Located to the far north west of China (the PRC) and spanning 1.6million km2 of undulating mountain ranges, Xinjiang province is one of Beijing’s foremost security concerns. Aptly named as the new frontier in the 1880s, Xinjiang, like Tibet, has a population that Chinese officials are finding increasingly difficult to police.
A hotbed of ethnic tension, religious extremism and political insurrection, there have been at least six major occurrences of Islamist inspired violence, since 2007. Now, amid the recently thwarted attempt to hijack a Tianjin Airlines flight to the provincial capital of Urumqi, will we see an increase in heavy-handed clampdowns, police brutality and state-sponsored violence?
…45% of Xinjiang’s beleaguered residents are of Uighur heritage…
According to the province’s Communist Party chief, the short answer is yes. Vowing to destroy “separatist forces” with an “iron fist”, such rhetoric is sure to be endorsed by government leaders in the East, who rightly view the potential suicide bombing as a serious threat to national security. Only last week, there was a state-organised raid on a small, “illegal” religious school in Hotan, the city from which the aforementioned Tianjin Airlines flight departed.
Culminating in a blast, in which five adults and 12 children were seriously injured, it is evident that officials are taking a no-nonsense attitude to what they view as an unlawful dissemination of socially harmful teachings. Roughly 45% of Xinjiang’s beleaguered residents are of Uighur heritage, a Turkic speaking ethnic group with cultural links more closely related to that of Central Asian Muslims than that of their Buddhist or Taoist Han counterparts.
…Beijing’s alleged penchant for cultural uniformity…
As a result of these striking differences in religious, cultural and social practices, ethnicity has come to define the political unrest within the region. Last month alone, Chinese judges sent over eight Uighur men to prison for teaching “illegal” religious information, an action which many Western Human Rights campaigners view as a blatant form of cultural suppression, but a claim which Beijing vehemently denies.
In light of the large scale, state-run immigration schemes of ethnic Han to the least Chinese parts of the People’s Republic, the argument regarding Beijing’s alleged penchant for cultural uniformity does seem to hold some weight. Only time will tell, however, as to whether the PRC can hold on to the most rebellious parts of its empire. Yet in the face of continuous pressure from both locals and the international community, will Hu Jintao’s government have to concede more and more to those in favour of Uighur secession?