China and minorities: the case of the Uyghur people

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have developed a strange and paradoxical relationship with minority groups whereby they proclaim respect for all 56 acknowledged minority groups but then also assert the importance of individuals being loyal to the singular Chinese identity before anything else. Here, Fanny Olson, and our Blog Editor Joe Corry-Roake discuss this paradoxical relationship and question the sustainability of the measures taken by the Chinese central government with regard to the Uyghur people.

There are three main ways in which the Chinese state interact with the Uyghur people: preferential treatment, undermining, and criminalisation. These policies are designed to make minority groups like the Uyghurs feel and define themselves as ’Chinese Uyghurs’ in contrast to ’Uyghur Chinese’ with all of the inferences that such definitions evoke.

© Evgeni Zotov/Creative Commons License

© Evgeni Zotov/Creative Commons License

The Uyghur people are a Turkic Muslim minority primarily living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. A conflict between the Chinese state and the Uyghur people has been ongoing since the late 1980s but has, in the past 15 years escalated dramatically. Much has been written about the strong arm approach which the Chinese government have used in dealing with the Uyghur people, branding them as terrorists and treating them as such but this article will focus more on other techniques and strategies of the CCP and local authorities which challenge the continued existence of the Uyghur people.

Preferential treatment

Preferential treatment is given in some instances to minority groups like the Uyghurs. Policies enshrined in law include legislation to allow Uyghurs to have more children than their Han Chinese counteraprts (and thus not be constrained by the one child policy). Furthermore, the Uyghur teenagers who take the entry exam to university (gaokao) are given more credits than their Han counterparts.

Policies such as these do lead to some discontent among the majority Han Chinese who question why they do not gain the same benefits and perks as minority groups such as the Uyghurs. This leads to attempts by Han Chinese to ’level the playing field with numerous instances of them changing or faking ” their ethnic origin so they can receive extra points in the gaokao.”

In contrast, there are many instances where Han Chinese are given benefits purely because of their ethnic background with, for example, some companies having an occupational requirement for certain roles in hiring drives and advertisements as ’Han Chinese’

Because of perceived inequalities on both sides, tensions exist and are one of the reasons why it is so easy for the CCP to undermine the Uyghur people who are already perceived by the Han majority as getting preferential treatment and moaning that they are treated unfairly.


Undermining the Uyghur people has happened in a number of ways not least in questions and underhand tactics when staging a beauty contest designed to celebrate minority women. At the same time there were signs around Xinjiang urging women to take of their veils and show their beautiful hair. This was not only a statement on looks but fed into a wider feeling portrayed by signs pleading: “Ladies please unveil your headscarves, please don’t affect a modern civilized society

© cce/Creative Commons License

© cce/Creative Commons License

There are also examples regarding other minority groups, such as the matriarchal Mosuo tribe, where the Chinese government encourage and even finance tourist attractions with the minority group as the central theme or ’attraction’. This builds the culture and people who follow it up as traditional and relics of a bygone era, worthy of being viewed in a museum but static and no longer relevant or worth pursuing in todays ’modern’ society. In this way, while happy to preserve the past, the Chinese state makes it very clear that they are not respecting the present.


Criminalisation of Uyghur people and their habits has risen and stretches from the “arbitrary arrest, torture, and “disappearance” of those considered “separatists” to more subtle yet discriminatory policies which have criminalised day to day activities of Uyghur men and women.

Policies such as the prohibition of children under the age of 18 attending mosques means that, for those individuals, and their families, to continue to practice their faith (which constitutes a large part of the Uyghur identity), they must illegally attend the mosque and thus become a criminal in the eyes of the law even forced ‘underground’ to continue to pursue their religion.

In 2014, in north Xinjiang, the local authorities placed a ban on women and men from wearing veils of any sort or long beards on local transport as it threatened the security of the area. This has been followed in early 2015 by a total ban of the full-faced Islamic veil from all public spaces in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi. Again then, individuals who wish to continue to live life as they have done, wearing the same clothes and following traditional fashions have slowly become viewed as criminals and even contributes to the undermining discussed previously whereby religious symbols are presented as fashion choices.

Where next?

The likelihood is that the Chinese state will continue with the policies they have already enacted towards Uyghur people. There are many examples where they have already done so in other regions and, with no real international pressure whatsoever, and even when there is with China such a powerful international player that it isn’t possible to impose sanctions or anything similar.

As the Uyghur people become increasingly unhappy with the way they are being treated, there is the possibility that more turn to military and violent solutions to gain a foothold against the CCP, this risks an escalation of the Xinjiang Conflict which may allow the Chinese government to use greater force to stamp out such opposition.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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