Ethnic strife in energy rich Xinjiang: a guest entry

Michael Economides, a professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Houston, shared this piece with us as he travels overseas through the rest of the month. He will be one of several new bloggers that the Chronicle will be hosting to discuss energy issues in the near future. Stay tuned for more on that later.
This piece gives some historical perspective to the recent social unrest in an energy-rich part of China.

chinese_unrest Armed Chinese soldiers march on patrol as a Uighur man crosses the street in Urumqi on July 15, 2009 in northwest China’s Xinjiang province. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

The “event” started on the evening of June 25, 2009 in a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. Uighur workers from Xingjiang Province had a massive brawl with Han Chinese workers and it resulted in two Uighur deaths and over a hundred injuries. News of the incident agitated the Uighurs in Xinjiang Province, over 2000 miles away from Guangdong. They were not satisfied with how the government handled the event. On the afternoon of July 5, over a hundred thousand Uighurs poured out in the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, to protest. The riot lasted for over 10 hours. According to the official data, there were at least 184 deaths, including 137 Han Chinese, 46 Uighurs and 1 Hui during this conflict. Over a thousand were injured, over 200 shops were destroyed, and hundreds of cars and buses were burned. More than a thousand were arrested.
Although the governing regime has changed, Xinjiang has been part of China since 60 BC. Islam was eventually introduced, by war and peace, over a thousand years ago and became the religion of most residents. There are at least 13 recognizable ethinicities in Xinjiang. Besides the two major groups Uighur and Han, other minorities include Kazakhs, Hui, Mongols, and Russians. The groups have long been divided by race, by language and by religion. Uighurs belong to a wing of Sunni Islam, but most Han Chinese are atheists. The Uighurs have their own official language which is more similar to that of central Asia than the Chinese language.
When the communists took over Xinjiang in 1949, the Uighurs made up 80 percent of the population. With massive Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang from other parts of the country to “support the great northwest,” following the orders of the central government since the 1950s, the demographics of the province changed. According to the 2007 census, of the over 21 million people in Xinjiang Province, about 47 percent are Uighurs, and 40 percent are Hans. Counting other ethnic groups, 53 percent are not Uighurs. Most of the latter reside in rural areas and away from the big cities, and their main income is from agriculture. Recently, some Uighurs started making a living as migrant workers in other parts of China. Han Chinese in Xinjiang mainly reside in cities and in Production and Construction Corps compounds (the residual of mass immigration in early years). For example, in the capital Urumqi, Han Chinese now make up 75 percent of the city’s population.
Although the Chinese language is taught in public schools, not all local children go to public schools, or go to schools at all. Without good education and the language skill, they are not competitive in the labor market. The government has some affirmative action favorable to Uighurs in college education, some government employment, sometimes even more lenient criminal punishment. However, there are other policies unfavorable to the Uighurs and other minorities, precluding them from employment in sensitive areas such as finance, military, and communication. Private businesses and enterprises that emerged since the economic reform in the 1980s only employ people with good education and qualification, which put the ethnics, other than Han Chinese, into very unfavorable situation.
Xinjiang is the western-most province of China, and the area is 1.66 million square kilometers, one sixth of China’s total land area. It borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Not only it is a big agricultural area, but Xinjiang is also abundant in vital resources, including oil and gas, coal, and minerals such as gold. The Shenhua Coal field in Xinjiang holds 40 percent of China’s total coal reserve. The earliest oil field found in China, the Dushanzi oil field, is in Xinjiang. There are two oil and gas rich basins there, the Junggar Basin in the north and the Tarim basin in the south. About 20 oil and gas fields have been discovered and 15 of them have been developed and are producing in those basins. Xinjiang is also the most important transit depot for pipeline-imported oil and gas.
However, local per capita income is not proportional to the economic development and GDP increase in the area. Agricultural goods, oil and gas have been developed and transported by giant state owned companies mostly operated by Han Chinese while the locals, especially those who don’t have good jobs, are still in rather primitive economic conditions. Since 1980, while Han Chinese have been forced to follow the one child policy, ethnics have been allowed to have three children per family. With limited job sources, fast growing population, and the language barrier, the Uighur households are far poorer than those of Han Chinese. Many Uighur youths cannot find proper jobs locally and have to become migrant workers.
The recent event was the latest in a brewing ethnical strife. The central government has already invoked “foreign” involvement such as Al Qaeda and the Xinjiang independence organization, and these may have played roles but other factors have definitely contributed to this chaos: historical racial animosity, regional imbalance in economic development between coastal and inland areas and the wealth disparity between city and rural residents. And Xinjiang’s energy role adds an important component to the strife.

— Michael Economides

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