Written by Andrew Fischer.

The similarities between Tibet and Xinjiang are compelling in many respects. Besides the obvious religious differences between Tibetans and Uyghurs, both are minority nationalities struggling with an influx of Han migrants in a context of discriminatory and authoritarian majority rule and heavily subsidized development strategies. However, careful examination of certain structural dimensions of recent socio-economic change over the last 20 years, since China focused its attention to reviving economic growth in its western region, reveal important differences between these two regions. This is not to suggest that such structural dimensions determine socio-political outcomes such as protest and resistance. Rather, as explained in detail in my recent book, they help us to understand some of the tendencies within socioeconomic change that might be conditioning experiences or outcomes of discrimination and disadvantage, thereby providing valuable insights into some (but definitely not all) of the circumstances that fuel peoples’ grievances.

The main structural dimension of interest, in terms of having direct relevance to peoples’ lives and livelihoods, concerns employment. More specifically, we are interested in what we might call ‘labour transitions’, that is, proportionate shifts of employed people out of agriculture and into other sectors of employment such as manufacturing, construction or services. Such transitions generally, although not always, involve urbanization, as people moving out of agriculture tend to move out of rural areas altogether, especially in more remote and sparsely populated areas that offer less economic opportunities in rural areas.

This structural perspective necessarily relies on statistical data as the main way of representing more macro or systemic socio-economic trends, which are otherwise not discernible from micro-level fieldwork (e.g. we might be able to observe urban growth occurring through fieldwork, but we will not be able to assess whether this implies urbanization without recourse to census data, etc.). Accordingly, while structural analysis of employment trends does not identify discrimination per se, it can help to highlight the spaces where we might expect discrimination to be occurring and thereby inform and complement fieldwork (indeed, this is one way that interdisciplinary research might be conducted).

For the purpose of analysis, we can compare the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regian (XUAR), along with several other provincial cases in Western China and the national average, as I have done in a recent book chapter and will briefly summarise here. Given that the Uyghur population of Xinjiang is currently in the minority (unlike in the TAR, where Tibetans are still a predominant majority), we can also look at the data on Kashgar and Khotan (Ch. Hotan) prefectures, where available, given that these two prefectures are still predominantly Uyghur, like the TAR.

As background on the economic growth that has been fuelling employment transitions in the region, we can briefly summarise several cross-regional similarities and dissimilarities:

  • In the TAR, economic growth has been heavily subsidized, far more than any other province in China, and subsidies (and hence growth) have been mostly focused on the tertiary sector (services) and construction, whereas these sectors have been disassociated from manufacturing and mining. The primary sector (farming and herding) has rapidly fallen as a share of GDP, even though employing the largest share of the workforce.
  • In the rest of western China, subsidies and construction activity have been aimed towards industrial restructuring and, unlike the TAR, manufacturing and mining have emerged as the leading growth sectors of these economies from the mid-2000s onwards. However, like the TAR, the primary sector has fallen rapidly as a share of GDP and become quite marginal to these provincial economies.
  • The patterns in Xinjiang have been similar to the rest of western China (and dissimilar to the TAR), in terms of industrial restructuring and leading roles playing by manufacturing and mining, except that the GDP share of the primary sector has exceptionally been more resilient than in all of these others cases. This reflects the particular intensity of agroindustry in Xinjiang, particularly in the north.
  • However, in Kashgar and Khotan in the south of Xinjiang, the sustained primary GDP share has occurred in the absence of secondary sector industrial growth. This reflects serious lagging behind the north of province, effectively similar to the TAR in the 1990s but with much less subsidies and much less affluence in the tertiary sector to compensate.

Accordingly, a strong contrast between the labour transitions of the TAR and Xinjiang became apparent in the 2000s, at least up until about 2010. Development strategies in the TAR and other Tibetan areas appear to have placed an overriding emphasis on urbanisation, to the extent that rapid subsidy-sustained growth has been associated with a rapid transition of the local (mostly Tibetan) labour force out of the primary sector (mostly farming and herding). According to annual employment data provided by the China (and provincial) Statistical Yearbooks, about 80 percent of the TAR workforce worked in farming and herding in 1990, and the proportion still remained at about 73 percent in 2000. The proportion then dropped sharply, falling below 50 percent by 2012 and reaching 44 percent by 2014, the most recent data available. As a result, within a little more than a decade the TAR caught up to a considerable degree with the (also rapidly changing) norm in China, albeit without the productive economic foundations to support these changes.

These structural shifts out of the primary sector also reflect urbanization of the labour force and the proportion employed in urban areas officially increased from 18 percent to 30 percent between 2000 and 2010 (again, according to an alternative classification of the employment data in the statistical yearbooks). While some of the increase would represent migration from other parts of China, much of it reflects local labour transitions.

In contrast, labour transitions in Xinjiang, and especially in Kashgar and Khotan, appear to have been exceptionally slow compared to elsewhere in China except Gansu. Similar to Gansu, Xinjiang appears to have experienced a ruralisation of its labour force, although not necessarily an agrarianisation because this expansion of rural employment appears to have taken place in non-farm secondary and tertiary sectors. For instance, the proportion of the labour force working in the primary sector fell from 58 percent in 2000 to 51 percent by 2010, whereas the rural share actually rose from 53 percent to 55 percent (and the urban share fell from 47 percent to 45 percent).

The data for Kashgar and Khotan are much more limited, based on sporadic reporting of sub-provincial data in the Xinjiang Statistical Yearbooks. Based on what is available, the share of their labour forces that were working in the primary sector was at about the same level as the TAR in the late 1990s, at around 75 percent. However, the data on the rural shares, which have been reported more regularly in the yearbooks, indicate that these rural shares remained at very high levels – in Kashgar from 76 percent in 2003 to 78 percent in 2010, and in Hotan from 81 percent in 2003 to 82 percent in 2010. In contrast to the TAR, this suggests a striking lack of labour transition in these two Uyghur-dominated prefectures of Xinjiang.

These trends – especially in Kashgar and Khotan – reveal fundamentally different experiences than those of Tibetans in the TAR and other Tibetan areas, even though both Tibetans and Uyghurs were among the most agrarian populations in China in the late 1990s (but Tibetans no longer).

In particular, the definitely slower pace of labour transition out of agriculture in Xinjiang – especially in Southern Xinjiang – is indicative of a development strategy that places much greater priority on an agrarian labour regime that restricts labour mobility out of agriculture and rural areas relative to other parts of China – a point that has been confirmed by fieldwork.

In contrast, farming and herding have remained fairly marginal concerns for government development strategies in Tibetan areas, generally conceived as part of poverty alleviation but not as a serious pillar of industrialisation. Instead, urbanization has been strongly encouraged in Tibetan areas.

From this structural perspective, social inequalities also appear to have followed different trends. Urban labour market encounters with migrants arguably serve as relatively more concentrated pressure points for Tibetans than for Uyghurs in Xinjiang, who appear to face a broader range of potentially discriminatory issues across both urban and rural areas.

However, beyond these differences, one strong similarity between the two provinces was that ‘minorities’ were hugely underrepresented in the respective provincial state-sector employment (or urban unit employment more generally) relative to their population share, at least up until 2002 or 2003, when these data were still being reported. According to the most recent data available (in the respective provincial yearbooks), the Tibetan share of state-sector employment had fallen to 65 percent by 2003, and their share of cadre employment to less than 50 percent, despite a population share of almost 93 percent in the 2000 census (apparently including migrants). In Xinjiang, minorities (i.e. mostly Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Hui) accounted for almost 30 percent of urban unit employment in 2002 (mostly state-sector), for a population share of almost 60 percent. This underrepresentation in Xinjiang persisted despite much higher levels of (modern formal mainstream) education among these minorities in Xinjiang than in the TAR, belying the argument that such education is the pathway to improve representation of Tibetans in the TAR. Rather, in both provinces, demand for skilled labour appears to rely heavily and increasingly on Han Chinese, whether this is through implicit discrimination by way of institutional norms that are biased against non-native Chinese speakers, or else through more direct, overt and explicit forms of identity discrimination.

Since 2002/2003, the government has intensified labour market reforms in western China, implying an increased emphasis on nationally standardised criteria of employment within urban unit employment, which places ever greater emphasis on Chinese fluency and literacy as a precondition for competition within such employment. This has been combined with a retreat from preferentiality in public employment among other policy dynamics. The combination of these circumstances suggests that exclusionary pressures have probably intensified for both Tibetans and Uyghurs in the upper strata of urban employment of their areas, with important implications in terms of restricted upward mobility at a time of rapid economic growth and improving schooling levels. The fact that such exclusionary tendencies operate through educational, linguistic and cultural modes of bias that severely disadvantage the majority of Tibetans and Uyghurs within their urban labour markets – irrespective of their very different structural socioeconomic conditions – provides important insights into the outburst of protests in both Tibetan and Uyghur areas in 2008 and 2009. Indeed, the similarity in the timing of the protests despite differences in socio-economic conditions suggests that the synchronicity of the grievances and protests has been driven by a common and particularly assimilationist and discriminatory macro-political and economic context that continues to this day.

Dr. Andrew M. Fischer is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Development Studies at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS), and laureate of the European Research Council Starting Grant, which he won in the 2014 round. He is also the founding editor of a new book series recently signed with Oxford University Press entitled Critical Frontiers of International Development Studies. Image Credit: CC by Jerrold Bennett/Flickr.