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Graz, Austria, May 2008

The Uyghur fight against Chinese Cultural Assimilation

An analysis of the root causes of Uyghur discontent.

Keywords: New technologies for peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a politic point of view | Development of methods and resources for peace | | | | | | | | | | | | | China

For China, Xinjian is highly politically sensitive. Its strategic importance is derived from its possession of oil reserves and other minerals and lies in the fact that it borders eight Central Asian countries (1). Xinjiang, like Tibet, is home to an ethnic minority movement striving for a distinct identity and self-determination.

The Chinese government in its goal of achieving national unity has pursued assimilative policies that aimed at submerging distinctive identities into Chinese identity. Local population experienced Chinese policy as a threat to their cultural survival.

The Cultural Revolution of the sixties has left resentment and many wounds in the hearts of the Uyghurs. Mosques where closed down, destroyed and many religious leaders and ordinary Muslims where forced to start to raise pigs in contradiction with religious beliefs, apparently in an attempt at rapid and systemic assimilation.

The Uygur language, culture and ethnic identity is under constant strain. Due to these conditions the Uygur are reasserting, reinventing and stressing their own identity as a Muslim Turkic people, as opposed to the non-Muslim Chinese.

Mosques, media, publications, education are all under strict rules and surveillance. The pilgrimage to Mecca can only sometimes be made under strict laws. Religious activities in general are seen as covers for separatist activities.

As a consequence of these repressive policies, the Uyghur who have migrated are now raising their voices against the “beating hard” (2) policy of the government.

Politically, the Uyghur population cannot take part in important decisions regarding their future as they are subjugated to restrictions in freedom of association and expression.

Additionally, the pattern of regional economic development has also ensured the further segmentation of the labor market. The mining and export of Xinjiang’s oil and gas by a vast majority of Han workforce increases the Uyghur’s sense that their region’s resources are being expropriated from them, experiencing the « modernization » of the region by the Chinese as economic exploitation.

In addition, the enormous migration of Chinese Han to the Xinjian region since 1949 has also posed a threat to the economic survival of the Uyghur by Chinese setting up their shops and exploiting the region’s natural resources on which they depend for an income.

The living standards are in detriment of the Uygur population; unemployment and poverty are high, there is a low life expectancy and less years of schooling for the population belonging to these ethnic groups in comparison to the rest of the Chinese population. Discrimination towards the Uygur by the Han Chinese is widespread and stereotypes like “the Uygur being a lazy and backward” hinder many Uygur from getting better and higher jobs.

The repressive policies of the Chinese government against the ethnic minorities are been counterproductive to it creating more dissatisfaction and non-conformism among the Uyghur. And as long as the cultural assimilation is the goal behind them forced, the risk of facing separatist conflicts is latent. In the case of the Uyghur, if the minimal promised autonomy advantages offered by the government are not carrying out according to what it was established by the law; the threat of more violent protest will keep alive.


“Terrorist, separatists, fundamentalists”, either one or all the Uyghur are nowadays referred to as such by the Government of China. The relations between China and Xinjiang (the home of their largest Uyghur community) have been marked by cultural and religious conflict, bloody rebellions, and tribal dissensions. The Cconflict in this region arises between the separatist ideals of Uyghurs, the nationalist communist Han-Chinese government (“CCP”) and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (“XPCC”). The core issue to the conflict is survival of identity and self-determination


  • The author of the file is Biviana Buitrago. The content of this Fiche is based on the assignments written by Karlijn Leentvaar in March of 2003. Karlijn is an anthropologist working as a project assistant in the Balkan Region.

  • (1) : DWYER, Arienne. « The Xinjian Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy and Political Discourse ». In: Policiy Studies N° 15, East-West Center Washington.

  • (2) : The policy was adopted on April 1996. Under this policy the Chinese Government established a fight against the three forces of evil: Separatism, extremism and terrorism. Taken from: DE PEDRO, Nicolas. « El Conflicto the Xinjiang: La Minoría Uigur y la Política de Pekin ». In: UNISCI Dicussion Papers, N° 16, January 2008, OPEX.