Humans have moved from one location to another since the beginning of time, gradually setting up units that morphed into clans, tribes, empires, and, now, nation-states. Migration often creates conflict when one group’s movement affects the sovereignty, or the perceived sovereignty, of another. In some cases, migration has caused ethnic groups to become minorities in their own homeland.
State sponsored migration of Han Chinese into China’s western territories is causing such ethnic conflict, particularly in the Uyghur region of Xinjiang and in Tibet. Of all the political problems that lead to tension and armed conflict, migration of a national ethnic majority into minority areas is the easiest to stop. The Chinese government must reverse its policy of settling Han Chinese to address current problems associated with internal migration in its western territories.
Once an autonomous people with links to Chengis Khan, the Uyghurs are now an oppressed minority within the vast Chinese state.1 Absorbed by the Qing dynasty in the 1800s, the Uyghurs have consistently struggled for independence from Chinese rule.2 They have de jure autonomy, but, in reality, lack real sovereignty, suffering from political and economic deprivation inflicted by the Chinese government.
China has renamed the Uyghur homeland Xinjiang, which translates to “new territory” in Mandarin, to dissociate the Uyghurs from their historical links, and redefine them as residents in a greater Chinese state.3 In 1949, 70% of the people in Xinjiang inhabited the south while 25% lived in the north. More than half of the residents moved to the north by 1976.4 Yet, this shift of residents to the north is not a Uyghur migration. Rather, it is the result of Chinese state policy that relocates Han Chinese to the northern areas of the region.5
The sharp developmental divide between the newly constructed Sinicized cities and traditional Uyghur neighborhoods highlights Uyghur deprivation.6 The former are filled with modern residential and business areas that offer economic opportunities to the Han Chinese. The latter are dilapidated remnants of the 19th century, and offer limited economic mobility. Thus, internal migration of ethnic Han Chinese has resulted in Uyghur resentment towards the Chinese state.
The Uyghur discontent has manifested itself in episodes of violence directed at the Chinese state and Han settlers. According to Chinese state media, a group of knife-wielding Uyghurs was gunned down in June of 2013 by state security forces for purportedly attacking government installations. Other instances of violence have included attempted hijackings and bombings. The Chinese government has been quick to label these outbursts of violence as Islamic terrorism. Though there have been Uyghurs involved with international Islamic terrorist activities, labeling all Uyghur violence as Islamic terrorism is an obvious attempt by the Chinese authorities to minimize the role of ethnically motivated Uyghur separatist movements.
Tibetan grievances, though centered more on Chinese interference with social and religious life than on industrial inequalities, further highlights migration’s potential to fuel conflict. As in many ethnic conflicts, narrative is of paramount importance. The Tibetans argue that Tibet was invaded by China in 1949, while the Chinese claim that Tibet has been a part of China since the 13th century.7 Moreover, Tibet resents the exile of the Dalia Lama and their lack of political voice within China.
Chinese state policies have also deprived the Tibetans of economic opportunities. Census data from 2003-2004 reveals that the Tibetan Autonomous Region had a higher rate of urban-rural inequality than any region in China. Tibetan farmers and nomads made half of what the average peasant made in the rest of China. Ethnic conflict is further exacerbated by the migration of ethnic Han Chinese to Lhasa and state-sponsored construction of Sinicized cities across Tibet. With increased migration of Han Chinese into Tibet, this economic cleavage has widened.
These inequalities have caused ethnic violence. In March 2008, local Tibetans lashed out against Han residents, triggering riots against the anniversary of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Reportedly, some 140 people were killed, though the Chinese media disputed those figures. From 2008-2012, there have also been sporadic protests, some of them involving self-immolation by Tibetan monks.
Ethnic disturbances in Xinjiang and Tibet reveal how government policies and internal migration exacerbate the already tense situations there. The relationship between internal migration and ethnic conflict is clear. When one group migrates and begins to impact the sovereignty or way of life of another, it increases the suffering of already underprivileged groups. Such is the case for the Uyghurs and the Tibetans.
To resolve ethnic conflict in China’s western territories, the Chinese government’s new policy approach should include cessation of Han migration into Chinese autonomous regions. Moreover, it should compel Han settlers to return home, however, this should not be forced. Those Han settlers wishing to return to eastern China must be given a broad range of assistance. Although there is no evidence of discriminatory acts by the local authorities towards the Han Chinese, once the Han migration ceases, the Uyghur and Tibetan administrations need to address the rights of the minority Han or other ethnic minorities living in their autonomous regions.
1. Tristan Mabry, Nationalism, Language, and Muslim Exceptionalism. (Philadelphia: 2015), 106.
2. Mabry, “Nationalism,” 106.
3. Gardner Bovingdon, The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. (New York: 2010), Ch1.
4. Mabry, “Nationalism,” 106.
5. Mabry, “Nationalism,” 107.
6. Mabry, “Nationalism,” 107.
7. Elliot Sperling, “The Tibet- China Conflict: History and Polemics,” Policy Studies 7, (Washington: 2004), 1-2.
Lemar Alexander Farhad is an active duty Army Foreign Area Officer with extensive experience in international affairs and military operations. He has multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. Currently, Lemar is a graduate student at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The opinions and positions stated here are his alone and do not represent the views or policies of the Government of the United States or any of its agencies.