Ethnic conflicts in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have incessantly escalated for decades. The unrests present a destabilizing aspect that affects the development of the country. Since China is growing and becoming a powerful player in the global arena, it is interested in securing the overall stability. However, there are conflicts between the Han Chinese and Uyghur ethnic groups in Xinjiang that are mainly associated with the problem of identity. The recent attacks on the Hotan police station resulted in the deaths of 20 people (Hille). The episodes of the struggle of ethnic groups highlight the deepness of the Uyghur-Han clash and call for immediate actions to solve the issue. In this regard, the Chinese authorities need to manage ethnic diversity and differences in the country in a proper manner. Conflicts incorporating various minorities in China present an issue of not only the domestic concern. The armed opposition to the Chinese authorities can have a negative effect on a global scale. The tension between the pursue self-determination and rights of the sovereignty transforms the Uyghur-Han conflict in a problem of the international concern. It emerges due to substantial differences between the Chinese and the Uyghur Muslims, historically powerful civilizations. Xinjiang is divided between non-Muslim Han Chinese and Muslims who speak Turkic languages. Therefore, the historical, religious, and ethnic distinctions are the source of the Uyghur-Han conflict.
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The conflict in Xinjiang has a particular significance since it is a border territory. Therefore, China is interested in the stability of the western borders, their full security, and monitoring. Furthermore, Xinjiang is rich in natural resources. In terms of the political situation, there are ethnic separatist and extremist tendencies. The presence of the Uyghur separatism is primarily associated with the geographic, ethnic, religious proximity to the so-called Islamic hot spots. The riots were caused by the discrimination against the indigenous population that is related to the fact that the authorities in Xinjiang consist of the vast majority of the ethnic Han Chinese. Moreover, the causes of conflict include the mass migration of the ethnic Chinese from the interior regions of China to the territory of Xinjiang, advantages of the Han population in terms of the employment, limitations in the scope of spread of the Uighur language and religion. This conflict can be understood by studying the history of Han-Uighur relations.
Xinjiang is located in the north-western outskirts of China. It occupies a central position in the Eurasian area (one-sixth of China’s territory) (Millward & Perdue 29). Furthermore, Xinjiang borders with eight countries. In ancient times, it was the main corridor on the Silk Road. Xinjiang is inhabited by many ethnic groups, the most numerous of which are the Uyghurs, Hans, Kazakhs, Huis, Mongolians, Kirgiz, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Manchus, Daurs, Tatars, and Russians. Xinjiang is one of the five autonomous regions of China’s national minorities. The Muslims constitute the majority despite the fact that they do not form a union against the Chinese due to various linguistic and cultural nuances. The Uyghurs present the ethnic group that is most often involved in the unrest in Xinjiang. They do not share a linguistic or cultural connection with the Han Chinese. This can be explained by historical aspects of their development. Today, the Uyghurs are arguably concerned about their cultural autonomy. The challenges of the Han immigration, mother-tongue education, labor transfer to other parts of China, and the continued disruption of old Kashgar are related to this anxiety over the survival of the Uyghur cultural features in the Chinese-majority society (Millward 357).
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Millward and Perdue emphasize that “the territorial unit known as Xinjiang has had its current shape, as a single unit, for a relatively short period: since the Qiag empire annexed and began to administer it in 1760” (27). Since ancient times, Xinjiang has been a region of the compact residence and coexistence of many nationalities and various religions. It is an integral part of a unified multi-ethnic China. In the close-knit collaboration and joint efforts, all ethnic groups in Xinjiang contributed to the development, construction, and protection of its borders. However, the tremendous changes have taken place in the social character of Xinjiang. Millward argues that “of all the changes in Central Eurasia over the past twenty years, those in Xinjiang are among the greatest, with significant impacts upon the region as a whole” (347). In 1955, Xinjiang became classified as an “autonomous region” of the People’s Republic of China with a number of autonomous Hui, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Mongol counties (Dillon 35).
Millward and Perdue point to the connection of the trade history between China and Xinjiang (32). In addition, the authors state that “the often-repeated assertion that all Xinjiang was Chinese during the Han dynasty is an oversimplification arising from later historians’ selective reading of a rather mixed record” (Millward & Perdue 36). In the Qing period, the Chinese policies of control were based on commercial incentives, coercion, and promotion of the colonial settlement (Millward & Perdue 57).
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From the perspective of Millward and Perdue, in the 21st century, China managed to establish the military and civil administrations, promote immigration, and enhance the agricultural settlement that ensured “the continued presence of China-based power” in Xinjiang region (56). The abovementioned measures contributed to the strengthening of the commercial links between Xinjiang and China. The authorities considered Xinjiang as a vital imperial possession and an integral part of new China (Millward & Perdue 62).
However, in the middle period of history, Xinjiang became related to Turks. Blum and Jensen state that historically, Xinjiang was more associated with Central Asia than China (73). “Taken in 2010, Uyghurs in Xinjiang numbered more than 10 million, compared with a regional Han population of just over 8.4 million” (Finley & Zang 5). Throughout history, the anti-Han perception has been generally common among the Uyghurs because of the severe rule exercised by the Han officials. During the so-called Cultural Revolution at the end of the 20th century, the national autonomy of Xinjiang actually turned into a fiction. The increased colonization of Xinjiang by the Chinese population, resettlement of the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Dungans, Mongols and other non-Chinese nationalities in desert drylands, accompanied by the violation of rights of the indigenous non-Chinese population, caused considerable dissatisfaction among peoples of Xinjiang and led to the aggravation of national contradictions.
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In terms of culture, there are specific features of the Uyghurs. In particular, Uyghur girls are strictly prohibited to intermarriage. The Uyghur men’s mandatory piece of clothing is a melee weapon. Moreover, it is worth noting a “meshrep” that is an essential element of the Uyghur community culture and means a permanently functioning union. In modern China, meshreps are prohibited, as each meshrep can become a military or separatist unit. Consequently, this prohibition displeases the Uyghurs. A similar duality is inherent to other aspects of China’s policy towards the Uyghurs. Thus, Beijing perceives the Islamic identity as the source of the problem; therefore, de-Islamization of the population is taking place in Xinjiang. In fact, the Chinese authorities actively fight against hijabs and sometimes even beards, which has already become a formal root cause of several riots. On the other hand, the CCP promotes the colonization of the region that was purely Muslim with the Chinese (Hans). In this regard, the Uyghur population sees a mortal threat to their national identity.
The Chinese authorities claim for the strengthening of terrorist sentiments in the region and have urged to create a united front against terrorism. The group East Turkistan acts in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. It advocates the establishment of a Muslim state in the territory of several countries. The Chinese authorities consider it a terrorist organization, which is relying on the support of foreign terrorist organizations. The Xinjiang Uyghur problem in China has been critical for many years. However, if earlier conflicts were rather small and insignificant, in the past two years, people have been killed as a result of this issue.
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Ethnic conflicts are among the most complex problems of multinational states. It is a form of the intergroup conflict, in which groups with conflicting interests differ by ethnicity. Currently, the role and place of Xinjiang in domestic processes and the ones taking place in Central Asia have risen considerably. Thus, the achievement of social and political stability is of particular importance, whereas the Uyghur unresolved issues are fraught with the most unpredictable consequences. In this regard, the threat of international terrorism in the Central Asia region will force China to take practical steps in terms of coordinating with European countries, in particular Russia, and ensuring the security and stability in the region. Due to cultural, religious, and linguistic differences, it is highly difficult to resolve the Uyghur-Han conflict. However, it is crucial to take all the possible measures in order to resolve the conflict as it poses a certain threat of becoming a global challenge.