Why the Uighurs Feel Left Out of China's Boom

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Alessandro Digaetano / Polaris

The ancient Silk Road trading hub of Kashgar in China's Xinjiang region is being threatened by Beijing's redevelopment plan that may have a hidden political agenda

On the streets of the cities and towns of China's northwestern region of Xinjiang you can hear complaints from the Uighur minority group about restrictions on the Islamic religion they practice, their Turkic language or their culture, which is most closely linked to the lands of Central Asia. But in interviews in Urumqi, the regional capital that exploded with ethnic rioting last week that left 184 dead, the single most common complaint of Uighur residents is that they feel excluded from economic opportunity.

Xinjiang, which makes up one-sixth of China's landmass but is home to less than 2% of its population, is an area of vast oil, mineral and agricultural wealth. Under a decade-old "develop the West" policy, the GDP of the region climbed from $20 billion in 2000 to $44.5 billion in 2006. Many Uighurs feel, however, that the boom has benefited majority Han Chinese, while they've been left out. "If you're Han, there are opportunities. But if you're from my group, there's nothing you can do," says a Uighur man in Urumqi who declined to give his name. "We're all hungry. We go all over looking for work, but they say they don't want Uighurs."

The immediate cause of the rioting was a protest in Urumqi on July 5 spurred by the death of two Uighurs thousands of miles away at a toy factory in coastal Guangdong province. A disgruntled former worker falsely accused the Uighur workers of raping Han women, which touched off a riot. When the police moved to end the demonstration in Urumqi's People's Square, they clashed with the Uighur demonstrators. Witnesses say bands of Uighur young men then rampaged through the city for hours, attacking Han residents, smashing vehicles and torching Han-owned shops. On July 11 authorities announced that 137 Han, 46 Uighurs and one member of the Hui, a Chinese Muslim group, had been killed. Despite a massive security presence, Urumqi remains tense. On July 13 police shot and killed two Uighur men and injured a third Monday afternoon near the Xinjiang People's Hospital in the city's main Uighur district.

The nature of the original unrest, over an incident of workplace violence, offers clues to the depth of the Uighurs' feeling of economic discontent. The 800 Uighurs at the toy factory in the Guangdong city of Shaoguan were part of a government program to send minority workers to the coast. "They can't get work in their own province, so they go to the far corner of the country to seek jobs," says Dru Gladney, an expert on Islam in China and president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College. "They are recruited by the government, and then they feel like government doesn't defend and protect them. They feel discriminated against. They can't win at home and they can't win far afield."

Uighurs were once offered a measure of economic sanctuary in state-owned enterprises with minority-hiring quotas. But as Xinjiang's economy has become increasingly privatized, those opportunities have eroded, says Barry Sautman, an associate professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "Years ago everything in Xinjiang, like the rest of China was state-owned. It was relatively easy for Uighurs with some qualifications to get jobs in state enterprises, based of course on preferential policies," he says. "Now, with a substantial part of the economy privatized, it's much more difficult. It's up to individual employers as to who they want to hire."

Like other minorities, Uighurs are given additional points in China's college entrance exam, but as a group they don't have the same educational level as Han Chinese. Many can't speak fluent Mandarin. Company managers with roots outside of Xinjiang often make hiring decisions based on connections or regional origin, leaving Uighurs at a disadvantage. China doesn't have a fair-hiring law, meaning that those with sufficient skills and experience still have no recourse if they face discrimination in the job market.

Uighurs are also underrepresented in the bingtuan, paramilitary work units in Xinjiang that were created in the 1950s and staffed with former soldiers. The bingtuan contributed one-sixth of Xinjiang's economic output in 2008. But while Uighurs and other minority groups make up about 60% of Xinjiang's population, they comprise just 12% of the bingtuan's ranks. While per capita income figures based on race aren't available, counties in northern Xinjiang with larger Han populations are wealthier than in the largely Uighur south of the region. Witnesses said the rioters last week were young Uighur men, and some observers have suggested they were poorer migrant workers from the south of the region rather than long-term residents.

The government's explanation of last week's violence is that it was inspired by overseas agitators; Uighur discontent over issues like job discrimination isn't included in the official version of events. The dilemma for Chinese policymakers is that the country's rapid economic growth has helped legitimize the government to the majority of citizens. But for Uighurs who feel left out, the growing prosperity of the Han leaves them more alienated. As China continues to get rich, it is pushing them further toward the fringe.