Monday, 5 April 2010

Singapore, Xinjiang, foreign talent and domestic discontent

Imagine the following scenario.
After years of officially sanctioned migration by a Malay minority government, Singapore's 2010 population has transformed to a Malay plurality, i.e. ethnic Malays are 41% of the population. Official policy to ensure social stability concentrates leadership within the Malay community. Senior leadership and bureaucratic positions are available only to Malays.
Non-Malays, due to formal and informal discrimination swell the ranks of the unemployed. Chinese Confucian and Indian Hindu traditions are discouraged as being 'un-Singaporean.' No children below eighteen are permitted to enter temples. Hungry ghost month traditions of burning offerings to ancestors may lead to jail or detention.
Street scene in Kashgar, Xinjiang

Singapore's ethnic Chinese are nowhere in the picture, courtesy social and cultural development policies.
That, in a sense, parallels the recent history of Xinjiang.
Chinese government data indicates that in 1947, immediately prior to the 1949 establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Han population was 5% (222,000) of Xinjiang's total population. Fifty years later, in 2000, PRC census numbers confirm that the Han population represents 40-43% (depending on static versus 'floating' population) of Xinjiang.
In 1999, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Document 7 authorities changed several longstanding policies towards the region. The revised policies go to the heart of one aspect of traditional Uyghur culture, Islam.
The state restricted the number of permits granted people applying to go on Hajj. There were reports of new rules governing prayer: loudspeakers could not be used in giving the call to prayer; prayer before 9 a.m. was prohibited; and praying was restricted to those people who could fit within the mosque structures themselves – thus prohibiting the traditional practice of worshippers spilling over into squares outside mosques at prayer times on festival days. Regulations forbidding minors from participating in religious activities were strictly enforced (though not in other parts of China); signs declaring no admittance to anyone under eighteen appeared above the doorways of Xinjiang mosques. University students were told that prayer, fasting for Ramadan, or, for women, wearing a headscarf, were inconsistent with communism and that they would be expelled if they continued the practice. (Millward, p. 343)

It's easy to understand why Uighurs may feel their historic way of life is threatened. Are the cultural compromises worth the benefits of the extraordinary economic growth that comes with being part and parcel of the PRC? After all, Beijing pumps significant development money into the province through the Great Development of the West Campaign.
Many Uighurs argue that the real beneficiaries of development are the 'foreign talent.' One Hong Kong University scholar's study concludes there is a strong correlation between ethnicity and income: the higher the Han population the greater the GDP per capita for the district. For example, Southern Xinjiang's per capita income is half that of Xinjiang as a whole. The population of Southern Xinjiang is 95% non-Han. The study used official government census and GDP per capita data.
Xinjiang's history is intertwined with Beijing. Of course, Uyghur ethnic and cultural associations with other Central Asian republics, including neighbouring Kazakhstan, are also a strong part of the equation.
The Karakul Lake, off the Karakoram Highway linking Kasghar with Islamabad, Pakistan

Ultimately, Beijing does as Beijing does. The PRC's emergence as a global economic and political power further limits external influence on Beijing's policies towards ethnic minorities like the Uighurs. One can only hope that Beijing's centralizing and population policies do not push Uighurs into the waiting arms of religious extremists ready to open another front in their violent efforts to create a fundamentalist Islamic state, 'Uyghuristan.'

NB – My primary source of data and information is Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, James A Millward, Columbia University Press (2007). I admit to not having visited Xinjiang (although I have stepped into Xinjiang via the Khunjerab Pass of the Karakoram Highway connecting Islamabad with Kashgar). Readers are recommended to formulate their own independent views based on multiple sources of information.


  1. Hi Imran,

    Stumbled upon your blog. Just wanted to drop a note about Xinjiang - it's such an amazing place, with so many nice people. Very different from rest of China. Felt quite at home there. (I am Indian). Pity about the unrest.

  2. Hi ... Glad you found my blog and thanks for taking the time to post a comment. Your comments make me wish to visit Xinjiang even more - hopefully someday soon!!

    Kind regards,