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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

A Xinjiang Perspective: Professor Colin Mackerras

Colin Mackerras Staff Profile

China Map Courtesy BBCLast evening I had the pleasure to attend a presentation at Sydney University by Professor Colin Mackerras of the Griffith University, Queensland Australia.

Professor Mackerras is a world respected Asian scholar specialising in China with a particular emphasis on Xinjiang and the Uygur minority.

As well he is a regular visitor to Xinjiang and has recently returned from a three week "field trip" which included visits to Urumqi, Aksu, Hotan Kashgar and Yarkend.

His one hour presentation, followed by a question and answer session, concentrated mainly upon his general impressions as to the changes he has seen in Xinjiang over the period of his many visits.

Some of the Professor's major observations include a perceived strengthening of Islamicism among the southern Uygur, an easing of Han/Uygur tensions, rapid modernisation, demographic changes and an emerging Uygur middle class.

State of Religion in Xinjiang: Strengthening Islamicism .

The professor's field work on this trip included many interviews with Uygurs and he attempted at every opportunity to speak to Uygur clerics in the cities that he visited.

He came away with the impression that in the south of Xinjiang, particularly Kashgar and Hotan, that there was a strengthening of Islamicism among the Uygur there but this was not reflected in the more Han dominated areas of the north.

Whilst not stating outright, one draws the conclusion from what the professor related in his presentation, that the PRC may be very sensitive to this issue specificly and the situation in Kashgar generally.

In his opinion he thought he was monitored more closely in Kashgar by State Security then elsewhere in Xinjiang to the point that a planned trip to an Uygur school was vetoed by officials even though he had been allowed fairly open access to such facilities elsewhere. Unfortunately he did not expand on any theory that he may have on reasons for this growing Islamicism

Strengthening of Islam among the Uygurs in the south..

-Prof Mackerras-

He noted in the presentation that in speaking to Muslim clerics they seemed very reticent when it came to discussing the general state of Islam in Xinjiang. Whilst they were more than happy to discuss affairs at their particular masjid when it came to the larger picture he was given a stock answer of "speak to the authorities".

As well, and not surprisingly given the the Chinese governments cleric "re-education" programmes, there is little support for Separatism or Islamic extremism among the Uygur clerics.

He was able to confirm that Uygur boys under the age of 18 were not allowed by PRC policy to enter Masjid prayer halls but were able to be in the general environs of the Masjid.

Modernisation and The Economy

Modernisation has brought benefits to the Uygur..

-Prof Mackerras-

Professor Mackerras commented at length on the modernisation of Xinjiang that he had witnessed over the period of his visits.

His feeling was that, on balance, modernisation has been beneficial to the Uygur despite the fact that some older Uygur areas have been demolished.

He cited the leveling of the square in front of the Id Kah masjid as a particular example. Whilst a new square in keeping with the historic and religious significance of the area had been promised by the Han authorities at the time of his visit this was not complete.

He was however critical as to the provision of such infrastructure as running water and health care delivery which he believed could be markedly improved in Xinjiang. He did qualify this by saying that it was a general problem and not one related soley to the Uygur.

Of particular interest to the professor was the rapidly expanding cotton industry in Xinjiang. He thought it possibly a double edged sword, on one hand it had brought increased prosperity to those Uygur involved in the industry but on the other it raised concerns as to the long term effects of the large water requirement on the environment.

With regard to living standards he noted that despite evidence of pockets of poverty among the Uygur there had been an obvious general increase in ethnic minority prosperity, though, he believed that the rate of wealth accumulation for the Uygur, was nowhere near the level the Han had achieved.

Emerging Uygur Middle Class

Emerging Uygur middle class..

-Prof Mackerras-

It is the professors contention that modernisation and economic development in Xinjiang had brought about the emergence of a burgeoning Uygur middle class.

This new Uygur middle class is typified by an acceptance of Han economic and political dominance and permanency in Xinjiang and a desire to better themselves within this environment.

They seek Han education for their children in preference to the Uygur and enjoy the economic benefits and trappings that come with working with the Han. They still however suffer social discrimination at the hands of the Han.

Ethnic Relations

Professor Makerras is of the opinion that ethnic tensions as between the Han and the Uygur have reduced quite markedly in the last several years. He believes that the Chinese "carrot and stick" approach to ethnic relations is having it's effect.

He notes that most tension exists between the Uygur and the newer Han 'migrants" rather than those Han who settled in Xinjiang in the fifties and sixties. He believes there is a measure of mutual respect between these Han and the Uygur that does not exist with the newer breed of Han "migrant".

This class of "migrant's" loyalty to Xinjiang is transient and based only on a desire to "make a quick buck" and return to the inland. They are also obviously very much imbued with PRC propaganda and as a result treat the Uygur with open disdain thus fueling ethnic tension.

Little open support for Separation..

-Prof Mackerras-

Surprisingly the Professor noted very little solidarity among the Muslims of Xinjiang. The Uygur, Kazakhs and the Hui worship in their own mosques and provide little support to each other as a religious community. In fact he pointed out that there is quite a lot of ethnic tension as between the Uygur and The Kazakhs despite them being both Muslim and Turkic.

With regards to the issues of Separatism he found little support for the concept among the Uygur he spoke with but he did qualify this by saying he did not expect them to be vociferous on the subject to a foreigner. He went on to say that The PRC's position on "Uygur terrorism" was to a large degree political opportunism but that it was not without some basis.

Demographic Changes

An interesting aside was the professors observations about the data from the 1990 and 2000 official population censuses.

He claims that the initial figures released by the PRC showed Xinjiang's population to be 19.25 million and this reflected a rapid increase in the Han proportion above the 1990 census. This total population figure he noted is also sometimes quoted as being 18.49 m.

The difference apparently is in the number of "non residents" captured in the census.

He theorises that if "non residents" mean people who have not been in Xinjiang for more than twelve months then this differential of some 791,000 must represent Han immigration in a twelve month period, less of course true short term visitors such as tourists, army and business people.

Whatever this latter group's numbers are these figure are truly startling. If we extrapolate from that then upwards of some 750,000 Han have entered Xinjiang permanently since say 1999 giving credence to those commentators who believe the Han is now the dominant ethnic group in Xinjiang.

Another point raised by the Professor is that on this trip he saw much less evidence of larger Uygur families. Whereas before he would often see families of up to nine he did not notice this so much this time. He did not elaborate as to what he thought the reasons for this may be.


The Professor's conclusion was that through a policy of "stick and carrot" the Chinese are winning the battle for Xinjiang, if in fact they have not already won it.

Modernisation and rising living standards have gone a fair way in lessening ethnic unrest among the Uygur and whilst he does not catagorically state that the "Uygur Question" is solved from a Chinese perspective he believes that it is on the way to being so.

Finally, he could not forsee any future separatist inspired strife of any consequence and as such believed that the Chinese are being unreasonably hard in continuing their fairly heavy policies and practices concerning the Uygur.