FILE - An ethnic Uighur boy wears a mask during a protest against China in Istanbul, Turkey, Dec. 14, 2019.
FILE - An ethnic Uighur boy wears a mask during a protest against China in Istanbul, Turkey, Dec. 14, 2019.

WASHINGTON - While the international attention on China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang has focused mainly on ethnic and religious issues, Beijing’s economic development plans in the strategic region also play a key role in shaping the conflict, some experts and observers say.

Home to more than 11 million Turkic-speaking Uighurs, Xinjiang covers an area of 1.66 million square kilometers that accounts for one-sixth of China’s land mass. Its oil, natural gas and coal reserves make up more than 20% of China’s energy reserves, turning the region into a national powerhouse.

The government in Beijing since 2017 has launched a major campaign of mass surveillance and the detention of over one million Uighurs and other Turkic minorities in the so-called “re-education” camps.   

Darren Byler, a Seattle-based anthropologist at the University of Washington who studies the Uighurs, charged that Chinese government’s economic development programs in Xinjiang to access natural resources have allowed a huge influx of majority Han migrants to the region. This has triggered more conflict with Uighurs who fear a demographic change in their land.

The programs, such as the Open up the Northwest Campaign in the 1990s, and the larger scale Open up the West Campaign in the 2000s, allowed Han corporate farmers to claim Uighur land and expand industrial scale agriculture in the Uighur-majority region, Byler told VOA.

“In general, Uighurs were excluded from the most lucrative jobs in these new industries by state-authorized job discrimination. Uighurs saw the cost of living begin to rise because of the new forms of wealth in the region. Many had a difficult time entering the new market economy. This is at the heart of the conflict between Uighurs and the Chinese state,” said Byler.

Xinjiang over the last 70 years has experienced a rapid demographic shift. The proportion of Han in the region has risen from nearly 9% in 1945 to about 40% today while the Uighur population has decreased from over 75% to only about 45%.

Some experts say the geopolitical position of Xinjiang as China’s bridge to central and south Asia is yet another motive behind Beijing’s ambition to control the region and prevent any room for possible dissent.

FILE - A man walks by a government billboard promoting Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature Belt and Road Initiative, outside a subway station in Beijing, China, Aug. 28, 2018.

Belt and Road Initiative

Xinjiang in the northeast borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The region is at the heart of the $1 trillion infrastructure development and investments scheme, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that was introduced in 2013 by China’s President Xi Jinping to connect China with over 150 countries throughout Asia, Europe, Africa and Americas.

According to Sean Roberts, a professor of international development at George Washington University, Uighur’s attachment to their traditional lands and ways of life is seen by China’s Communist Party (CCP) as a risk to the successful implementation of the BRI.

“The intention to make Xinjiang a central part of BRI created a new urgency in the CCP to prevent further Uighur dissent in the region. In many ways, what we are seeing today is an attempt to entirely eliminate any possible Uighur dissent to the transformation of their homeland that the BRI will inevitably facilitate,” Roberts told VOA.

Xinjiang for decades has witnessed violent conflict centered around Uighurs’ aspiration for independence and China’s efforts to crush it. In 1955, Beijing recognized Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region but the move failed to bring a lasting stability.

FILE - Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng, Xinjiang, China, Sept. 4, 2018.

'Three evils'

Chinese authorities, who have rejected international accusations of human rights abuses in the region, say their measures are necessary to combat the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism.”

They say the alleged mass detention camps are nothing but a “vocational training” program aimed at teaching the people new skills and manners.

Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s governor, in a press conference earlier this month said all the people in the camps have been released after “graduating.” He claimed the Chinese government courses helped the people to improve the quality of their lives and find stable jobs.

However, some watchdog organizations say they are finding new evidence suggesting that people held in the camps are exposed to forced labor.

Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China Studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, told VOA that China’s claims about the graduated detainees does not mean a change in its policy towards Uighurs but rather “a second phase, and a long-term plan to deepen social control through various forms of coercive labor.”

“I am not at all sure that they have in fact all ‘graduated’, but ‘graduating’ means that they might now go from their cell to a factory instead of a classroom,” Zenz said.

FILE - Ethnic Uighur women leave a center where they attend what is billed as political education lessons, in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China, Sept. 6, 2018.

Push to low-wage jobs

According to James Millward, a Xinjiang researcher and professor of history at Georgetown University, mounting evidence on the coerced labor shows Uighurs are being pushed out of the private economy to low-wage factories such as cotton and making clothes. The move, he said, will likely serve the needs of Han businesses from eastern China.

“The forced labor is probably a way to recoup some of the billions of yuan that have been spent on building the camps, hiring security personnel, and the great cost to the local economy of interning a large percentage of the local population, an especially acute problem in southern Xinjiang,” Millward added.