In China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region differing cultural values between Uighurs and Han Chinese highlight the need for Beijing to review its ethnic policy to coincide with its development plans.
Recent violence at the end of last month which killed 35 people underlines the country’s ongoing struggle with its ethnically diverse border regions and the skewed living standards between people living near the coast and those deeper inland.
On the surface, what is happening in Xinjiang may not be as media-friendly as Egypt or Turkey, but unrest is just as geopolitically significant.
An historic heavy-handed control has already scarred relationships with ethnic minorities and a softer way of dealing with people inland could be evolving. Beijing is looking at new pragmatic approach for its border regions.
Xinjiang is located far inland near the Central Asian borderlands. The recent riots in the majority-Muslim northwestern region erupted just four days before the fourth anniversary of the 2009 clashes which killed almost 200.
It is unclear which ethnic minority the rioters represented, but state media has suggested a possible connection with Uighur exiles operating outside China that Beijing calls “terrorists”.
The exiles are angry at what they call cultural dilution as Beijing implements a massive migration of ethnic Han into the region to modernise core agricultural regions.
Fighting between the two groups is increasing and exacerbated by the vast energy reserves there which Beijing wants to develop. China has huge plans for the Xinjiang region, especially as it pushes westward into Central Asian trade routes and energy pipelines.
The stuttering march of development Beijing is under pressure by such violence to find a way to reconcile its ethnic policy with its long-term goal of developing the interior regions into a wealthy and modern society.
China has struggled with Tibet in similar ways as Xinjiang because of the enormous distances to a diverse and ethnically divided interior feeling increasingly subjugated by Beijing.
Much of the legitimacy of the Communist Party in the eyes of the Han Chinese population comes from an expectation of continued stability and territorial integrity.
Unrest in Xinjiang has arisen from a policy of encouraging the movement of the Han to marginalise minority influences and integrate them into mainstream society.
But do these minorities want to be associated with Han lifestyle?
The fact that riots are erupting more often since 2008 as Uighurs push back against Beijing’s social engineering will worry Chinese officials trained in the ideology of sinic cultural superiority.
Clearly, the unique cultural traditions of the ethnic minorities are still closely respected, and adoption of Han Chinese culture – essentially a foreign one – is unattractive for many.
Calling Beijing’s ethnic policy in the border regions a total failure at this point may be premature. But building a “harmonious society” was always going be difficult for central planners.
Forcing two or more starkly different ethnic groups together under an artificial edifice has clearly not been successful, but there are some signs Beijing is considering more conciliatory policies.
China is must deal with its historic ghosts by keeping the interior docile and developing. In the past, revolutionary unrest has regularly been triggered in the under-privileged agricultural sector.
But Beijing’s go-to panacea for unrest – resolute advancing development – might have reached a violent ceiling in the northwestern provinces.
Ethnic unrest in China is not homogenous and differs from one restive region to another. Taken together, however, such clashes and public disobedience suggest China will continue to struggle with the complicated nature of stability in these areas.
China cannot very well adopt the Soviet strategy of forcibly removing whole populations. Instead, Beijing will continue diluting the populations and tighten security while adopting a softer approach to grievances to limit the unrest.
Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict. He blogs at LikeBulb