Sources of Conflict in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

*Samuel Glen

Brisbane, 20 February 2015, (Griffith Asia Quarterly): The recent increase in the intensity of the Uyghur conflict and extremist activities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), China, is often portrayed as an idealistic and brutish struggle against legitimate Communist party control in the name of Islam and freedom. Its perpetrators are seen as illegitimate ‘terrorists’, ‘separatists’, and ‘extremists’ who engage in nonsensical, irrational and unnecessary violence in doomed struggle for religious independence and autonomy, when in reality it is a ‘David and Goliath’ duel for a contested region fraught with double-­standard policy and regressive practice.

In 2010, amidst some of the more hostile attacks, Amnesty International produced a report reviewing recent riots and alleged human rights violations. It concluded that the riots “took place against a back-drop of resentment built up over years of government repression and discrimination against Uyghurs”, blaming the uprisings on restrictions to freely practice religion; development strategies that in practice favour Han-­Chinese; language policies essentially rendering Uyghur (language) obsolete; discrimination in employment; and, disproportionate economic growth.1

All these, of course, are important factors evidencing the causal nature of the conflict and cannot be understated; however, the source of the long-­term conflict can be pinpointed more accurately to the asymmetrical development of the Uyghur-­China power dynamic.

According to eminent sociologist Fei Xiaotong, China exhibits a unique national form, with what he described as Duo Yuan Yi Ti (多元一体) or multiple organs, one body – portraying China as one united, multinational empire.2 Contrastingly, Rudelson and Jankowiak describe the way China pursues what they term a ‘monocultural model’, as one in which China claims autonomous regions have always been an ‘inalienable part of China’, apparently using it as a unifying mythology to promote social solidarity and ‘perpetual cultural continuity’.3 What is telling is the tenacity with which the Chinese central government and its regional policy seem to follow both of these narratives, that are in reality starkly different from Uyghur experience.

According to Rudelson and Jankowiak: “the active pursuit of a monoculturalist model has shaped China’s official position on national and regional historiography”, because there is only one kind of historical narrative: “stories that demonstrate people’s allegiance to China”.4 This one-­sided perspective demonstrates the skewed power dynamic disproportionately favouring the Chinese state’s historical view. As Bovingdon states, “The powers of the two sides as judges of each other are grossly mismatched, whereas Uyghurs can only protest that Chinese historians spread lies, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials can accuse Uyghurs of subversion and declare their works illegal”.5

While official Chinese law and policy in principle recognises internal autonomous regions’ right to autonomy and self-government by “ensuring their equal footing…and satisfied desire…to take an active part in the nation’s political activities”6, it however, does not extend the right of self-­determination: the ability to form an independent Uyghur nation-­state. It can therefore be considered an incomplete, hypocritical and one-­sided approach toward autonomy.

According to the 1999 White Paper issued on ethnic policy in China:

“...equality among ethnic groups means that, regardless of their population size, their level of economic and social development, customs and religious beliefs, every ethnic group is a part of the Chinese nation, having equal status, enjoying the same rights and performing the same duties in every aspect of political and social life according to law, and ethnic oppression or discrimination of any form is firmly opposed“.7

Judging by this excerpt, which is by no means unique in its rhetoric, it becomes apparent that Uyghur nationalists are embroiled in a conflict in which they are unequally yoked – similar rights are unfortunately not extended to the Uyghurs in the XUAR. Moore describes the hypocrisy of self-­determination and ethnic minorities’ citizenship within a multicultural state:

…secessionist movements are fuelled by nationalism, and are accompanied by rejection of the idea of equal citizenship in a state in which they (Uyghurs) are not a majority. It is therefore hypocritical that their (China’s) own self-­‐‑determination involves imposing this status (citizenship) on their own minorities“.8

China appears to be pursuing two contradictory policies at the same time. In policy and principle, they recognise ethnic minorities’ right to autonomy and self-government on one hand, but with the other are favouring discriminative and hypocritical practices that shifts the power dynamic so that it is perpetually skewed the central government’s favour. This, in turn, leaves the Uyghurs feeling helpless and vulnerable in a supposedly ‘autonomous’ region culturally distinct from central Beijing, yet physically and ideologically close to the comparatively independent states to their west.

There are three likely scenarios for the future of the conflict in the XUAR. The first and most likely scenario is that Uyghurs will remain under CCP control for the foreseeable future. Uyghurs will possess broad rights of citizenship within the Chinese state, excluding the right to self-­determination, and will continue to endure restrictions placed on their practice of religious and other cultural beliefs. However, this will likely perpetuate the conflict and potentially increase unrest over time. The second, and least likely scenario is that Uyghur claims to an independent nation-­state will be heeded, splitting up Xinjiang into different boundaries based on ethnic groups. This option has the greatest impact on the stability of the region, which is one of many reasons why it is least likely to occur. Finally, the middle ground scenario, which may be best over the long term for all parties. Xinjiang, its neighbours and the Chinese government negotiate a workable standpoint accessible to all points of view, which will aid in establishing new rules and policies that retain stability and cohesion in the region, while allowing for greater Uyghur autonomy to practice religious belief and practice and maintain cultural and kinship links with neighbouring states. Of course, there is never any ideal solution, but the third scenario would be a step in the right direction.


1 See Amnesty International. “ʺJustice, Justice”ʺ: The July 2009 Protests in Xinjiang, China (London: Amnesty International Publications, 2010); and P. Cai, ‘What’ʹs behind China’ʹs Xinjiang problem?’, Business Spectator, 3 March 2014,‑behind-­chinas-xinjiang-­problem, accessed April 15, 2014

2 Amnesty International. “ʺJustice, Justice”ʺ, p. 6.

3 J. Leibold, ‘Ethnic Policy in China: Is Reform Inevitable?’, Policy Studies, (Honolulu: East-­West Centre, 2013), p. 1.

4 Rudelson and Jankowiak, ‘Acculturation and Resistance’, pp. 140-­‐‑141. 30 Ibid.

5 Bovingdon, ‘Contested Histories’, p. 353.

6 Information Office of the State Council, National Minorities Policy and Its Practice in China, 1 September 1999, retrieved April 15, 2014, from National Minorities Policy and Its Practice in China:

7 Ibid.

8 M. Moore, National Self-­Determination and Secession, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 140. Emphasis added.

This post has been edited with the author’s permission.

*Samuel Glen is an International Business graduate completing a postgraduate thesis at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University. His areas of interest include: international relations theory; moral philosophy; global governance and cooperation; aid and development; and, global cultural diversity.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

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