China’s political and military vigilance and readiness to crush ethnic identities within its northwestern region of Xinjiang is on the anvil, yet again. Thousands of paramilitary troops marching in a parade, with lines of armoured vehicles, were seen driving though the streets in Urumqi—the capital of China’s restive Xinjiang province. Earlier this year, similar illustrations of brute military presence were visible in other prominent cities including Kashgar and Hotan. The largest Chinese administrative division, Xinjiang, spans over 1.66 million square km—almost one-sixth of China’s landmass. It is home to a large population of Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic groups, of which the Uyghurs are the largest, followed by the Kazakhs, Hui, Kyrgyz, and the Mongols.
The Uyghurs, who look and sound more like Turks than Han Chinese, aspire for basic political autonomy and self-determination, primarily to protect their cultural and religious identities that are being harshly repressed amid ruthless tyrannical political control, similar to the Tibetans living inside China. Incidents of sporadic protests by the Uyghurs seeking greater religious and cultural freedom are being met with rigorous crackdowns by the administration by means of slapping further restrictions on religious practices, including forcing residents to change a series of traditional Muslim names that are “prohibited”. Restaurants run by Uyghurs have been forced to offer alcohol and cigarettes to customers; public eating during the holy month of Ramzan is mandatory; and beards and headscarves become suspect outright.
Ruled by China’s Han ethnic majority, Beijing is known to have clamped down on dissent and curbed religious and cultural freedom in Xinjiang by means of putting into effect promotion of the Party’s policies on “ethnic unity”. With a significant chunk of the populace in Xinjiang adhering to Islam, the region has witnessed widespread ethnic rioting in Urumqi, Hotan and Kashgar in the past few years, leaving scores of people dead.
The common trend of political and social repression that is visible all across China, remains intensely pronounced in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs are desperately struggling for socio-cultural survival in the face of massive influx of government-supported Han Chinese migration. There is harsh repression of any form of dissent, however peaceful and law-abiding it may be. Although China routinely denies any repression in Xinjiang, it has been reported that dozens of Uyghur families have come out publicly with stories of their family members “disappearing” mysteriously.
The arm of political subjugation has gotten further strengthened with Chen Quanguo taking over Xinjiang as the new Communist Party chief in 2016. Infamous for draconian security measures and hardline policies in his previous tenure in Tibet, Chen is replicating tactics used in Tibet, such as asking residents to hand over their passports to local police; opening up an extensive network of “convenience police stations” equipped with surveillance cameras and guards on round-the-clock patrols. These can, in turn, be converted into quick “checkpoints”. In a bid to tighten its grip, reportedly 40,000 surveillance cameras have been installed just in the capital city of Urumqi.
Xinjiang remains critical to the economic and strategic ambitions of China, being the largest gas-producing region that also possesses abundant oil and mineral reserves. As many as 122 minerals have been discovered, with several of them being the largest reserves nationwide. Besides, Xinjiang is China’s gateway to Central Asia, given that it shares 5,600 km of frontier with Mongolia in the northeast, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the west, and Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in the southwest.
The exploitation of mineral resources and opening up the region for cotton production brought a heavy influx of ethnic Han Chinese to the region, thus dramatically altering the province’s demography and ethnic balance. Today, the Uyghurs constitute 45% of Xinjiang’s population, with around 40% now being Han Chinese—a gap that is fast closing in. The resentment of, and resistance to, government-sponsored and supported migration of the Han Chinese population, restrictions on the religious and cultural practices of the Uyghurs, and loss of land and rights have caused violence to erupt in the region, intermittently.
There needs to be a distinct sense of caution that the pervasive and genuine global threat of terrorism should not be misinterpreted and confused with contentious issues of human rights violations, ethnic cleansing and suppression of fundamental rights to religious and cultural autonomy and freedoms. The fight against terrorism must never become an excuse, or, a pretext, to persecute minorities. Unless the culture, language, religion, education, and work of the Uyghur community are preserved, its exasperation and chafe against Beijing’s cold-blooded rule shall continue, much like in case of the Tibetans who live inside China.