raised in Xinjiang, about his take on the political and security issues which dominate discussions of Xinjiang.
* Such are the political circumstances in Xinjiang and in China generally, he asked that he remain anonymous, a request that Xinjiang Source was happy to grant.
Xinjiang Source: Do you think that mass Han migration has had a positive or negative effect on Xinjiang?
L: It depends on who those Han Chinese are. The mass migration started in the Mao era, when tens of thousands of intellectuals and "educated youth" were mobilized to relocate to Xinjiang. Those people were highly educated and properly trained with various skills. They were keenly aware of local culture and traditions and many of them learnt minority languages, such as Uyghur and Kazak. Ethnic relations were relatively harmonious at that time. There was a period when Han and various minorities lived together like a family. But things have changed since the economic reforms, especially the "great development of the west" initiated in the 1990s. Landless farmers and business people dominated this phase of Han migration to Xinjiang. Unlike those intellectuals, these people are basically gold-diggers who only care about financial gains and never bother to learn and respect local culture. Consequently, suspicions and misgivings arise.
XS: You mention that recent Han migrants don't bother to learn or respect the local culture. Do you think, then, that Uyghurs may be entitled to feel as though they, and their culture, are under threat from the policies of the Chinese government? After all, they may argue, it is the government who has encouraged these people to move to Xinjiang.
L: Your observation is not accurate. The first phase of migration was indeed organized and sponsored by the government, but the second round was mostly based on economic motivations. Inland farmers migrate to Xinjiang for money instead of ideology. The government didn't organize farmers in any form to permanently settle down in Xinjiang. There are several exceptions though. The government moved tens of thousands of Hans, dislocated by the Three Gorges Dam construction, to Kuqa in southern Xinjiang. Every year, local governments in inland China organize trains of cotton pickers to Xinjiang for seasonal labor, and they leave when their work is done. Uyghurs certainly would feel threatened with such a influx of Han migrants, who understand little about Xinjiang and indigenous cultures. But those new migrants are not government sponsored.
XS: Some Uyghurs claim that some of the government's policies in Xinjiang are, indeed, designed specifically to limit their freedoms and to destroy their culture. What do you think of these claims?
L: These claims are overarching and very general. We need to look at those claims in a more specific way. I believe the Chinese government's policies on Uyghurs are based on its security concerns. For example, Meshrep (a traditional male Uyghur gathering involving poetry, dance and music) has been restricted in Ghulja since the mid-1990s after various sources pointed out that some Uyghurs took advantage of this cultural event for anti-government activities. Then the government cancelled it which triggered the "Ghulja Incident" of 1997 (in which Uyghur protesters were confronted by PLA troops. The official death toll was nine, but unofficial reports place it as high as 100 or more). The government seems to fear all kinds of mass gatherings that might facilitate mobilization and are difficult to control. On the other hand, more and more Uyghur women in Urumqi these days are wearing Wahhabi-style niqabs (covering all of the face except the eyes) and appear to be able to freely walk the streets without being stopped or harassed by the authorities.
XS: You say that the government's policies in Xinjiang are based on security concerns. Many Uyghurs, and indeed non-Uyghurs, believe that these concerns are hugely over-exaggerated by the Chinese state. To what extent do you think these security concerns are justified?
L: That depends on the information one has. Overseas exiles' accounts are difficult to verify and Chinese media are under an information black out when reporting Xinjiang. Foreign journalists are having a hard time covering the issue. But the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is real and tangible in Xinjiang. The question is how to differentiate the security threat from Uyghurs' real and legitimate grievances. We all hope that the government has a clear strategy balancing combating extremism and guaranteeing people's basic rights and needs. Then the question is if the government truly understands the nature of the problem and is on the right track for a solution. To put it simply, I don't know.
XS: Do you think that ethnic relations in Xinjiang have got worse or better in the past 10 or 20 years? Specifically, have you noticed any difference since the riots of 2009?
L: Ethnic relations, in my memory, were fine all the way to 2009. We locals used to say that ethnic unity, built up over thirty years, has been badly damaged, if not completely destroyed, by the violence of 2009.
XS: What do you think is the best way to bring about peace and prosperity in Xinjiang in the future? Assimilation? Increased autonomy? Or something else?
L: I think peace and prosperity will come neither from assimilation nor autonomy, but from a form of constitutional democracy. Assimilation would never happen given the Uyghurs' resistance to everything Han Chinese. Autonomy is impossible because the Chinese government considers Xinjiang as an autonomous region already. The future peace and prosperity of Xinjiang depends upon structural changes occurring within Chinese society, especially its political system.