Home > Ilham Tohti Archives > Ilham Tohti's Ideas > Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations

(translated by Cindy Carter, published: April 22, 2015 on China Change)

This article, a total of 24,000 words in Chinese, was first posted on the Daxiong Gonghui (“大象公会”) website after the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti’s arrest in January, 2014.

Daxiong Gonghui described the origin of the article in a note: “This document was written by Ilham Tohti, associate professor of economics at Minzu University of China (formerly Central Nationalities University), in response to a 2011 request from high-level officials in the Chinese government. Ilham Tohti made first-draft revisions to this document in October of 2013, but was unable to complete a final draft.” The posthas since been censored and is only available elsewhere as a repost. Iwas able to confirm the origin and the authenticity of the article with Mr. Huang Zhangjin (黄章晋),the editor of the online Daxiong magazine. The translation will be posted in several installments for easy reading, and the entire article will be ready for download in a few days.

– The Editor 

I. Unemployment

Since Zhang Chunxian (张春贤) took office, a big push on Xianjiang policy by the Chinese central government and a series of initiatives by Zhang Chunxian himself have rekindled hope among ethnic population in Xiangjiang for the region’s future social stability and development prospects.[1]Furthermore, Zhang Chunxian has managed, in a very short period of time, to win high praise from local ethnic minority officials and intellectuals alike.

At present, the new administration in Xinjiang is relying on increased economic investment and improvements in citizens’ livelihoods to quell ethnic tensions. These policies will likely have a positive short-term effect, but because they do not address deep-seated problems, we cannot afford to be sanguine about Xinjiang’s future, nor can we be certain that violence will not erupt again. If the government is to win broad-based popular support and achieve genuine long-term peace and stability, it must promote further systemic and social adjustments.

To this end, I have prepared a simple list of nine issues affecting ethnic relations in Xinjiang. For each, I have included an overview of the present situation, causes and contributing factors, and proposed solutions.

I.  Unemployment among Ethnic Minorities


Unemployment is a social issue that affects all regions of China, but Xinjiang’s unemployment problem tends to be concentrated among ethnic minorities. For Uighurs who migrate to the cities in search of work, employment opportunities are markedly limited, confined to a narrow band of service-industry jobs, mostly jobs in restaurants. There is a vast gap in employment opportunities available to different ethnic groups: Uighur and other ethnic-minority job applicants face significant employment discrimination. These factors, in turn, fuel resentment toward the government and toward the Han Chinese majority.

Because the factors driving urban and rural unemployment are so different, we can divide the employment issue in Xinjiang into two distinct facets: (1) unemployment among Uighur university graduates and (2) the rural labor surplus.

  1. Unemployment among Uighur university graduates

According to official government data, only 17% of ethnic Uighur university students in Xinjiang manage to secure a full-time job by the time they graduate. This is far below the rate for ethnic Han Chinese university students. My own research reveals that the actual job-placement rate for Uighur university students approaching graduation is even lower, at less than 15%. The difficulty of finding work after graduation not only impoverishes ethnic-minority families who have sacrificed to send their children to university, it also contributes to the notion, widespread among Uighurs, that education is useless.

  1. The rural labor surplus

The rural labor surplus in Xinjiang is a serious problem. The root cause of this excess rural labor force is lagging urbanization and industrialization in Uighur areas. In fact, the actual urbanization rate among the Uighur population is only about 10%.

Most of Xinjiang’s Uighur population is concentrated in the rural south, where the average amount of arable land per capita is less than one mu, or one-sixth of an acre. This sort of marginal existence and inescapable poverty not only bottles up vast reserves of surplus rural labor, it also gives rise to lawlessness and criminal behavior, making these areas potential breeding grounds for future threats to the social order. If this vicious cycle is allowed to continue, it may even bring about the collapse of southern Xinjiang’s fragile oasis ecosystem.


1.  Given the absence or non-enforcement of national ethnic policies, the primary cause of employment difficulties among minority university students is blatant ethnic discrimination in hiring. Ethnic minorities are severely under-recruited for jobs in the civil service and in state-owned enterprises. Prior to the July 2009 ethnic unrest in Urumqi, many private-sector job advertisements openly stated that only Han Chinese applicants would be considered; some state-owned enterprises went so far as to recruit Han Chinese from other parts of mainland China, rather than hire local ethnic minorities. At some workplaces with no Uighur employees, Uighurs may be stopped by security guards and prevented from entering the premises. Severely curtailed employment prospects have given rise to an unusual phenomenon in Xinjiang: a craze for extracurricular foreign language training courses. Xinjiang’s ethnic minority university students are keener on studying foreign languages than students at top-tier universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University, because these students feel that their only hope lies in finding work in international trade, tourism, or overseas. Even the privileged classes are not immune to employment difficulties: one child of a high-ranking Xinjiang Uighur government official graduated from a prestigious mainland university and spent a year searching fruitlessly for work. It was only after securing a personal letter of introduction from Wang Lequan [then Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang] that the young graduate was finally able to secure a job.

2.  A unique feature of Xinjiang’s natural geography is its desert archipelago of insular, isolated oases. Historically, there has been a vast gap in the amount of government investment given to these different geographical units. This is particularly true of the Uighur enclaves in Xinjiang’s south, where urbanization and industrialization lag far behind the Han Chinese-dominated “Tianshan North Slope Economic Zone.” (The “Tianshan North Slope Economic Zone,” situated at the northern foot of the Tianshan mountain range, is the most economically developed region of Xinjiang. This highly concentrated swath of productive forces forms the developmental core of Xinjiang’s modern industry, agriculture, telecommunications, education, science, information technology and other sectors. Home to over 83% of Xianjiang’s heavy industry and 62% of its light industry, favored with ample natural resources and robust urban and transportation infrastructure, the zone accounts for over 40% of Xinjiang’s gross domestic product.) Xinjiang’s south is geographically isolated; the Han Chinese cities in the north tend to exclude Uighurs; and when the surplus rural labor force in the south tries to flow into the Tianshan North Slope Economic Zone, it is met with restrictions. All these make it even more difficult for southern surplus rural labor to migrate to urban areas.

3.  Severe underinvestment in basic education: there is a vast north-south disparity in educational investment in Xinjiang. Even in southern Xinjiang, one finds stark ethnic inequalities in the allocation of educational resources, particularly in the area of secondary schools. Whether in terms of fiscal investment or number of schools, the proportion of educational resources allocated to Uighur students is far below what it should be, given their percentage as a proportion of the local population. Moreover, the high school enrollment rate in southern Xinjiang is extremely low, due to the critical lack of investment in basic education: in large Uighur population centers such as Kuqa country and Shache [Yarkant] county, there is only one high school in each county offering Uighur-language instruction. As a result, average educational levels in Uighur communities in southern Xinjiang are extremely low, causing workers to be inadequately equipped for careers in modern agriculture or industry. The surplus rural labor supply spills into the cities, where migrants face severely limited job prospects, forcing them further afield into the interior to look for better opportunities.

4.  Since the ethnic unrest of July 2009, nearly all of Xinjiang’s Uighur enclaves have been subject to the constant pressure of “stability maintenance” policies. Rural migrants to the northern city of Urumqi have been expelled in large numbers, and forced to return to their villages in the south. At the same time, local governments have adopted stringent limits on outward population migration, thus exacerbating the problem of rural employment.

Thoughts and Recommendations

The Uighur unemployment problem is the cumulative result of numerous long-term forces. As such, resolving the dilemma will require a broad-based approach and systematic long-term planning; it will not happen overnight. Simply pouring money from central government coffers into Xinjiang to create a slew of make-work jobs is not the right approach: not only would this prove an undue fiscal burden for the government, it would also transform the Uighur population into a people dependent upon handouts, engendering a sense of shame and inferiority.

I have the following thoughts on how the issue of unemployment should be addressed systematically:

1. Article 23 of the “Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law of the People’s Republic of China” expressly stipulates that ethnic minorities be given priority in hiring by government institutions and state-owned enterprises.[2] Even taking into consideration the practical difficulties of immediately implementing such a policy, steps should be taken to gradually expand Uighur employment opportunities and to phase in quotas for the hiring of ethnic minorities in the civil service and state-owned enterprises. At present, public services in Xinjiang suffer from a serious dearth of Uighur and other ethnic minority employees. Hospitals, post offices, banks, insurance companies, notaries, courts, municipal bureaus and other social service organizations are staffed mainly by Han Chinese who cannot speak Uighur, causing tremendous inconvenience to Uighur citizens in their daily lives.

2. The government should take an active role in promoting internal population migration in Xinjiang as a means of alleviating unemployment in the south and preventing further damage to the fragile southern ecosystem. For example, it could oversee a controlled and systematic transfer of a certain proportion of southern Xinjiang’s population to the northern industrial belt, or to farms managed by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Instead of spending vast sums of labor and capital to organize rural migrant workers to culturally unfamiliar coastal cities thousands of kilometers away, the regional government should encourage rural-to-urban population shifts within Xinjiang’s borders. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), currently suffering from severe manpower shortages due to population drain, has tried all manner of methods to attract labor from other areas of mainland China, but it has done nothing to absorb the surplus rural labor force that exists in southern Xinjiang.

By taking an active role in organizing and guiding population shifts within Xinjiang, the government can alleviate unemployment in the south, while also reducing ethnic segregation and helping to dispel the notion, prevalent within the Uighur community, that the XPCC and the northern cities are being used by Han Chinese to deal with the Uighur population.

3. Provide more assistance to ethnic minority entrepreneurs. This is the most fundamental, long-term solution to Xinjiang’s unemployment problem, and it relies on market-based mechanisms rather than governmental supervision. Since Secretary Zhang Chunxian assumed office, there has been a noticeable improvement in Xinjiang’s level of assistance to ethnic minority entrepreneurs. I recommend broadening this approach to establish a long-term plan aimed at improving the modern management skills of ethnic minority entrepreneurs via exchanges with highly developed coastal regions and prestigious mainland Chinese universities, thus creating a long-term mechanism for the systematic training of minority entrepreneurs. Furthermore, we should foster closer cooperation between Han Chinese and ethnic minority entrepreneurs, encouraging them to bond together in their mutual interest. Having the government train and support a large contingent of minority entrepreneurs is the most convenient way to promote ethnic unity and harmony in Xinjiang.

One detail worth noting: the practice of prominently featuring minority entrepreneurs as speakers at government-organized ethnic unity rallies may not have the desired propaganda effect. Minority entrepreneurs should not be leveraged for government publicity: they have a far more important and effective role to play off the political stage.

4. Increase investment in basic education in minority-populated areas. The government has many long years of unfulfilled promises in this regard, but expanding access to basic education will transform minority peoples’ ability to adapt to industrialization and urbanization. In a mere five to ten years, we will begin to see a marked improvement. At the very least, better access to education will significantly reduce the barriers that ethnic minority migrants face when trying to enter the urban labor force. Now that the government has substantially increased investment in basic education in southern Xinjiang, there remain two problems that need to be addressed: countering the preconception that education is useless, and correcting misapprehensions and assuaging people’s fears about bilingual education.

5. Establish systematic professional and technical training for ethnic minority workers. Xinjiang suffers from a serious lack of ethnic minority professional and technical personnel, which makes it difficult for ethnic minorities to enter the technical and industrial workforce. Entrepreneurial skill is also in short supply to start businesses. I propose increasing training for early-career and mid-career specialists in fields suited to the unique economy of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, in which resource-oriented and state-owned enterprises predominate. For example, the government could work with vocational and technical schools to increase employment opportunities for ethnic minorities in the mining, textile, and agricultural-processing sectors. In fact, work on this has already begun, to positive feedback from Xinjiang’s Uighur community.

I also recommend that the Xinjiang Autonomous Region cooperate with localities in China’s more economically developed coastal regions to systematically train up a cohort of technically-proficient ethnic minority youth who will form Xinjiang’s future technological and entrepreneurial talent pool.

6.  Establish brigades of ethnic minority industrial workers. Industrial workers are an essential component and driving force of industrial and economic development. They play a fundamental role in accelerating industrial transformation, promoting technological innovation, improving corporate competitiveness, and so on. Employers in Xinjiang are currently in need of a large number of industrial workers, but they face widespread difficulties in recruiting qualified personnel.

Training up and establishing brigades of ethnic minority industrial workers will help to expand employment opportunities and widen career horizons for minority university and polytechnic graduates. This, in turn, will increase the employment rate among ethnic minorities and help facilitate their adjustment to modern industrial society.

7.  Leverage local and regional advantages to support the development of Xinjiang’s own cultural and creative industries. This would both raise employment and allow Xinjiang’s cultural influence to radiate across the Central Asian region. Targeted training and practical support would help creative entrepreneurs and small- and medium-size enterprises to expand into the broader Central Asian market. China’s information technology, animation, advertising and other creative sectors enjoy a distinct advantage in the Central Asia market region, but Han Chinese enterprises attempting to enter this market face tremendous cultural and linguistic barriers, whereas Uighur enterprises possess a natural advantage. By leveraging the technological strength of China’s other regions, it is entirely possible for Xinjiang to cultivate local cultural and creative industries with a strong competitive edge in Central Asia. This would allow Xinjiang’s ethnic minority populations to transform themselves from cultural importers to cultural exporters, an achievement of immeasurable importance.

II. Bilingual Education


Besides unemployment, the issue that provokes the most intense reaction within Xinjiang’s Uighur community is the issue of bilingual education. In practice, “bilingual education” in Xinjiang has essentially become “monolingual education” (i.e. Mandarin-only education.) Within the Uighur community, there is a widespread belief that the government intends to establish an educational system based on written Chinese and rooted in the idea of “one language, one origin.” Suspicions abound that the government is using administrative means to exterminate Uighur culture and accelerate ethnic and cultural assimilation. With the mandatory implementation of so-called “bilingual education,” the Uighur language has become steadily marginalized, not only in the field of education but also in government administration, the judiciary, and other areas. Despite being one of the official languages of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the Uighur language has long been deprived of the respect, attention, status and legal safeguards it deserves.

In practice, the greatest problem with bilingual education in Xinjiang is that it produces a large number of students who are proficient in neither their mother tongues nor in Mandarin. This has led to declining educational standards and difficulties for ethnical students, who dread attending school, to master subjects. The bilingual education system in Xinjiang mandates that physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and other subjects be taught in Mandarin Chinese, which means that Uighur and other ethnic minority students are often unable to understand what they are being taught. This policy is responsible, to a large extent, for the steady increase in dropout rates for Uighur and other ethnic minority students. Another consequence is that many experienced Uighur primary school teachers have been forced into early retirement or made to leave their faculty positions for jobs unrelated to teaching. Thus, a large number of Uighur schoolteachers have become direct casualties of government policy on bilingual education.

“Bilingual education” in Xinjiang has increasingly given way to “monolingual education,” raising grave concerns and causing serious repercussions. This has the potential to spark a larger-scale Uighur rights movement aimed at defending Uighur language education and preventing the extermination of local language and culture. In recent years, Uighur fears of cultural and linguistic annihilation have been greatly exacerbated by a sharp contraction in Xinjiang’s local-language publishing and cultural industries.

This sudden dwindling of Xinjiang’s Uighur-language publishing and cultural industries has profound and far-reaching consequences. Not only does it threaten the demise of Uighur culture and the suppression of Uighur intellectuals, it has also caused vast swaths of the Uighur community, most of whom live in isolated rural areas, to become completely cut off from contemporary civilization. Southern Xinjiang, taken as a whole, is extremely backward: it is a geographical backwater of scattered, insular oases, and the vast majority of its Uighur inhabitants do not understand Chinese. For these reasons, the majority of households in southern Xinjiang are cut off from books, newspapers, radio broadcasts and television programs offering up-to-date information or news about the outside world.

This severing of communication channels means that, notwithstanding a small number of Uighur elites fluent in Chinese, most traditional Uighur communities are utterly deprived of access to contemporary news and information. In an increasingly competitive and open social environment, this makes Xinjiang’s traditional Uighur communities inherently less adaptable to external stimuli than traditional Han Chinese communities in other areas of China. When people are unable to attain the knowledge essential to a modern society, unable to cultivate strength of character for modern life, or to acquire healthy modern societal values such as rationality, tolerance and open-mindedness, they may find themselves in crisis, consumed by fear that they are being increasingly abandoned by modern society. The rapid disintegration of traditional society and the challenges of adapting to a new environment can leave people mired in ignorance, parochialism, savagery and despair.

Over the past ten years or so, traditional Uighur society has experienced an unprecedented surge in crime rates, the rapid disintegration of morals, and the spread of religious extremism and cultural conservatism. Add relative impoverishment and an increasing hatred of Han Chinese, and you have a vicious circle that intensifies day by day. It is this, combined with misguided government ethnic policies, that has allowed backward, ignorant, parochial, extremist, isolationist and fanatical ideologies to proliferate, creating a breeding ground for “the three forces” [of separatism, religious extremism and terrorism.]

Measures such as preaching national unity, making minorities reliant on government handouts, and accelerating the Sinification of China’s Uighur communities are not a sufficient bulwark against separatism, religious extremism and terrorism. Contrary to the common perception of Uighur cultural, educational and publishing industries as being too prone to strengthen Uighur ethnic and cultural awareness, it is only by allowing these industries to develop and thrive, to keep pace with the times and with history, that we can weaken “the three forces” [of terrorism, religious extremism and separatism] by denying them ground in which to take root. This is the only feasible long-term method by which to defeat them.

Therefore, we may say that the backwardness of Uighur cultural, educational and publishing industries is not only the enemy of Uighur society, but also the enemy of Han Chinese society.

In fact, nearly all Uighur families want their children to receive a better-quality education in Mandarin Chinese, and they feel that genuine “bilingual education” has come too late. Yet at the same time, the prevailing view and mainstream opinion in Uighur communities is that “Bilingual education should not come at the expense of one’s mother tongue.” Mandarin’s special status as China’s lingua franca should not make it an excuse for linguistic discrimination or forced linguistic assimilation. In a nation of diverse ethnicities, shared cultural values should be expressed in diverse ways, not subject to standardization or unification. Education should not be made the “executioner” of native languages and scripts.

As for why “bilingual education” in Xinjiang has devolved into “monolingual education,” the answer lies in the slapdash way in which bilingual education policy has been implemented:

1. Deficiencies in technical and basic preparations (i.e. finding qualified faculty, investing in school and facilities construction); inadequate consideration of regional differences and local needs; implementing educational policy in a “one size fits all” fashion.

2. Academic content and curricula that do not take into account either the specific academic needs of ethnic Uighur students, or the successful experiences of schools in China’s other ethnic regions.

3. Xinjiang’s limited allotment of teaching staff, poor infrastructure and low student academic abilities were scarcely sufficient for a monolingual education program, much less a full-scale bilingual education program.

4. Implementing “bilingual education” has actually exacerbated the educational funding gap between Han Chinese and Uygur students. For example, in the city of Atushi [also spelled Atush or Artux], the Han Chinese population numbers 22,725, the Uighur population 198,217, and the Kyrgyz population 29,186. If we do not count the Municipal No. 2 School, located forty kilometers outside of the city, Atushi has only three high schools: one Chinese-language school (Prefectural No. 2 High School) and two Uighur-language schools (Prefectural No. 1 High School, and Municipal No. 2 High School). Class sizes in the Uighur schools average more than 50 students per classroom, whereas the Chinese school averages only 30 students per class. Differences in teaching quality and levels of educational investment have widened the educational gap between Han Chinese and Uighur students, both in terms of their access to knowledge and their ability to master new subject matter.

Thoughts and Recommendations

1. Xinjiang needs true bilingual education. The [Korean-language] bilingual education program in Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture is a typical success story. Xinjiang can draw from that experience in restructuring its own bilingual educational content and curriculum.

2. In ethnic-minority populated areas, increase investment in the hardware and software required to provide true bilingual education, and redress the grievous imbalance in educational resources allocated to different ethnic groups.

3. Train qualified teachers. Currently, the biggest impediment to bilingual education is a serious shortage of qualified teachers. It will be difficult to alter this situation in the short term, but by focusing on systematic training of existing teachers, we can gradually reduce or dispel the regional disparities among teachers of bilingual education.

4. Exam-based university selection of minority students: although the current system of adding points to the university entrance exam scores of ethnic minority test-takers is in line with the central government policy of favoring minority candidates, in practice, many of the true beneficiaries of this preferential scoring system are academically-accomplished minority students who do not require preferential treatment, or even affluent, well-connected Han Chinese students. It might be possible to replace the “added points” section of the exam with test matter related to Xinjiang’s ethnic and cultural diversity. Not only would this signal to Uighur students that Xinjiang’s multi-ethnic and multi-cultural traditions have not been forgotten by the educational system, it would also deepen everyone’s understanding of Xinjiang’s ethnic and cultural diversity, thus shaping a richer and more inclusive national identity and consciousness.

5. Raise the number and prestige of ethnic minority cultural and publishing endeavors, in order to reverse the rapid decline of minority cultural industries. In terms of fiscal policy, increase government investment and support for ethnic minority cultural, educational and publishing industries, and accelerate Uighur-language participation and access to modern information technology. Both the regional and the central government should advance Uighur rural society by promoting knowledge about modern social life and modern production methods, and making this a key element in long-term planning.

With regard to Uighur folk culture, the government of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region should search for ways to encourage and support grassroots cultural initiatives in this field. The regional government should also begin experimenting with gradual reforms of the ethnic minority cultural and educational publishing industries: for example, introducing market-based mechanisms or objective quality targets, harnessing the initiative and enthusiasm of existing staff, and avoiding the current problem of overstaffing.

6. Increase regional or national government support for specialized research and scholarship on the social transformations affecting Uighur communities. Encourage the participation of mainland Chinese and even overseas scholars and academics, so that China’s rulers may draw on their collective wisdom and counsel to resolve the nation’s ethnic and social dilemmas. In mainland China at the moment, there is an almost complete dearth of worthwhile academic research on this topic. One hopes that if scholars are allowed more academic independence, it will help to fill this void.

7. Establish a plan and systematic targets for training a new breed of top-tier ethnic minority intellectuals, and incorporate them into national planning via funding for specially earmarked projects.

Xinjiang suffers from a dearth of ethnic minority intellectuals, at least those who meet the strict modern criteria for intellectuals. Moribund educational and research institutions and outmoded systems of personnel training and advancement have deprived Xinjiang of a true community of ethnic minority intellectuals. Whether the task is promoting social progress in Xinjiang, improving the lives of ethnic minorities, or advancing national identity and cohesion among minority elites, a highly qualified community of ethnic minority intellectuals is essential to the task. Allowing more ethnic minority intellectuals to enter the mainstream confers honor upon them and their communities, and that honor serves to strengthen their sense of national identity and cohesion.

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