The Uighur Crackdown: Why Beijing’s hard-line approach is counterproductive

Historical Background 

The Xinjiang region of China has always had a distinct cultural, ethnic, and religious identity. The region feels much closer to its Central Asian neighbours than it does to the rest of China. Since its incorporation around the mid-18th century, Xinjiang has been a challenging region for the central government to administrate. Most regions in China are predominantly Han Chinese. By contrast, more than half of Xinjiang’s population of 24 million consists of Turkic Muslims. Additionally, Xinjiang covers a geographical area larger than California and Texas combined, shares borders with eight countries, and sits around 2000km away from Beijing. Xinjiang’s distinct culture, vast size and remote location have rendered it particularly vulnerable to external influences; prior rebellions continue to loom large in the minds of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials today.

Successive governments have attempted to dilute the ethnic composition of Xinjiang. Over the past few decades, central government incentives have prompted large influxes of Han Chinese migrants into the region. Beijing’s belief is that these influxes will enable them to consolidate control and stabilise the region. However, in practice, the influxes have had the opposite effect. Han Chinese tend to dominate positions of power and occupy the best-paying urban jobs, which has fuelled resentment amongst the Uighurs.

The Current Situation

Since the 1980s, unrest has escalated significantly and ethnically-motivated attacks and riots have become more frequent. Between 1989 and 2014, approximately 540 people have been killed and 2450 wounded in Han-Uighur clashes. The current crackdown was triggered by ethnic riots in 2009 that left 197 people dead. Under Xi Jingping, the CCP’s stance has become considerably more aggressive. In a 2014 speech, Mr Xi labelled the situation in Xinjiang a ‘struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism’ and called upon officials to ‘show absolutely no mercy.’ Use of detention camps has expanded rapidly. Scholars estimate that around 1.5 million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities have been detained, with many more arrested or jailed. Thousands of officials have also been purged for resisting or failing to carry out the crackdown with sufficient zeal. Mass surveillance is also being deployed on a huge scale. Mandatory surveillance software scans residents’ phones for Islamic keywords and pictures and hundreds of thousands of CCTVs have been installed in a grid-like fashion across Xinjiang’s cities. 

China’s persecution of ethnic minorities can be seen as  part of a broader strategy aimed at eradicating external influences. Aided by technological advances, the CCP has effectively turned Xinjiang into an Orwellian incubator.

Solutions from China’s Standpoint 

Mr Xi would be well-served to learn from the mistakes of his predecessors. For centuries, China has tried in vain to reign in Xinjiang through repressive measures. Ethnic dilution, detention camps and mass surveillance will not stabilise the region. These measures are likely to radicalise more individuals and cause them to engage in further acts of violence. Therefore, China risks much larger backlashes if it continues course. 

China’s first step should be to reverse course on the crackdown. Over the coming decades, China intends to create a New Silk Road and increase trade with Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Xinjiang will serve as a gateway for these ambitions. Fear and unrest will impinge on the region’s ability to function properly and attract foreign direct investment. China needs Xinjiang to be open for business and this will not be possible if the current crackdown continues. 

At the most fundamental level, Mr Xi’s current approach fails to see the forest for the trees. Han-Uighur clashes are symptoms of the issue, not the cause. Compared to their Han counterparts, Uighurs face disadvantages in income and opportunities. Until these economic disparities are reduced or eliminated, resentment will continue to drive unrest in Xinjiang. 

China’s second step should therefore be to spend more on Uighur-specific vocational education initiatives. Over the past decade, Xinjiang’s spending on public security has increased tenfold to £7.14 billion. If the crackdown were to be reversed, much of this funding could be redirected to more productive uses. Currently, Uighurs are limited to low-level positions by design of the central government. Simultaneously lifting employment restrictions and spending on Uighur education could narrow the income gap that has fuelled resentment. China’s trade ambitions require stronger human capital in Xinjiang and could be a part of the solution. 

Solutions from an International Standpoint 

Despite the benefits of doing so, China is unlikely to change course. The international community should therefore use targeted sanctions to signal disapproval of China’s actions. Sanctions should be targeted at companies and officials that have played an instrumental role in the crackdown. The US has already begun issuing such sanctions, and other countries should collectively adopt similar measures. This collective element is crucial due to the size of China’s economy. China depends on the threat of trade and investment reprisals to keep other countries silent, and a coordinated effort would therefore limit its ability to retaliate.  

Countries should also provide legal guarantees against the deportation of Uighurs in the process of seeking asylum. Although most Western countries have vowed not to send Uighurs back to China, this should take the form of an iron-clad legal guarantee. Germany and Sweden are currently the only states to provide such guarantees, and other countries should consider adopting similar measures. 


China’s crackdown on the Uighurs is driven by a failure to acknowledge the real problems that are driving unrest in the Xinjiang region. Until these problems are resolved, China will find it impossible to achieve stability in the region. In the meantime, the international community must continue to condemn the crackdown and protect Uighurs from deportation. Silence is not an option.


This post was written by a member of the Defence and Diplomacy policy centre’s working group. The featured image is of Ürümqi, capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.



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