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Early last month, the mayor of Urumqi, the capital of the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, described the struggle to maintain China's unity as "a political battle that's fierce and of blood and fire." His description was apt: a spate of ethnic violence in the city had left almost 200 people dead. For several days, armed mobs occupied the streets, and arsonists set the city ablaze.
The recent violence in Urumqi resembles the unrest that occurred in March 2008 in Lhasa, another city in China's far west. Although the two cities are one thousand miles apart and home to two very different ethnic groups—the Uighurs in Xinjiang are Turkic Muslims, the Tibetans are Asian Buddhists—local demonstrations in both places quickly inflamed existing discontent and ethnic tensions.
In each case, Chinese paramilitary officers were eventually able to restore order. But on both occasions, at the national and provincial levels, Chinese politicians did little to address the root causes of the unrest—namely, the state's encouragement of Han Chinese transmigration and the consequent subjugation of local cultures.
China's central planners have keenly eyed the country's sparsely populated far western frontier for decades. In a country that has more than one hundred cities, with more than one million inhabitants, and where 90 percent of the population lives on only ten percent of the land, Beijing has seen the vast expanses of the west as unfulfilled potential. It is not just the vacant earth that interests China's leaders but what lies beneath it—Xinjiang holds more than a quarter of China's oil and gas reserves, and the Tibet Autonomous Region has nearly half of China's mineral resources, such as gold, coal, chromite, lithium, and perhaps the world's largest uranium deposits.
The problem for Beijing, however, has been how to persuade Han Chinese—the ethnic group that makes up more than 90 percent of China's population—to relocate to a forbidding area that is several days' travel from the country's more developed east. In response, the Chinese government has made enormous investments in infrastructure, meant to make the remote regions of Xinjiang and Tibet—separated from the rest of China by the Gobi Desert and Tibetan plateau—more accessible. At the same time, it has sought to pacify native populations by stimulating local economic activity.
The main vehicle for this investment has been the Great Western Development Strategy, first implemented in January 2000. By 2007, China had spent 1.3 trillion yuan ($190 billion) and pledged another 438 billion yuan ($64 billion) in 2008 for infrastructure projects. In July 2006, China opened the Golmud-Lhasa railway, an ambitious project that runs at more than 16,000 feet above sea level, a height that exceeds any peak in the Alps.
Encouraged by such initiatives, and lured by tax breaks and economic opportunity, hundreds of thousands of Chinese have migrated from east to west since the 1990s. The ensuing demographic shift has dramatically changed the face of the region. In Lhasa, Tibetans are now outnumbered by Han Chinese by as much as two to one. In Xinjiang, the change has been even starker. According to China's 1953 census, Uighurs made up 75 percent of the region's population and Han Chinese just six percent. The 2000 census, however, showed that Uighurs represented 45 percent of the population and the Han Chinese 40 percent—and by now the Han Chinese are certainly in the majority.
Previously living in isolation, both the Uighurs and Tibetans fear the growing demographic and cultural hegemony of the Han Chinese. Although Beijing points to economic growth in the western regions, local residents are more resistant, as they have seen their highly traditional and long-isolated cities change irrevocably. Signs in Mandarin for new restaurants and shops, as well as karaoke bars and multistory buildings built by the Han Chinese, have come to define the region's major towns.
The result has been growing resentment and self-segregation, which, in both cases, has led to violence. But instead of viewing these eruptions of unrest as a warning, the Chinese government has avoided any shift in its migration policies. In fact, Beijing has done just the opposite: the Chinese government seems to regard a continuation of current migration policies as the effective remedy. Less than a month after the violence in Urumqi, the government announced an investment of 15 billion yuan ($2.2 billion) to build 20,000 kilometers of highways, which would create more jobs in the west and make the province more tempting for internal migrants.
The Chinese Communist leadership aims to stifle any future dissent in the western regions through a dual strategy of economic development and demographic inundation. It is unlikely, however, that Beijing will be able to subjugate six million Tibetans and eight million Uighurs with just cash and karaoke. Higher incomes and modern lifestyles are seen as scant compensation for the perceived loss of more than a millennium of cultural and religious heritage.
If Beijing hopes to find a longer-term solution to its western problem, it will need to implement a far more radical policy. The best approach may already exist: China could expand the category of Special Administrative Regions (SARs), which now exist in Hong Kong and Macau, to the country's western provinces.
The concept of SARs was created in the 1990s, in an attempt to appease the United Kingdom and Portugal, the two imperial powers that previously ran Hong Kong and Macau, respectively. According to the laws establishing the SARs, the territories are afforded "a high degree of autonomy" and "executive, legislative, and independent judicial power."
In addition, the SAR arrangement requires security forces to be comprised of local citizens, while residents inside SARs are granted protections covering freedom of speech, press, assembly, privacy, and, perhaps most significant if such a program were to be adopted in Tibet, religion. The checks and balances built into the SARs' governance allows for the guarantee of these rights far more effectively than under the Chinese constitution, which nominally provides similar freedoms.
For China's western regions, the most appealing bylaw of the SARs would be Article 22, which requires Chinese citizens from outside the SARs to apply for approval from local authorities for entry. If not carefully managed, however, such a provision could heighten ethnic tension and cause a destabilizing exodus of Han Chinese from Xinjiang and Tibet. One option would be to grant a waiver to those already living in the region (in Hong Kong and Macau, for example, those living in the territories for seven years were granted permanent residency).
The creation of SARs in Xinjiang and Tibet would not just be in the interest of local populations; the Communist Party leadership would also benefit. Beijing would retain control over foreign affairs and defense and keep the right to station military forces in the regions. Even more important, the law establishing the SARs dictates that the "land and natural resources within the [SAR] shall be state property." This ensures that the rich supply of resources in the western regions would remain under Beijing's authority.
To further assuage Beijing's doubts, the SARs in Xinjiang and Tibet would not need to be as autonomous as those in Hong Kong and Macau, which have separate political systems with their own partially direct elections. Such a concession would not be required in Xinjiang, where the population has never experienced elections, nor in Tibet, where the population would simply like to replace an unpopular unelected official with a popular one: the Dalai Lama.
Such an arrangement would remove another thorn in Beijing's side—the international attention and opprobrium created by the Dalai Lama's ongoing exile. The Dalai Lama would likely accept such a solution; the SAR closely resembles his own "middle way" negotiating position, which cedes the claim to full Tibetan independence and instead calls for "genuine autonomy." In any future Tibetan SAR, the Dalai Lama would likely be less of a problem for Beijing in the region than outside of it.
Ultimately, such a solution would allow for linguistic and cultural—but not full political—independence from Beijing. The provinces would remain within China's borders, their resources would be national possessions, and the cost savings would be enormous. Estimates suggest that the Chinese government spends more than a billion yuan a month to maintain security forces in the region.
It is unclear, however, whether the conservative Chinese Communist Party, which has maintained its hold on power through guile, force, and destruction of all competing centers of influence, will be able to adopt such a radical policy. But to disregard the underlying motivations of the recent unrest in Xinjiang—and in Tibet before that—is to guarantee that it is only a matter of time before the country's simmering ethnic tensions explode again.