Nir Elias / Courtesy Reuters Chinese military police ride past a Uighur woman on main street in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, July 2009.

China's Wild West

The Problem With Beijing's Xinjiang Policy

Last October, a sport-utility vehicle sped onto a crowded Beijing sidewalk and exploded at the foot of Tiananmen gate, killing five people and injuring nearly 40 others. In the aftermath of the attack, the Chinese government declared the explosion an act of terrorism committed by Islamic jihadists from western China. Meanwhile, the foreign media turned the spotlight on the home province of the attackers -- China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region -- where some nine million Turkic-speaking Muslims, known as Uighurs, have lived under the control of the Chinese Communist Party since 1950. This arrangement has not been altogether peaceful; just this week, for example, local police gunned down six people in the city of Xinhe.

In the aftermath of such violence, newspapers have been quick to publish stories about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant Uighur separatist group, and Beijing’s recent crackdown on Uighur dissidents. Scores of reporters have questioned whether ethnic nationalism or religious extremism was to blame for the bloodshed in Tiananmen. But the media has largely overlooked a more fundamental issue: How Beijing’s drive to develop the region economically -- in the face of an already resentful and restless minority -- has failed to create stability there.

Yet the central government and the Uighurs have not been the only players in the story of Xinjiang’s recent economic and social development. During Zhang Chunxian’s tenure as Xinjiang’s party chief, which began in 2010, the relationship between the regional government and Han immigrants has been just as important. It is the latter group’s support for Beijing’s economic plans that has made Xinjiang at once more lucrative and more restive.


The Uighurs of Xinjiang have a long history of resisting Chinese rule. During the twentieth century, two independent, Uighur-dominated governments -- the Turkic-Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan (1933–34) and the East Turkestan Republic (1944–49) -- controlled various parts of the region. And in earlier times, dozens of other regimes laid claim to other areas. For

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