Boundaries, Discrimination, and Interethnic Conflict in Xinjiang, China

Han, E. (2010). Boundaries, discrimination, and interethnic conflict in Xinjiang, China. International Journal of Conflict and Violence4(2), 245. Link


The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region has been afflicted by Uighur political activism and ethnic violence for the past few decades. Interethnic relations between the Uighurs and Han Chinese have been extremely tense. Why is Xinjiang so vulnerable to interethnic violence? Why are intergroup dynamics between the Uighurs and Han Chinese so volatile? This paper examines Uighur-Han Chinese relations in contemporary Xinjiang and probes conditions that facilitate interethnic violence. Utilizing Fredrik Barth’s approach to ethnicity that emphasizes boundaries, this paper examines in detail how the rigid interethnic boundary between the Uighurs and Han Chinese has been constructed and strengthened in Xinjiang. Perceived differences have generated mutual distrust and discrimination between the two groups that make intergroup communication and understanding difficult and therefore very limited. In situations such as that in Xinjiang, where a rigid intergroup boundary is in place and civic engagements across groups are lacking, intergroup conflict is extremely hard to avoid.

This paper does suggest some way to mitigate the interethnic conflict:

Setting aside dramatic measures such as partition or secession, one logical policy recommendation for preventing or reducing the chances for future violence in Xinjiang would be to encourage mutual communication and civic engagement.10 In addition, the Chinese government needs to rethink its current policies in Xinjiang to show more respect for Uighur culture, language, and religion, and to provide more space for cultural expressions. The government also needs to take legal action to prevent blatant discrimination against Uighurs, especially in the job market. Most importantly, as our discussion of the implications of rigid group boundaries shows, serious efforts should be made to foster civic engagement across group lines at the meso level. NGOs that aim to facilitate dialogue between the Uighur and Han Chinese communities should be encouraged. In particular, civic associations that include members from both groups should be promoted (Varshney 2002, 292). Currently, most efforts from the international community are aimed at support of Uighurs’ political and cultural rights in Xinjiang. These are certainly noble goals. However, if the international community has genuine humanitarian concern about preventing the future eruption of violence, it needs to invest in a civil society in Xinjiang that includes both Uighurs and Han Chinese. Educational programs that facilitate dialogue and reconciliation across group lines should be emphasized. Moderate people from each group should be identified and encouraged, with an emphasis on how to build more cross-cutting cleavages between the two groups. These are certainly no easy tasks to achieve, as the authoritarian state of China puts more constraints on the development of such civic life. However the Chinese state as well as the international community must realize that only through efforts to foster mutual communication and engagements across these two groups will peace and stability be achieved in Xinjiang.

…which, again, relies on huge changes from the Chinese government. The paper was written in 2010 so I suppose the author could not have known the Chinese government would only ramp up the authoritatian-ness and imprison every moderate they can. I cannot seem to find any recent papers suggesting what human rights groups should do about China.


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