Tensions Flare Between China's Uighars, Hans

Historically, there have been tensions between the Uighars and Han Chinese in western China's Xinjiang province. Linda Benson is a professor at Oakland University, and her research focuses on Northwest China. She talks with Renee Montagne about the latest round of violence in the region.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

To learn more about the historic tensions in this region, we reached Linda Benson. She's a professor at Oakland University in Michigan, who's written widely about China's ethnic minorities, especially the Muslim Uighars. And good morning.

Professor LINDA BENSON (Oakland University): Good morning to you.

MONTAGNE: How do the Uighars in particular fit into modern China, and how are they distinct from the majority Han Chinese?

Prof. BENSON: Well, as we can see, they're not fitting in as well as I'm sure the government would like. And they are a very distinct people. Their language is Turkic. So they are closer culturally and linguistically to people in central Asia rather than to the Chinese. And many are racially distinct, although there has been a blending there of both Asians and central Asians over many, many, many years.

But they have had very much a place in modern Chinese history. And the area that they live has been contested over time. And we are seeing some of the fallout of that. When you incorporate a new territory and new peoples into any kind of modern state, those are tensions that are going to come with that process.

MONTAGNE: Have relations between the two groups - that is the Han Chinese and the Uighars - changed in recent years? And I'm thinking since 9/11, given that the Uighars are Muslims - and that's always been a concern for China.

Prof. BENSON: Well, there have been ongoing tensions all through the 20th century, I have to say. And after 1980, as things began to open up in China, things did improve in many ways.

But part of the problem has come with the restrictions placed by the government that are viewed by some of the Uighars as really impinging on their religious freedoms. They are opposed to the birth control policy, of course, which some Han Chinese are as well. But there are other dynamics going on here at the same time because over that period of time - again, from the 1980s - what we've seen are steady incidents, small and some much larger, that have been going on that have not been covered in the Western media.

One of the bloodiest was in 1997. It was right at Yining(ph), right on the Kazakhstan/Chinese border. In 2008, right before the Olympics, there were some incidents, one of those at Kashgar(ph), in which paramilitary police were killed. So there have been a lot of incidents. They suggest that there is an undertow here of Uighars who would resort to all kinds of violence to make changes.

But there are others who have hoped that the economic improvements are going to better their lives and that the Han Chinese government and military, which is very powerful in Xinjiang, that those are going to mitigate some of the past policies and make this a quilt, that they are a part of the fabric of China and so on. There are certainly people today who do not feel that that's the truth.

MONTAGNE: How important is this province to China? It is oil rich.

Prof. BENSON: Absolutely, it's oil rich. And they have recently been putting money into developing all of the Western part of China, and that includes all kinds of infrastructure changes in transportation and so on. And some of that is viewed locally as simply another means for China to exploit the riches of this province.

MONTAGNE: Just finally: do you expect this violence to go on? I mean, were you surprised?

Prof. BENSON: Yes, I really was. It has been relatively quiet. Most of the incidents have been very small, including very small numbers of people. So this one did surprise me. Urumqi is, after all, really a Han Chinese city. It's always been that way. It's 75 percent Chinese, and the Uighars really are a minority there.

It's also a base for the military, the police. So if you're going to have a demonstration, you know that you're going to be met with considerable force. So this is something that did take me back. The violence of the repercussions also was surprising to me. I was hoping very much that they were going to be able to move on from this kind of confrontation and use other methods to end protests.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Prof. BENSON: You're very welcome. It's a great pleasure to talk to you.

MONTAGNE: Linda Benson is an expert on the Uighar people of China. She's a professor of history at Oakland University in Michigan.

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