It’s (also) the economy, stupid

The latest (August 9th) edition of The Economist examines the situation in Xinjiang and calls China’s far west a “Chechnya in the making” (see also related article). Ironically for this business-focussed publication, a key issue not properly covered here is economic development, which in its permutations is one of the drivers of ethnic unrest in both Xinjiang and Tibet.

This is one of strengths of On the Fringes of the Harmonious Society, a volume recently published by NIAS Press that goes beyond simple ethnic and religious issues (though these cannot be ignored) to explore the situation of Tibetans and Uyghurs in present-day China. The following excerpt is from the introduction and conclusion to the chapter by Andrew Fischer.


The minority nationality areas of Tibet* and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region share obvious similarities as two sparsely populated, resource-rich, and politically suppressed restive minority areas in the far western hinterlands of China, although they also exhibit certain notable differences. Most of the discussion about these differences has focused on culture and religion, on different political histories of integration into China, or on certain political variables such as the presence or absence of a unifying charismatic leader in exile. However, far less attention has been paid to the more structural aspects of socio-economic development and how these have conditioned the political dynamics of minority grievance and protest. One example of the latter is the issue of population and migration dynamics. As highlighted by Fischer (2008), despite similar discourses of ‘population invasion’, Tibetan areas differ considerably from Xinjiang in that Tibetans remain a predominant majority in their areas except in the case of major towns and cities, whereas large-scale population transfers have been far more evident in Xinjiang, both prior to the reform period and also in the 1990s and 2000s, as clearly evidenced by recent census data. This insight leads us to question more broadly the similarities or differences in the changing socio-economic circumstances of these two differing contexts amidst rapid economic growth.

The economies of western China have been growing very rapidly since the mid-1990s, to a certain extent catching up with the national average per capita GDP after lagging behind for much of the first 15 years of the reform period from the early 1980s onwards. Xinjiang (and to a lesser extent Qinghai) was an exception in this regard in that the per capita GDP of Xinjiang was higher than the national average up until the mid-1990s, and thus its convergence has been towards the western norm from above, rather than towards the national average from below. Nonetheless, the pace of economic growth in Xinjiang, as in the Tibetan areas, has been phenomenal. Even though the two regions account for the bulk of territory in western China, the weight of such growth in the national economy has been marginal given that they are quite minor in population and economic terms in comparison to the densely populated and Han-dominated eastern parts of western China such as Sichuan. However, it is precisely this marginal weight that has allowed the central government to subsidize these regions so intensively, especially in the case of the TAR, where direct budgetary subsidies exceeded 100 per cent of the region’s GDP for the first time in 2010 (see Fischer 2013). Despite (or perhaps because of) such prioritization and the resultant speed of growth, both regions erupted into widespread protests, by Tibetans in 2008 and Uyghurs in 2009, and both regions have remained unstable ever since.

This chapter provides a comparative overview of labour transitions and some insights into social inequalities in Tibet and Xinjiang in this context of rapid growth from the mid-1990s to 2010.

(. . .)

In this chapter, a comparative analysis of Xinjiang and the TAR was sketched out, focusing on labour transitions in a context of rapid economic growth and various related dimensions of wage, income, and educational inequalities. Significant structural differences between the two provinces were analysed. However, beyond these differences, one strong similarity between the two provinces was that ‘minorities’ were hugely underrepresented in the respective provincial state-sector employment (or urban unit employment more generally) relative to their population share, at least up until 2002 or 2003, when these data were still being reported. According to the most recent data available, the Tibetan share of state-sector employment had fallen to 65 per cent by 2003, and their share of cadre employment to less than 50 per cent, despite a population share of almost 93 per cent in the 2000 census (apparently including migrants). In Xinjiang, minorities (mostly Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Hui) accounted for almost 30 per cent of urban unit employment in 2002 (mostly state-sector), for a population share of almost 60 per cent. This underrepresentation in Xinjiang persisted despite much higher levels of (modern, formal, mainstream) education among these minorities in Xinjiang than in the TAR, belying the argument that such education is the pathway to improve representation of Tibetans in the TAR. Rather, in both provinces, skilled labour needs appear to rely heavily and increasingly on Han Chinese, whether this is through implicit discrimination by way of institutional norms that are biased against non-native Chinese speakers, or else through more direct, overt, and explicit forms of identity discrimination.

Since this time (2002/2003), the government has intensified labour market reforms in western China, implying an increased emphasis on nationally standardized criteria of employment within urban unit employment, which places ever greater emphasis on Chinese fluency and literacy as a precondition for competition within such employment. This has been combined with a retreat from preferentiality in public employment among other policy dynamics, as further discussed in this volume, in particular by Szadziewski and Hann. The combination of these circumstances suggests that exclusionary pressures have probably intensified for both Tibetans and Uyghurs in the upper strata of urban employment of their areas, with important implications in terms of restricted upward mobility at a time of rapid economic growth and improving schooling levels. The fact that such exclusionary tendencies operate through educational, linguistic, and cultural modes of bias that severely disadvantage the majority of Tibetans and Uyghurs within their urban labour markets – irrespective of their very different structural socio-economic conditions – provides important insights into the outburst of protests in both Tibetan and Uyghur areas in 2008 and 2009. Indeed, the similarity of the protests despite differences in socio-economic conditions suggests that the synchronicity of the grievances and protests has been driven by a common and particularly assimilationist and discriminatory macro-political and economic context.

*Note: The terms ‘Tibet’ and ‘Tibetan areas’ refer to all of the Tibetan areas in China, including the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the Tibetan areas that are incorporated into the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan.

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