Written by Reza Hasmath.

Ethnic minority tensions have been on the rise in mainland China. In mid-September 2015, a knife-wielding attack in Aksu, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) claimed the lives of nearly 50 individuals and injured another 50. This followed numerous outbursts of ethnic violence between Uyghurs and Han in Kunming (March 2014), and in XUAR (June and November 2013). Suffice to say repeated acts of ethnic minority rooted violence in the past few years have claimed hundreds of lives, and injured thousands across China. This begs the question: what explains the recent rise of ethnic minority tensions? And conversely, how do state institutions, born in an authoritarian context and operating in an emerging market economy, respond in order to reduce ethnic tensions in the short and long-term?

There are two main reasons behind the rise of ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and Han in XUAR. The first is due to ethno-cultural repression, such as state policies that limit religious practices, the phasing out of Uyghur language instruction in schools, and the increasing negative commodification and representation of Uyghurs in the public domain.

The second, and perhaps most significant factors are socio-economic, such as segmented labour shares and unequal sectoral distribution in occupational categories. Simply put, Uyghurs are not receiving the same economic returns to their education as Han. When looking at comparable levels of education and experience for the Uyghur and Han cohorts, the Han are in an advantageous labour market position, and Uyghurs experience ‘ethnic penalties’. Han dominate high status and high wage jobs, whereas Uyghurs are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Coupled with growing Han migration to Xinjiang, economic inequalities between Uyghurs and Han are intensifying, exacerbating ethnic-based tensions.

Further, since Uyghurs and Han receive different outcomes in the labour market this can create and reinforce geographical divisions. As a prime example, wages may determine residential location. This is alarming given Uyghurs and Han already reside in relatively closed ethnic communities and seldom interact meaningfully with each other in XUAR – which is a necessary and essential component for improving trust between both groups. This does not bode well for economic, social and political integration in the short and long-term, and will only intensify perceived (or real) differences between Uyghurs and Han, thus reinforcing ethno-cultural tensions.

The state’s response to repeated expressions of ethnic minority unrest have consisted of oscillating soft and hard policies. The soft policy approach is exemplified by funding the building and upkeep of mosques. According to the State Information Office there are over 20,000 mosques in XUAR which makes this initiative relatively significant. In addition, the state has preferential policies in education for ethnic minorities which consists of bursaries, scholarships, remedial programs, and the lowering of minimum requirements for the National University Entrance Examination.

The hard policy approach in XUAR is illustrated by the state’s attempt to subdue potential Uyghur dissidents and ‘re-educate’ and ‘reform’ religious leaders to ensure they do not advocate ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘radicalism’ as defined by the state, or to the prevent leaders from forging connections between the approximately 21 million Muslims in China.

Suffice to say, the hard policy approach is fundamentally a security apparatus. There are strong efforts to clamp down on ‘illegal’ mosque constructions when the state perceives them to be a threat to security. In present-day XUAR there is an increasingly visible security presence exemplified by the rolling out of a grid ‘social management system’. Essentially, communities in Xinjiang have been divided into zones, and then a group of party members are assigned to each zone where they are tasked to monitor and conduct surveillance of various activities that are threatening, or potentially threatening, to “social stability”. In early 2014, the state announced approximately 200,000 cadres would live with local communities in Xinjiang making this a potentially large and significant undertaking. In practice, there is no conformity in terms of how surveillance is conducted. It varies depending on the area. At the very least, party members have relatively sophisticated technologies at their disposal if they elect – which seems to be employed more readily in the urban areas. This may involve using riot-proof HD Cameras, policing boxes, and 24-hour inspection routes. In addition, Uyghurs in both Xinjiang and across the nation are randomly targeted for surveillance and scrutiny by state authorities, who justified their actions citing the need for increased security measures.

In the short term ethnic tensions will be suppressed with the use of hard policies characterized by a strong security presence. Soft policies, which financially incentivize the promotion of ethnic culture, and programs to improve education outcomes for minorities, will thereafter be stressed. In the long term, both policy strategies practiced by the state do not fully address the main reasons for the rise of ethnic tensions in the region. Left unattended, this will lead to increasing ethnic tensions in the future.

Reza Hasmath is a Professor in Political Science at the University of Alberta. Research Profile. Image credit: CC by Marc van der Chijs/Flickr.