Demystifying China: Understanding PRC Indigenous Policies in Xinjiang and Tibet

Authored by: Daniel T. Murphy

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) policies regarding indigenous populations in regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet are based on the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law passed in 1984.  In all, China has five autonomous regions (Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang Uygur, Guangxi Zhuang, Ningxia Hui, and Tibet), 30 autonomous prefectures, 120 autonomous counties, and over 1,100 ethnic municipalities.  The regions are governed by people’s congresses representing the various ethnic groups in the region.  The congresses are either chaired or co-chaired by a member of the indigenous ethnic group (i.e., the Chair or Co-Chair in Xinjiang must be a Uygur).

In the autonomous regions, ethnic minorities enjoy multiple benefits – Extra seats in people’s congress and in the government agencies, priority admission to secondary schools and universities, and lenient law enforcement policies.  Yet, while the PRC’s stated policy is based on ethnic autonomy, the long-term objective seems to be focused on integration.  As the PRC has embarked on economic development initiatives in these areas, they have had to bring in large numbers of Han skilled workers from the eastern regions.  As a result, the PRC’s policies have largely backfired.

Xinjiang is a good example.  Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang were intended to benefit and win over the Uygur population.  In recent decades the PRC has made significant investments in Xinjiang. As a result, since 2003, the region’s GDP growth has exceeded the growth rate of China as a whole. But the growth has failed to close income gaps across ethnicities.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Beijing’s investments in northern Xinjiang caused the Muslim Uyghurs in the south to feel economically disadvantaged.  Beijing then tried to remedy the situation by moving state-owned enterprises like PetroChina and Sinopec into the south.  The new businesses brought waves of Han workers from the east to fill the jobs that Muslim Uyghurs were not sufficiently skilled to fill.  And the Xinjiang Work Conference found that the government’s preferential treatment program, which distributed benefits according to people’s ethnic status, has “only heightened the ethnic consciousness of the minorities . . . sharpened the ethnic divide,” and discouraged the development of a Chinese identity.

In usual fashion, when one strategy doesn’t hit the mark, Beijing transitions to another.  The Xinjiang Work Conference in 2010 was attended by Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Xi Jinping, the entire Politburo Standing Committee, cabinet ministers, provincial leaders, CEOs of state-owned enterprises, military leaders and police chiefs.   The participants crafted a new strategy for Xinjiang based on a creative “pairing assistance” model.  The model paired China’s 19 provinces and big cities with sister provinces and cities in Xinjiang to provide human resources, technology, management and funds for economic development.  For example, Shanghai is assisting Bachu, Shache, Zepu, and Yechang counties in Kashgar.  The sister provinces and cities are required to grant .3% to .6% of their annual budgets to support development projects in Xinjiang.  In addition, the conference agreed to preferential tax policies and special development zones in Xinjiang.

Yet, no matter how creative are the PRC’s economic policies in the autonomous regions, religion seems like it will continue to be the irreconcilable issue.  The Uygurs in Xinjiang and the Hui in Ningxia are Muslim.  The Tibetans are Buddhist.  The CCP ideology is atheist, and has maintained restrictive religious policies that have offended Muslims, Buddhists and Christians alike.  The 2009 Congressional-Executive Commission on China highlighted several examples: Alimjan Himit, a Protestant house church leader in Xinjiang had been detained at the Kashgar Municipal Detention Center since 2008.  Dorje Khadro, a Tibetan Buddhist nun had been detained since 2008 for protesting against “patriotic education” that demanded nuns denounce the Dalai Lama.  Beijing further turned up the heat this year by placing most Tibetan monasteries under the direct rule of government officials who will be stationed permanently in the monasteries.

Copyright Daniel T. Murphy 2012