For decades, much of China's economic boom was concentrated in its south and eastern coastal regions, with mega-cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai experiencing stratospheric growth rates. It didn't take long before Mao's China was transformed from one of the world's most egalitarian nations into a highly stratified capitalist society, with income inequality levels rivalling those in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

A Uighur mother and daughter at a night market [Getty]

Recognising the gravity of the country's growing geographical and class-based divide, China's Communist Party, beginning in 2006, endorsed a political doctrine, at a closed-door plenary session held by the party's Central Committee, which focused on the creation of a "harmonious society".

The country's leadership, in an official statement, openly admitted the "many conflicts and problems affecting social harmony", and called on its members to be "clear-headed and be vigilant even in [seemingly] tranquil times".

To ameliorate class divisions and bridge vast geographical disparities, Beijing expanded basic welfare for average Chinese citizens, while under the Western Development Strategy it doubled down on its investment in long-neglected interior regions. Key minority groups such as the Muslim Uighur population, residing in a resource-rich region, were supposed to be among the greatest beneficiaries of this new strategy. 

The plight of Uighurs

The problem, however, was that the development of interior regions went hand in hand with growing sociopolitical repression of the Uighur population as well as a massive influx of Han Chinese population into autonomous regions such as Xinjiang.

Over time, the Uighur population, a Turkic-Muslim ethnic group, was reduced to a virtual minority group in its own region, with Beijing, in its fight against extremism, going so far as imposing draconian measures such as the ban on observance of Ramadan - a cornerstone of Islamic faith - by Muslim students and civil servants.

Officially, Xinjiang has been an integral and "inseparable" element of China for thousands of years. Yet, a cursory look at history reveals that it was not until the 18th century when Beijing, under the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, was able to assert some element of control on the (formerly) Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang, which literally means "new territory".

Al Jazeera World- The Uighurs: External Exile

In the mid-700s AD as well as early 20th century, the Uighur people were actually able to establish their own independent polities. The short-lived Eastern Turkestan Republic was established from 1931 to 1934 and, later, from 1944 to 1949, until dreams of independence were resolutely quashed by the iron-fist of the Chinese Communist Party. The party sought to recreate Qing China along Marxist-Leninist lines after its triumphant defeat of Imperial Japan and the Nationalist Party.

Despite the autocratic grip of Beijing, the Uighur population managed to preserve its unique cultural and religious traditions, resisting any form of coercive assimilation into the mainstream Han philosophy.

For a long time, the land-locked region remained an economic backwater, with the closure of state-owned enterprises in the 1990s compounding unemployment rates and creating an economic recession. Things changed when the Communist party, intent on accelerating development in the interior regions, launched a stimulus programme to transform Xinjiang's fortunes and more efficiently exploit its vast natural resources.

Full-scale repression

The modernisation of Xinjiang, however, didn't lead to comprehensive development for the Uighur people, creating new economic divides within the autonomous region. The region's economic boom disproportionately benefited the Han migrant population, which came to dominate the local economy. The result was greater interethnic tensions between the locals and the new settlers, which enjoyed various forms of support and special treatment by Beijing.

Things came to head in 2009, as long-simmering tensions exploded into violent protests in the provincial capital city of Urumqi, leading to the death of as many as 200 people and injury of hundreds more. Beijing, along with its favoured Han settlers, gradually confronted a local uprising, which sent shockwaves across China. Since then, year after year the autonomous region of Xinjiang has been rocked by protests, interethnic tensions, and terrorist attacks.

Instead of addressing the root causes of the crisis - that is to say, ending various forms of discrimination as well as granting genuine political autonomy to the Uighur population - Beijing adopted a heavy-handed counterinsurgency strategy coupled with growing restrictions on cultural and religious practices by the Uighur population.

Beijing has put the blame for spiralling violence squarely on groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Turkestan Islamic Party.

 

Beijing imposed restrictions on how and where Uighurs pray. Imams had to gain government permission before attending political meetings, while mosques had to be registered with the government. Uighurs working in government offices were barred/discouraged from fasting and praying during Ramadan. There were also various forms of restrictions on any kind of public gathering, especially among male locals.

Counterterror campaign

As extremist groups stepped up their attacks on Han residents and government offices, President Xi Jinping signalled a comprehensive counterterror campaign, calling for "walls made of copper and steel" and "nets spread from the earth to the sky" to hunt down the "terrorists".

Beijing has put the blame for spiralling violence squarely on groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Turkestan Islamic Party.

Recently, Beijing announced, quite astonishingly, that it arrested up to 181 terrorist groups in Xinjiang over the past 12 months, targeting "religious extremism" through greater military footprint, expanded surveillance, and mass arrests in the autonomous region.

China's slippery notion of "terrorism", and extremely low tolerance for dissent, has even led to the arrest of prominent activists such as Ilham Tohti, an academic who called for dialogue and peaceful means to resolve the unrest in Xinjiang. 

China's heavy-handed response to the crisis, however, is expected to deepen resentment and further boost the cause of more radical groups. And it runs the risk of transforming a long-peaceful region into China's Chechnya, eviscerating any hopes for a harmonious society. 

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of "How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera