China Unrest Has Roots In History This week's deadly clashes in Xinjiang province between ethnic Uighurs and China's majority Han are rooted in tensions that go back more than two centuries, an expert on the Uighurs says. Sean Roberts, director of International Development Studies at George Washington University, says he is surprised tensions didn't boil over sooner.

China Unrest Has Roots In History

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More now on the conflict between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs. Sean Roberts is director of International Development Studies at the George Washington University. He has done research among the Uighurs of Central Asia. Welcome…

Professor SEAN ROBERTS (International Development Studies, George Washington University): Thank you.

SIEGEL: …to the program. And first when we speak of the Han and the Uighurs, what are the differences between these two groups?

Prof. ROBERTS: Well, the Uighurs are Turkic speaking and are Muslim. And so, in fact, they really sure a lot more culturally and historically with people to the west than with the Han Chinese to the east.

SIEGEL: And how far back does the conflict between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs go?

Prof. ROBERTS: It goes back at least 250 years, since the 1750s essentially there's been almost constant tension between the two groups.

SIEGEL: Is it a fairly bold line between Han and Uighur or are there many Sinicized, as they would say, Uighurs or intermarriage, that sort of thing?

Prof. ROBERTS: Well, there are some but I think that in comparison to the other side of border in the Soviet Union, you did not have as much Sinification of minorities in China and particularly among the Uighurs. Their religions in particular kept them separate from the Chinese.

SIEGEL: Now, the Chinese tend to describe their role in Xinjiang province as one of modernization and economic development. True?

Prof. ROBERTS: That is true and in fact I would say since the mid 1980s or late 1980s, there's been incredible amount of development in Xinjiang. But that has not always been completely welcomed from the Uighurs because the model of economic development that's taking place is essentially displacing them from their traditional livelihoods.

SIEGEL: But, does modernization bring with it the Han Chinese or have there been Han Chinese for two centuries already in Xinjiang province?

Prof. ROBERTS: Well, there has been, but traditionally Xinjiang has been a buffer zone for China. And therefore, while there's been a lot of attempts to forcibly bring Han Chinese into the region, only recently with the economic development have people actually wanted to come to the region and really find their riches, because Xinjiang is also the gateway to western markets: the former Soviet Union and then Europe beyond that.

SIEGEL: Is it rich in resources?

Prof. ROBERTS: Very rich in resources. It has, in particular, oil, which is very important to China and it's also the gateway to natural resources in Central Asia, so there's a large oil pipeline coming from Kazakhstan through Xinjiang into China. There's plans for a large gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Xinjiang into China and that's very important to the Chinese.

SIEGEL: As we heard from Anthony Kuhn, the Chinese government tends to blame what's happening in Xinjiang on outside agitators - that is, Uighur exiles. First of all, are they active in Xinjiang, Urumqi, and do they favor succession or breaking apart from China?

Prof. ROBERTS: Well, a lot of Uighurs do favorite succession but I think that the majority of people involved in Uighur political movements around the world realize that that is not going to happen purely from the efforts of Uighurs. That it's something that would have to have international support.

SIEGEL: We hear reports now of terrible violence in Urumqi. Do you find that surprising? Has it had been consistent but less covered? How unusual it is, what's happening there now?

Prof. ROBERTS: Well, it's unusual in that there has not been an event like this in recent history. It's not unusual because we do know that there is incredible frustration in the Uighur population. And I think most people have predicted that this would happen and in some ways, we're surprised that this type of thing had not happened previously.

SIEGEL: Sean Roberts, thank you very much.

Prof. ROBERTS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Sean Roberts is director of International Development Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

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