Local residents say these and other clashes have been fueled by the dispiriting realities of daily life here: the institutionalized job discrimination, the restrictions that prohibit those younger than 18 from entering mosques and the difficulty that many Uighurs face in obtaining passports. Those Uighurs lucky enough to travel abroad say they are often interrogated upon their return by security officials who demand to know whether they have engaged in separatist activities.
“The government should realize that reckless and inappropriate decisions by local authorities are only causing more instability,” said Yang Shu (楊恕), a professor of Central Asian studies at Lanzhou University, referring to rules that discourage women from wearing head scarves and young men from growing beards.
Many Uighurs are also convinced that Beijing is seeking to wipe out their language and culture through assimilation and education policies that favor Mandarin over Uighur in schools and government jobs. Since 2004, a bilingual education initiative has required teachers in much of the region to use Mandarin for nearly every subject. The authorities insist that the policy is aimed at helping Uighurs compete in a country where Mandarin is the lingua franca, but many parents, teachers and Uighur intellectuals are unconvinced.
“My 17-year-old daughter speaks decent Chinese, but she cannot get through a piece of Uighur literature,” said a government employee in Urumqi, who asked to remain anonymous because such criticism can have serious consequences. “A generation from now, I fear our people will be functionally illiterate in Uighur.”
Fear and mistrust between the two ethnicities has hardened in recent years as a growing number of Han Chinese migrants settle into heavily guarded enclaves, especially in the southern crescent of Xinjiang that remains predominantly Uighur. Even in Urumqi, where ethnic Han Chinese make up 75 percent of the population, knots of heavily armed police officers in fatigues are positioned throughout Uighur neighborhoods; after dark, Uighur men are barred from the front seats of taxis, according to a local ordinance cast as an anti-crime measure.
Huang Xiaolin, a Han engineer who was recently lured to Hotan from coastal Shandong Province with a generous salary and subsidized housing, said colleagues frequently warned him against entering the city’s Uighur quarter.
“The local people here are uncivilized and prone to violence,” he said, standing near a propaganda banner that read, “The Han and the Uighur cannot live without one another.”
Beijing has coupled its “strike hard” security approach with turbocharged economic development, but even that has stoked resentment among Uighurs, who say the best jobs go to newly arrived Han.
“The Chinese government is focused on a very outdated understanding of macroeconomic development, thinking that it will bring everyone up to the same level, but it’s clearly not working,” said Sean Roberts, a professor at The George Washington University who studies development in the region.