[ The Dramatic Explosion of Ethnic Violence Pitting the Dominant Han Chinese Against the Mostly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province — The Worst Unrest in China in 30 Years — May Be Only the Beginning, as China’s Rapid Economic Growth is Fueling Greater Inequality and Resentment ]
Spanning over 1.6 million km2, Xinjiang makes up about one sixth of China’s territory.
The sparsely populated region of deserts and mountains on China’s western frontier has a versatile economy that is based on mining, agriculture and energy.The resources-rich region is China’s second largest producer of oil with 27.4 million tones.
Several crucial oil and gas pipelines cross from Central Asia through the region, helping meet the huge demand for energy in the much more developed and populated eastern coastal cities.
“With the decrease in reserves in Heilongjiang and Shandong, the strategic importance of Xinjiang and its untapped reserves grows every year,” said Ren Xianfang, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.
Xinjiang has been boiling since security forces launched a massive crackdown on Uighur Muslims protesting repression and discrimination in their region.
At least 184 people have been killed since and thousands have been detained in a deadly crackdown.
Xinjiang has been developing rapidly since the 1980s, attracting a wave of Han Chinese migrants but leaving many local Muslim Uighurs on the sidelines.
“There are very few Uighurs in the oil industry,” said Jean-Fran ois Huchet, director of the Centre of French Studies on Contemporary China in Hong Kong.
“The Uighur population has been stuck in the countryside in an agricultural system that has little added value.”
But even there — the region is a major grower of cotton — Uighurs struggle to gain economic power.
A regional quasi-military group, “the bingtuan”, control huge tracts of farmland, employing more than 2.2 million people there, the vast majority of whom are Han Chinese.
Uighurs, a Turkish-speaking minority of more than eight million, accuse the government of settling millions of ethnic Han in their territory with the ultimate goal of obliterating its identity and culture.
They also cite a recent government plan that has brought the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in Xinjiang schools, replacing their local dialect.
Xinjiang has also been China’s nuclear test ground for decades and hosts China’s strategic missile base.
It also has a geopolitical importance for China as it borders eight countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are battling major threats.
“It is also a huge buffer between Iran, troubles in Afghanistan and that part of the world, and Beijing and the Han regions of China,” said David Zweig, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.