ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Unrest in Xinjiang

Asymmetric economic development and neglect of identity issues seem to be the bane of Xinjiang province in China. Many of the problems are a consequence of a "growth-oriented strategy". Yet, central authorities continue to insist that such a strategy favouring rapid economic development through state investment and incentives for enterprises would solve all problems.


relative deprivation amongst the local

Unrest in Xinjiang

communities? This article addresses these queries in an attempt to determine

A Consequence of Asymmetric Growth?

the policy dilemmas of the Chinese gov

ernment and the resultant anomaly in i mplementations.

Bhavna Singh

Asymmetric economic development and neglect of identity issues seem to be the bane of Xinjiang province in China. Many of the problems are a consequence of a “growthoriented strategy”. Yet, central authorities continue to insist that such a strategy favouring rapid economic development through state investment and incentives for enterprises would solve all problems.

Bhavna Singh ( is a research officer with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

FEBRuary 11, 2012

ecognising the inherent ethnic d ivide amongst the Uyghurs and Hans, the Chinese government sought to use development as an instrument to deal with violent incidents and the “three evils” in Xinjiang. Several affirmative action plans were devised by the Chinese government to provide benefits for the official minorities in Xinjiang. Most prominent among them being concessions given in the form of tax reductions, better education for the minority children (though mostly in Mandarin), greater a ccess to public offices, right to observe their traditional customs and retain their languages as well as exemption from the one-child policy norm. Massive inflows of capital investments in this province during the past decade attest the ambitious pursuit of this strategy.

Yet, despite these provisions, economic development in Xinjiang has been highly asymmetrical and has failed to fulfil the desperate need for employment generation and maintenance of sociocultural autonomy. The benefits of road and rail connectivity and infrastructure for education and entrepreneurship have been mono polised by economically well-off groups while the deprived sections have shown little improvement in their economic statuses. Disproportionate development has encouraged violent opposition to the state and the local residents are infuriated by Han immigration brought about by increased economic opportunities.

The Urumqi crisis in 2009 and the Kashgar and Hotan violence in 2011 brought out the anger of local residents about the adverse impact of government policies. In an effort to placate local inhabitants, the Chinese government has yet again unfurled new economic incentives. But will economic pursuit alone help China achieve its strategic goals in Xinjiang? Or will it continue to fuel disturbances driven by feelings of

vol xlvii no 6

Regional Asymmetry

Wang Chunxian, the Communist Party of China’s chief in Xinjiang, claimed that the economic growth rate of Xinjiang had reached close to 10.5% in 2010, while the gross domestic product (GDP) had reached 5 trillion RMB. Concurrently, the per capita disposable incomes of urban residents in Xinjiang had risen 10% year on year to 13,500 RMB in 2010, while per capita net income of rural residents exceeded 4,600 RMB.1 Investments had grown tremendously and the transportation sector witnessed several remarkable milestones. Nonetheless, 2011 was also marked by one of the worst ethnic violence in two of its western most cities after the Urumqi crisis of 2009.

One of the significant causes for these violent incidents in the western part can be identified as the huge economic disparity that exists between the northern Tarim basin, a resource-rich region that attracts large amount of investments, and the far south-western region bordering central Asia. Most of the development in the initial decades of establishment of the People’s Republic of China remained restricted to the northern regions of Xinjiang. The epicentre of economic growth in the north is the Tianshan slope economic band and within that the “integrated U-Chang economy” consisting of Urumqi, Changji Prefecture, and Wujiaqu City. A ccording to data available for 2008, the northern Tianshan slope economic band contained 23.1% of Xinjiang’s entire population and accounted for 54.8% of its overall GDP and 38.2% of its investment, wherein the “integrated U-Chang economy” itself had 17.5% of the population and accounted for 33.5% of Xinjiang’s overall GDP and 20.5% of all investments. This region has huge reserves of oil, coal and natural gas.2

On the contrary, the three regions of Kashgar, Hotan and Kizilsu Kirgiz Auton omous Prefecture comprise almost 30% of Xinjiang’s population, but accounted


for only 9% and 12% of its GDP and investment, respectively. The reason for this disparity is also that the southern region is mostly agricultural and constricts infrastructure growth. Even the “western development campaign” envisaged by the Chinese government furthered this imbalance throughout the past decade, as the main emphasis was on maintaining stability rather than promoting industrial development in the southern region. This anomaly was corrected only in 2007 after the state council revamped its policies and provided concrete capital support.

Economic disparity has further crystallised along ethnic cleavages. Such undercurrents are most closely evident in the functioning of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC)/ bingtuan which has been the main organ of the Chinese state dealing with economic development in the region and is known as the “China Xinjian group” for this particular function. It is believed to have usurped the best farmland in Xinjiang and has diverted rivers from the upper streams to its own advantage. It controls major portions of trade through its 11 publicly traded subsidiaries.

The ethnic composition within the XPCC is highly tilted in favour of the Hans who constitute almost 88% of the military-cum-economic organisation (according to 2002 statistics). This is in stark opposition to the claim of the Chinese state that the XPCC has become a mosaic of 37 ethnic groups including the Han, Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui and Mongols over the several years of its existence.3 Thus the Hans are able to garner most of the benefits through the XPCC as they monopolise decision-making.

Besides, there is strong opposition from the grass roots on the issue of low s alaries which, it is claimed, have not increased in the last 20 years. Certain calculations have been made to the effect that many youngsters are earning much less than even their forefathers. Another reason adduced to explain low economic growth is the absence of private enterprise. Most businesses are state controlled and regulated and there is very little scope for individual entrepreneurs, especially from the minority communities.

Ironically, the low levels of growth were still conducive for identity/cultural preservation and the fast pace of growth resulting from massive capital inflow is resulting in a mutability of their traditional ways of life. Hence, the resistance is growing even stronger. The internal regional divide is further exacerbated by the lopsided integrative strategy at the national level, which has resulted in violent incidents.

Misperceived or Malfunctioning?

Even after 30 years of reform and opening up, the development gap between this region and the rest of the nation as a whole is increasing. Many scholars believe that Xinjiang’s economy is heavily shaped according to the needs of the central authorities in Beijing. Whenever there is need for integration, the central government pours in copious amounts of money and when the national economy gets heated up, there is a restraint on investment. Ilham Tohti argues that China’s Xinjiang policy is even worse than colonialism as it imports a large number of Chinese workers into the area.4

In addition, the wages for the workers are abysmally low. The China Statistical Yearbook shows that the national ranking of annual average wages of workers in cities and towns in Xinjiang fell from 6 in 1978 to 23 in 2008. In 2008, the average wage was 24,687 yuan in Xinjiang, which was 4,542 yuan lower than the national level; the average wage of workers in XPCC was 772 yuan, which was 10,457 yuan lower than the national level.5 Such low wages have resulted in the flight of talented personnel and skilled workers from the region.

Most locals also protest that Xinjiang’s valuable resources like oil, coal, gas and cotton are being siphoned off to the more developed Chinese regions and locals have to pay higher prices for some of these products despite their indigenous availability. They constantly fear that the development from rising investment levels will yet again lead to outflow of benefits into the mainland and Xinjiang will become a major powerhouse for the mainland economy.6

The problems at policy level also reflect misdirected planning. For instance, several regions in south Xinjiang which could have benefited from stress on agricultural upgradation and marketing were given a blueprint for industrial development. This led to deterioration of agriculture itself in these regions, which had been the basis of sustenance traditionally. Despite the heavy investment in infrastructure, Xinjiang has continued to have an economy of low value addition as corresponding industrial development has not taken place.

Thus, it is not merely a case of misperception by the locals, who might have misconstrued the government policies due to their preconceived stereotypes. The Twelfth Five-Year Plan of the Chinese government has yet again placed stress on the need for development by “leaps and bounds” for a welloff society. To this end, the government had earlier declared Kashgar to be a special economic zone (in 2010) and also intends to set up other economic zones in the western most parts of Xinjiang where it will allow tax reductions and help the initial set-up of enterprises in the region. But even this re-emphasis will be misdirected if the implementation is not done in sync with the i nherent comparative advantage of particular regions.

Playing to the comparative advantage of a region will benefit both the locals as well as lead to confidence-building amongst the government and the people.



FEBRuary 11, 2012 vol xlvii no 6

Economic Political Weekly


A precedent for the successful application of this approach is also available in the Piyalema Town of Pishan County, Hotan Region, located at the south border of Taklamakan Desert, where the substitution of wheat with pomegranate led to avoidance of drought as well as lessening of extremist activities in the region in the 1990s.7 Similarly, the cities falling on the Silk Route can be revived by highlighting their traditional role of acting as the land-bridge between China and the Eurasian region.

But so far, these economic opportunities have not been effectively capitalised given the insecurities about strengthening the east Turkistan movement in Xinjiang due to its linkages with the central Asian countries and consequent “splittist” tendencies. This indicates that economic development alone will not work effectively until and unless the larger identity issues are addressed. The government needs to devise policies targeting both economic and religious sensitivities of the local people. The identity issues are also becoming more and more complex since the influx of Hans who have been staying in these regions over the last three to four decades and have also constructed a counterargument claiming that the preferential treatment meted out to the Uyghurs in this region is far too discriminatory for the emigrant Hans, who want similar prerogatives to be given to them.

Development, Identity and Violence

In the “National Conference for the Work Concerning Pairing Assistance to Xinjiang” held in Beijing in March 2010, it was declared that 19 provinces and cities inside the country would provide pairing assistance to 82 counties (cities) under 12 prefectures within Xinjiang, along with 12 divisions under the XPCC, to support and improve people’s livelihoods. This meant that counterpart provinces and cities would make efforts to help the people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang to solve relevant basic i ssues concerning people’s livelihoods, such as employment, education, and housing, and they will also support the development of advantageous industries.

Economic Political Weekly

FEBRuary 11, 2012

For this one-on-one assistance programme, they will be required to take out a certain percentage of their fiscal revenue to support construction and development in their counterpart cities. Kashgar alone has got support from the three strongest city economies including Shanghai, Shandong and Guangdong.8 While the Chinese government can project this as a massive effort to integrate the region into the nation’s economy and help it develop at a faster pace, it is more likely to be construed by the minorities in Xinjiang as a move towards increasing Han influence and a threat to their traditional culture.

The connection is palpable in the recent Hotan attacks. On 12 April 2011, five demonstration projects were held under this pairing assistance projects in which Beijing City provided such assistance to Xinjiang: the first stage was the shanty town reconstruction project in Hotan City, the anti-seismic house building project and a new rural area construction project in Hotan County, the a gricultural construction project in Moyu County, the ward building construction project in Lop County People’s Hospital and the red data processing base construction project in the Fourteenth Agricultural Division under the corps. During the ceremony for launching those projects, the Beijing delegation gave a fund of 150 million yuan as a gift for launching those projects but the displacement of the people from these shanties enraged the locals culminating in violent acts in 2011. According to the

o fficial estimates, more than $100 billion have already been pumped into Xinjiang’s economy.

It is also important to recognise the ability of development, both economic and technological (as scientific development is a significant part of the state rhetoric), to contain violence by creating stakes while also having the capacity to provide rapid tools for proliferation of agendas and ideologies. Thus, this economic development might transpire into a non-violent silent assimilation, or it will create the platforms where the struggle might even get worse given the rapid mobilisation through technology. What hinders the integration is not only

vol xlvii no 6

the perceived impact of economic policies but the unwillingness of the minority communities to identify with the state. Again, d evelopment provides as much avenues for consolidation of identities as much as it aids its dissolution.

Economic policies are resulting in a floating population and increased Mandarin speakers as well as a population which does not identify themselves on religious and ethnic basis. But there are still a substantial amount of people who are irked by the overbearing nature of the state in their personal sphere. And these people will continue to assert their ethnic identities. The need for preserving local customs in the face of a development onslaught is not merely a question of resisting central authority but a central part of retaining their identities.

In sum, slogans such as “making p eople rich” hints that economic deve lopment will remain the priority approach to solving its Xinjiang conundrum. But this will be a challenging task, if it were not to take cognisance of the need for simultaneous identity recognition and preservation of cultural and e thnic mores.


1 “Xinjiang Economy Likely to Expand 10.5% in 2010”, Xinhua News Agency, Wednesday, 12 January 2011, World News Connection, Dialog File Number 985 Accession Number 311050779.

2 Wang Jianjun: “Xinjiang at Crossroads”, Liaowang, Monday, 2 August 2010, World News Connection, Dialog File Number 985 Accession Number 302901280.

3 “Establishment, Development and Role of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps”, History and Development of Xinjiang, China government White paper 2003, Information Office of the State Council of PRC in Beijing, 2003, accessed 4 October 2011, online URL:

4 Temstel Hao, “Xinjiang, Tibet, Beyond: China’s Ethnic Relations”, OpenDemocracy, 27 July 2009, accessed 5 October 2011, online URL: xinjiang-tibet-beyond-china-s-ethnic-relations

5 Wang Jianjun, op cit.

6 China’s power houses, 22 March 2010, accessed on 8 October 2011, online URL:http://news. 22/c _13219880.htm

7 It is believed that the entire town was a hub for the East Turkistan Islamic movement supporters. However after the successful economic development nobody reportedly participated in any violent activities from this particular region against the state.

8 PRC Economic Biweekly: “Xinjiang to Focus on Healthcare, Education, Housing”, report by Tao Weihua, Xiong Congru, Guo Lu, and Wang Yuan, “Caijing Guojia Zhoukan”, Saturday, 24 July 2010, World News Connection®, Dialog® File Number 985 Accession Number 302451189.

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


To gain instant access to this article (download).

Pay INR 50.00

(Readers in India)

Pay $ 6.00

(Readers outside India)

Back to Top