Early last month, the mayor of Urumqi, the capital of the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, described the struggle to maintain China’s unity as “a political battle that’s fierce and of blood and fire.” His description was apt: a spate of ethnic violence in the city had left almost 200 people dead. For several days, armed mobs occupied the streets, and arsonists set the city ablaze.
The recent violence in Urumqi resembles the unrest that occurred in March 2008 in Lhasa, another city in China’s far west. Although the two cities are one thousand miles apart and home to two very different ethnic groups — the Uighurs in Xinjiang are Turkic Muslims, the Tibetans are Asian Buddhists — local demonstrations in both places quickly inflamed existing discontent and ethnic tensions.
In each case, Chinese paramilitary officers were eventually able to restore order. But on both occasions, at the national and provincial levels, Chinese politicians did little to address the root causes of the unrest — namely, the state’s encouragement of Han Chinese transmigration and the consequent subjugation of local cultures.
China’s central planners have keenly eyed the country’s sparsely populated far western frontier for decades. In a country that has more than one hundred cities, with more than one million inhabitants, and where 90 percent of the population lives on only ten percent of the land, Beijing has seen the vast expanses of the west as unfulfilled potential. It is not just the vacant earth that interests China’s leaders but what lies beneath it — Xinjiang holds more than a quarter of China’s oil and gas reserves, and the Tibet Autonomous Region has nearly half of China’s mineral resources, such as gold, coal, chromite, lithium, and perhaps the world’s largest uranium deposits.
The problem for Beijing, however, has been how to persuade Han Chinese — the ethnic group that makes up more than 90 percent of China’s population — to relocate to a forbidding area that is several days’ travel from the country’s more developed east. In response, the Chinese government has made enormous investments in infrastructure, meant to make the remote regions of Xinjiang and Tibet — separated from the rest of China by the Gobi Desert and Tibetan plateau — more accessible. At the same time, it has sought to pacify native populations by stimulating local economic activity.
Christian Le Mière is Editor of Jane’s Intelligence Review.