China Faces Ethical Unrest Untamed by Economic Growth


The March 1 attack in a train station in Kunming, China left at least 29 people dead and 143 injured. The shock of this event to the Chinese government and Chinese people is similar to that of Sep. 11 to U.S. Separatists group in Xinjiang is blamed for this act by Chinese media. Ethical unrest in Xinjiang is not new. The clash between ethical minorities and Han-Chinese in 2009 draw attentions from worldwide. The ethical tension induced conflicts emerged in the 1990s and greatly intensified in 2013. Most of those were limited in the region, but this March 1 event happened in the national stage marks the beginning of an unprecedented phase of ethical relationships in China. The economic growths of China, envied by the world, have not tamed the ethical unrest as hoped by the Chinese government.

Xinjiang is the largest administrative division in China and borders eight countries. This northwestern province is covered mostly by steppe, deserts and mountains, rich in oil and natural gas. Uyghurs, its the largest ethical group, are Muslim and speak Turkish. In 1884, Qing Dynasty for the first time declared Xinjiang as one of China’s provinces. In 1955, it was converted to one of the 5 autonomous regions for ethical minorities. Since then, there have been multiple policies at various times encouraging Han-Chinese to migrate to these autonomous regions, and in general western regions of the nation,  in order to spur more economic growth and create tighter bonding between such regions and the rest of China. In mid 1990s, Xinjiang’s economic performance caught up with the national average. Sensitive to the ethical tension, a series of socioeconomic policies have been implemented to favor ethical minorities in family planning, college admission, job recruitment and promotions, army enlistment, law enforcement and representation in legislative and other government works.

The economic growth has benefited local Han and migrant Han more than Uyghurs. Uyghurs used to make up 95 percent of the population, but Han-Chinese is now over 40 percent. They hold 35 percent of high-income jobs while Uyghurs hold only 13 percent. The socioeconomic gap is widening gradually, causing Uyghurs to feel discriminated and marginalized. Other concerns over religious and cultural restrictions and marginalization added to the resentment among Uyghurs towards the Han-Chinese. Such resentment is arguably the root reason for the intensification of ethical unrest. The socioeconomic policies, which were effectively implemented in mid 1980s, gradually lost its original impact, after the economic reform tilted the emphasis from ethical equality towards economic growth. Ethical unrest untamed by socioeconomic policies and vast improvements over infrastructure and economic opportunities is under the spotlight after the 3/1 attack.

One major militant Uyghurs group is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (E.T.I.M), founded in Turkey in the late 1990s. U.S. Treasury Department classified this group as a terrorist organization in 2002, during the intensified anti-terrorism cooperation with China after Sep. 11. The other separatist group is the World Uyghur Congress founded in Germany in 2004.  Although some exile Uyghurs and independent specialists on the area expressed doubts on whether E.T.I.M exist, the upsurge in violence from this region, historically under control of Turkic, Mongol, Chinese and Soviet Union before Chinese Communist Party took control in 1949, is an increasing threat to the territory integrity and social stability the Chinese government value the most.

Forceful suppression has been the norm so far when Chinese government faces ethical unrest. One of the lessons Chinese Communist Party learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union is the management of the ethnicity issue matters the stability of the whole nation. The March 1 attack may justify repression and tighter controls in ethical autonomous regions, as some exile Uyghurs and some experts speculated. Chinese government and ordinary citizens are forced to face the hard question of what can or should be sacrificed for security. A deeper look into the socioeconomic, religious and cultural issues is certainly demanded as March 1 attack has shown the emphasis on economic prosperity has failed to tame the ethical unrest in the region.

By Tina Zhang


The New Yorker
BBC News Asia
 University of Michigan Population Study Center 

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