China's Uighurs: Who are they, and why are they unhappy?

An audacious attack on Beijing's Tiananmen Square has cast attention on the ethnic minority that China often calls terrorists. That label does not apply to most Uighurs.

Ng Han Guan/AP
Uighur jade vendors in foreground wait for customers at an outdoor curio market where Chinese police have been checking their IDs everyday since a vehicle attack in Beijing, Oct. 30, 2013.

On Oct. 28, an SUV plowed through crowds in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, crashed, and burst into flames. Two bystanders were killed, 40-plus injured. Police say the car's occupants, who were killed, were extremist Muslim Uighurs. No group has claimed responsibility, and police have given scant evidence.

1: Who are the Uighurs?

The estimated 12 million Uighurs (pronounced "WEE-ghers") are Muslims, living in China's far-western province of Xinjiang. They speak a Turkic language, and feel much greater cultural affinity with nearby Central Asian countries than they do with mainstream China, dominated by ethnically Han people. One of the principal Uighur cities, Kashgar, lies on the historic Silk Road, and for centuries the region earned its livelihood from agriculture and trade. In the early 20th century the Uighurs briefly declared independence, but they have been under full Chinese control since the 1949 revolution. Xinjiang is rich in oil and minerals – resources that have fueled much economic development, though the province remains one of the poorest in China.

2: What are their grievances?

Uighurs complain that the influx of Han settlers over the past 50 years has made them strangers in their own land, where they now make up less than half the population. Most of the good jobs created by economic growth go to Han, not to Uighurs who mainly do menial tasks. Uighurs fear that their culture is being stifled and their Muslim religious practice curtailed as the Chinese government fights to stamp out separatism; young men under age 18 are banned from mosques, for example, and essential school classes are taught in Mandarin, not Uighur. Economic development is all very well, a Uighur trader once told me, but it comes at a price: "They give us bread," he said, "but they take away our hearts."

3: Are further attacks likely?

Angry Uighurs have at times resorted to violence in Xinjiang, though press restrictions make it impossible to verify official accounts. Most incidents appear to involve groups of Uighur men armed with knives, and occasionally explosives, attacking police stations, soldiers, or other symbols of the Chinese state. Dozens have died in some attacks. If police accounts are correct, the Tiananmen incident was the most dramatic attack ever in Beijing. Officials say the eight Uighurs involved were a closely knit group from three families who only started planning their action in September. Such groups are hard to detect and the weapons used – a car, gasoline – cannot be controlled. The success of the attack, and the resulting publicity, may encourage others.

4: How is the government likely to react?

It has tightened security in Xinjiang, which, even before the incident, seemed to visitors as if it were under military occupation. A new crackdown on religious people and private religious schools seems likely. Government advisers are calling for improved intelligence gathering and stepped-up international antiterrorism cooperation because Beijing is blaming this attack, like all violence in Xinjiang, on outside forces such as the shadowy East Turkestan Islamic Movement. ETIM's existence is so dubious that the US State Department took the group off its terrorist blacklist, but Beijing attributes separatist violence to exile groups such as ETIM or the World Uighur Congress. Official acknowledgment of Uighur grievances is not in the cards.

5: Is there a long-term solution?

It would help if the government did more to spread the benefits of economic development in Xinjiang more evenly among the population. But Beijing's fear of "splittists" undermining national unity is so deep that it is hard to imagine the authorities taking a more relaxed view of local customs, culture, and religion. Other ethnically distinct border regions of China have suffered a similar fate: In Mongolia, local culture has been largely reduced to folkloric exhibitions for tourists, and Tibetans fear that an influx of Han immigrants, strict police surveillance, and official control of Buddhist monasteries is weakening their cultural identity. Only if Xinjiang's Chinese rulers show greater cultural sensitivity and more commitment to raising living standards are they likely to win loyalty.

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