In an editorial published in Chinese state media Aug. 6, Zhang Chunxian, the Party secretary for the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, said the Chinese government intends to apply the same family planning policy for all ethnic groups in southern Xinjiang, including both Han Chinese and Uighur minorities. Zhang did not specify how this policy would be implemented but noted that it would aim to “lower and stabilize an appropriate birthrate” across—he reiterated—all minority ethnic groups in the region.
What Zhang’s editorial did not say is that southern Xinjiang is home to about half of China’s entire Uighur Muslim population. In fact, Uighurs make up more than 98 percent of the ethnic minority population (and 89 percent of the total population) of Kashgar, which is by far the most populous prefecture in southern Xinjiang and the site of most of China’s Uighur-related violence and unrest in recent years. In reality, this is not a policy directed at all ethnic minorities. It is a policy that specifically aims—under the rubric of an effort to rationalize the country’s family planning policy—to limit the expansion of the Uighur population.
Zhang’s announcement marks a potentially significant departure in the Chinese government’s strategy for managing relations with the Uighur Muslim minority, and perhaps with minority groups in general, in China. Until now, ethnic minorities have been effectively exempt from the country’s one-child policy and other family planning measures. Uighurs in rural areas—that is, the majority of Uighurs—are allowed to have up to three children, in sharp contrast to China’s one-child policy, which was largely focused on Han Chinese since 1978. In practice, with a few exceptions, Uighurs, like Tibetans and other ethnic minorities, have seldom been subject to population controls like their ethnic Han counterparts.
In fact, contrary to popular belief, the Chinese government’s approach to managing ethnic minority groups within its borders has been relatively benign compared, historically speaking, with countries like Russia, Germany and even the United States. The Chinese government has not engaged in mass relocation, starvation or cleansing of minority ethnic populations, nor has it formally segregated minorities from the majority Han Chinese population.
This is not to say China’s management of these groups, under the Communist Party or prior governments, has been faultless, or that central and local governments alike have not been responsible for isolated instances of gross abuse or indirect oppression of ethnic minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet. But the Chinese government’s policy has not in recent decades been one of overt, systematic repression or elimination of minority ethnicities. While there were cases of crackdowns or suppression in the years prior to 1989, the government’s policy has for the most part sought to use affirmative action-like policies for college admissions and relaxed reproductive controls to mitigate the tensions stirred by its persistent security presence and economic development efforts in the region.
The question, then, is why policy has shifted for the Uighurs. There is probably not a single answer. That said, there are a number of overlapping processes unfolding in the background that, taken together, outline the core imperatives and constraints shaping Chinese government policy in Xinjiang. These processes almost certainly inform the Chinese government’s decision to impose population restrictions in southern Xinjiang.
To begin, Xinjiang has seen a rise in ethnic tensions and militant separatist activity over the past nine months. Much of that activity has centered on or originated in southern Xinjiang, by far the most isolated and underdeveloped part of the region. The greater frequency of attacks itself is not unprecedented. Ethnic unrest and violence in Xinjiang have long cycled between peaks and troughs in intensity. But in several respects, the attacks and clashes of the past year—and perhaps more important, the Chinese government’s approach to managing and framing the threat they pose—have been exceptional.
To a greater extent than before, many of the attacks appear to have targeted civilians in both Xinjiang and in major urban centers across China, including Beijing. Likewise, in some cases attacks have involved more advanced weaponry than in the past. In these respects, they resemble more closely the kind of terrorist activity prevalent elsewhere in the Muslim world than the largely spontaneous ethnic unrest that characterized most previous episodes of violence in Xinjiang. In turn, the Chinese government’s response has been much stronger and more comprehensive than in the past.
Compounding these internal changes is the specter of the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fear, not only in China but across Central Asia, that the region’s security environment will deteriorate as a result. To this must be added the fact that Xinjiang, unlike Tibet, is strategically significant to the Chinese economy, not only as a major and rapidly growing resource production base but also as a transport corridor for energy from Russia and Central Asia and now for manufactured goods to and from Europe. And underlying both of these concerns is the Chinese government’s struggle, by means of the anti-corruption campaign and other measures, to reaffirm its security footprint and authority in its strategically important buffer regions and in the Han core as it attempts to guide China through the very possibly destabilizing process of economic reform and rebalancing.
None of these factors fully explains the Chinese government’s shift of policy. But what they do is paint a picture of Xinjiang and the Uighurs as one convergence point for a variety of processes that extends well beyond Xinjiang itself and that, in part, illustrates the Chinese government’s growing focus on the region. What comes next is not clear, but given the structural forces driving Chinese policy in Xinjiang, it does not seem likely that a relaxation of controls on the region is in store.
Publishing by The Manila Times of this Geopolitical Diary is with the express permission of Stratfor.