Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (4) – Ethnic Alienation and Segregation

By Ilham Tohti, translated by Cindy Carter, published: May 4, 2015

Continued from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education and III. Religion


IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation


Among the openly talked-about problems affecting ethnic relations in Xinjiang, perhaps the most important is the increasing sense of alienation among ethnic minorities. But beyond this psychological sense of alienation, there is another, even more severe problem that few people (Uighurs in particular) are willing to discuss openly: the problem of physical ethnic segregation.

By physical or macro-level segregation, I mean that Xinjiang’s Han Chinese population tends to be clustered in areas of relatively high population density. In fact, the vast majority of Xinjiang’s Han Chinese population is concentrated in three areas, all of which are effectively off-limits to Uighurs: Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) areas; Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi; and cities, such as Shihezi and Kuitun, located in the Tianshan North Slope Economic Zone.

As for micro-level segregation, cities such as Urumqi with mixed ethnic populations (of Han Chinese, Uighur, and other minorities) tend to be heavily Balkanized, divided into distinct ethnic enclaves. This is particularly true since the ethnic unrest of July 2009: statistics on Urumqi, Xinjiang’s largest ethnically-mixed city, in the most recent issue of the Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook, published in 2010, reveal an increased tendency among both Han Chinese and Uighur residents to evacuate from mixed neighborhoods and relocate to neighborhoods dominated by their own ethnic group.

This conscious decision to “evacuate from the ethnic enclaves of others” is unlike other forms of ethnic discrimination or animosity (for example, taxi drivers refusing passengers of another ethnic group) that can be easily identified and halted. The historical impact of this decision will be enormous and far-reaching, because if the daily lives of Han Chinese and Uighurs become separate, it will exacerbate mutual feelings of estrangement and alienation. To some extent, this is a subtle form of “Palestinization.”

The flip side of ethnic segregation in Xinjiang is status segregation. Nearly all Han Chinese in Xinjiang live in urban areas or “within the system” [of government entities or government-controled entities], while the vast majority of Uighurs live in rural areas or “outside the system.” The two-tiered system that manifests itself in other areas of China as a divide between rural and urban manifests itself in Xinjiang as a divide between Han Chinese and Uighur. It goes without saying that this sort of ethnic segregation has a profound impact on the Uighur sense of ethnic and national identity. In fact, it calls to mind similar systems of segregation in Palestine and South Africa. Uighurs in China are “non-citizens” or “second-class citizens”, and XPCC outposts are widely regarded as the equivalent of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. This status segregation has caused more than a few Uighur intellectuals to liken Han Chinese to white Afrikaners, and Uighurs to South African blacks.

The skewed ethnic population distribution in Xinjiang has created a subconscious dichotomy in the minds of Han Chinese people between “their part of Xinjiang” (i.e. the Uighur-populated south) and “our part of Xinjiang” (the Han Chinese-populated north). In truth, there is no concept of Xinjiang as unified community or polity.


The ethnic population distribution pattern in Xinjiang today is largely the product of historical and systemic causes.

After Liberation [the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949], the central government mobilized a large-scale effort to promote migration to Xinjiang. In line with the political climate of the time, nearly all of the Han Chinese migrants to Xinjiang were state employees, and most were assigned to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Furthermore, central government industrial investment and systemic planning in Xinjiang was designed to complement the aforementioned migration program.

In recent decades, Xinjiang’s urbanization and development have been concentrated in the north, with the bulk of development projects and support going to a few primarily Han Chinese northern enclaves, while Uighur enclaves in southern Xinjiang have received almost no material support for urban development. Meanwhile, the XPCC’s ever-expanding urbanization has pushed beyond the big cities of Shihezi and Kuitun to create a new crop of cities such as Fukang, Wujiaqu, Tiemenguan and Beitun, controlled by the XPCC and populated mainly by Han Chinese. Between 2011 and 2015, the period covering China’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan, the XPCC will accelerate construction on a number of cities: Wuxing (XPCC Fifth Division), Kokdala (XPCC Fourth Division), Huyanghe (XPCC Seventh Division), Hongxing (XPCC Thirteenth Division) and Yulong (XPCC Fourteenth Division). These XPCC cities have long excluded Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, thus further marginalizing these groups.

These systematic factors are tantamount to furthering the physical segregation of Han Chinese and Uighurs, intensifying the sense of unfairness and “non-citizenship” felt by the Uighur community, and reducing opportunities for Xinjiang’s different ethnic groups to interact with one another in their daily lives. By pushing expansion and urbanization, the XPCC is tearing Xinjiang apart, worsening an already serious state of ethnic apartheid. In contrast with the XPCC approach, urban expansion in Shache County, Moyu County, Jiashi County and other areas of the south would be much more beneficial in reducing the disparities between north and south and allowing all ethnic groups a fair share of the fruits of development.[1]

Thoughts and Recommendations

The Hakka, Teochew and other ethnic groups of China’s southeastern seaboard had a long history of clan warfare and centuries-old feuds—that is, until the advent of modern industry and commerce created deeper linkages between profits and the social division of labor, thus helping to bring about rapid social integration and dispel ancient enmities. In the long run, prospects for Xinjiang’s ethnic relations may be similarly optimistic, but there is one important prerequisite: we must reduce or eliminate the physical separation between ethnic groups, rather than allow segregation to continue unabated.

In fact, in all multi-ethnic nations, the process of dismantling or destroying barriers of segregation is an important barometer of, and a means to achieving, peaceful ethnic relations.

  1. Stop building mono-ethnic cities. Xinjiang’s urbanization efforts are now targeted at building up number of key areas: if development in these areas proceeds according to current targets and plans, it will create an even greater number of mono-ethnic cities. When building new cities and towns, I suggest transferring a certain amount of population from the south, insofar as circumstances allow. Use the hand of government to guide population movements in the region and promote the formation of new, ethnically mixed cities. The government could also allow some flexibility in the use of financial resources to improve the ethnic balance of areas and operations within its purview.
  1. Clannishness is part of human nature, but when it comes to allocating government resources, we should dedicate those resources to creating diverse and integrated communities. Singapore is an excellent case in point. As a multi-ethnic and multicultural rising city-state, Singapore has used its system of public housing to increase mutual understanding among different ethnic groups and promote a more tolerant, open, and pluralistic society. By deliberately bringing people of different ethnicities and cultures to live together in proportions that parallel the overall ethnic population distribution, Singapore has leveraged government resources to build an ethnically integrated and mutually inclusive society.

In ethnically mixed cities such as Urumqi, the government could provide low-rent, subsidized, or public housing in such a way as to encourage the formation of ethnically mixed communities and to avoid creating mono-ethnic urban enclaves. In addition, when hiring or assigning work to cadres, civil servants, state-owned enterprises or other entities under government control, the government should do its utmost to facilitate interaction and communication between different ethnic communities. This could include assigning Uighur cadres to work in mainly Han Chinese neighborhoods, and Han Chinese cadres to work in mainly Uighur neighborhoods, and doing everything possible to maximize opportunities for integration and daily contact between the two ethnicities.

  1. Employees of government bureaus and public service industries such as banking, transportation, utilities and insurance should be required to acquire, over time, a certain degree of fluency in local languages. If employees of these institutions can display a certain mastery of languages other than Mandarin, it will help convince ethnic minorities that the government is not merely a government for the Han Chinese, but a government dedicated to serving the needs of all of its citizens, regardless of ethnicity. It would also, in the minds of Han Chinese employees, help to reinforce the impression of Xinjiang as a multi-ethnic and multicultural autonomous region, markedly different from other regions of China populated solely by Han Chinese.


[1] There are numerous alternate spellings for these counties. Shache County is also known as Yarkant or Yarkand; Moyu County as Karakax or Qaraqash; and Jiashi County as Payzawat or Peyziwat.

I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education and III. Religion





Chinese original: 《伊力哈木:当前新疆民族问题的现状及建议》


5 responses to “Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (4) – Ethnic Alienation and Segregation”

  1. tarasherab says:

    Reblogged this on tarasherab.

  2. […] Continued from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education, III. Religion, and IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation […]

  3. […] from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education, III. Religion, IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation, and V.  Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and […]

  4. […] from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education, III. Religion, IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation, V.  Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals, and VI. The Xinjiang Production and […]

  5. […] from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education, III. Religion, IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation, V.  Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals, VI. The Xinjiang Production and […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.