Xinjiang: China’s security high-alert

About the author

In summer 1995, I spent six weeks wandering around Xinjiang. It wasn't an easy place to get through at that time. A three-day train ride from Beijing to Urumqi was followed by another three days on the "luxury bus" that set off from Urumqi centre and ended up, a thousand bumps later, in the market place at Kashgar. This was several years before a new railway line linked the most western city in China, almost on the Pakistan border, to the rest of the People's Republic.Also in openDemocracy on Xinjiang:

James Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Henryk Szadziewski, "Kashgar"s old city: the politics of demolition" (3 April 2009)

Yitzhak Shichor, "The Uyghurs and China: lost and found nation" (6 July 2009)

Henryk Szadziewski, "The discovery of the Uyghurs" (10 July 2009)

Kashgar was like nowhere else in China. Only a fraction of the local inhabitants were Han Chinese. The city was dominated by a mosque; the food, language, and feel of the place were wholly different to other Chinese cities - apart, rather tellingly, from Lhasa in Tibet, whose exotic atmosphere and local colour, albeit very different in content, it shared.

My abiding memory of that long trip was the intractable complexity of Xinjiang. A fifth of China's landmass, with endless kilometres of high-altitude grassland, and over twenty different ethnic groups, there was already - even in 1995 - a sense of edginess and unresolved, perhaps irresolvable, conflict.

I was travelling with a Mongolian. When we went into backstreet restaurants in Kashgar, my companion had to refer to this non-Han - and thus fellow "ethnic-minority" origin - almost the moment we walked in,  in order for us to get served. One evening, a local cadre took me aside, at a small party organised by a friend. "Everyday, all we do is read the same old lies in the official Chinese press", he complained. "How do you think it feels like, going around all your life just to be identified as a ‘minority'. Is that all I am? A minority? In most of the cities in this area, I am in the majority. Who the hell has the right to say I am a ‘minority'?"

I remember one celebrated local academic I heard about in Urumqi. He had been working on a history of the Uyghur people for decades. A few months before his magnum opus was due to be published, some proof copies had been taken from his publishers, and the whole project stopped. Even a straight narrative history was problematic (see James A Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang [C Hurst, 2007]). There was oblique talk of a well organised resistance group abroad, based in Kazakhstan, with sympathisers as far away as Germany and the United States. But even the most optimistic Uyghur nationalists admitted that their movement lacked two fundamental things - clear leadership, and international sympathy. A decade and a half on, things have not improved.

The impossible region

In the interim, there have been moments of turmoil and violence. There were riots in Yili and other Xinjiang cities in the mid-1990s which resulted in many deaths and a surge of police and security personnel into the area. Even more shocking for the central authorities, an Uyghur group carried out a bomb-attack on a Beijing bus in May 1997 which killed two people and injured 100.

But it was the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks that was to prove most significant - for it reshaped the American understanding of Xinjiang, and its dialogue about this key strategic area with the Chinese government. Two Uyghur groups were put on the US state department's internationally accepted terror-list, and seventeen Uyghurs detained in Afghanistan and transferred to the prison-camp at Guantánamo (see Henryk Szadziewski, "The discovery of the Uyghurs", 9 July 2009). In return, the Chinese became biddable allies in the wars in the middle east. It was a good deal for the Beijing government, keen to press more severely on restive elements in a region richly endowed with natural resources, and central to China"s access to even greater goods in central Asia.

Xinjiang, however, always posed immense problems to the central government - far harder perhaps than even than those of Tibet. The brief, bitter experience of independence in the 1940s was brutally crushed after Stalin's agreement with Beijing that Xinjiang was best subsumed within the new People's Republic, which had historic claims on the area dating from the 18th century. Han migration into the region, planned and unplanned, continued into the 1950s and 1960s; it was led initially by a wave of settlers from the coastal cities seeking a new life and responding to the call to rebuild the motherland, then continued by youths "sent down" during the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s (many of whom were simply left behind when this period ended).

Xinjiang was the place where China's first nuclear bomb was tested. It was the place, in the worst period of the cultural revolution, where mosques were shut down, and, in some cases, destroyed; where imams were forced to eat pork as a sign of their fidelity to Maoism, not Islam. Some of the Han settlers assimilated. They learned the local language, and tried to fit in. But by the 1980s and 1990s, a further wave of migration meant the arrival of many new settlers far too numerous to be easily assimilated. Many appeared to have been displaced by the Three Gorges Dam project in southwest China; at the time I was in Urumqi in 1995, rumours were circulating of trains bringing in thousands of such people.

By 2009, Xinjiang looks like a place with a delicate ecosystem placed under impossible pressure. Just as much of its natural resources now are being exhaustively exploited, so the area has an impossible mixture of Han, Uyghur, and over a dozen other minorities, including a large number of Mongolians in the central region. It is now a territory with a population almost evenly divided between settlers and local groups that are themselves ethnically, religiously, and culturally different. Tensions have evidently been building. What happened on 5-6 July 2009 could be a mere precursor to much, much worse.

The hardest test

Xinjiang's tragedy is that it is a place where the central leadership cannot, for the sake of its own legitimacy, compromise. But in order to solve the problems of this area, it would have to change the whole pattern of its thinking about the treatment of border areas inhabited by minorities.

The demand, then, must be of a new kind of boldness and vision from a group of leaders who have hitherto shown not the slightest clue that they possess these qualities. The initial repression and the blaming of "outside" forces for the unrest are all too predictable. But what to do about the long-term problem of Xinjiang would tax the imaginations and will of even the most brilliant and best placed leaders.

In spring 2008, someone I was talking to about the Tibet riots commented that Xinjiang posed far harder choices. I didn't agree at the time, but my interlocutor was right. The unity of the People's Republic of China is most challenged not in the high oxygen-starved plateaus of Tibet but in the vast, half-empty plains and deserts of Xinjiang. And, most unfortunately for the people of Xinjiang - on both, on all, sides - this is a battle that the Communist Party and its current leaders cannot afford to lose.

Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House. He is the author of Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (2007), The Rise of the Dragon: Inward and Outward Investment in China in the Reform Period 1978-2007 (2008) and Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of Chinahere (2009). His website is

Also by Kerry Brown on openDemocracy:

"Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

"Taiwan and China: an electoral prelude" (4 April 2008)

"China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment" (10 July 2008)

"The Olympics countdown: Beijing to Shanghai" (6 August 2008)

"China changes itself: an Olympics report" (20 August 2008)

"China's nervous transition" (22 September 2008)

"China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

"China's giant struggle" (5 February 2009)

"China local, China global" (11 March 2009)

"China's coming struggle for power" (14 May 2009)

"China"s Tiananmen moment: the party rules" (3 June 2009)