Wednesday May 27, 2020


March 7, 2014

In light of last week’s deadly attack at a Kunming train station, media sources are closely analyzing China’s relations with its minority groups. As one of China’s 55 minorities, the Uighur ethnic minority has had an especially turbulent relationship with the state. Uighurs predominantly live in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, located on China’s northwest border with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Chinese authorities say that last Saturday’s attack, which claimed the lives of 29 people and injured over 100, was orchestrated by a Uighur separatist group. Uighur separatist groups have previously made global headlines during clashes with their Han neighbors, China’s majority ethnicity, in Xinjiang.

Uighur separatist groups contend that their people have been oppressed by the Chinese state and are treated as second class citizens compared to their Han neighbors. A large rate of Han migration into the Xinjiang Autonomous Region has caused an increase in ethnic tensions due to cultural differences. Han Chinese now outnumber Uighurs in the region, making Uighurs fearful that their region’s tenuous autonomy will be further undermined. In addition, the socio-economic gap between Uighurs and their Han neighbors is rising. In Xinjiang today, two times as many Hans hold high-income jobs than Uighurs.

For their part, the Han majority generally enjoys good relations with China’s minority groups and sometimes do not understand when minority groups claim they are being oppressed. This is large part because the Han majority sees minority groups given access to special privileges. For example, minorities are exempted from China’s one-child policy and have lower score targets on China’s university entrance exam to receive placement in a university. Ethnic Korean minorities even enjoy government-funded, satellite TV in their homes so they can watch Korean-language programs.

Upon the PRC’s founding, Mao Zedong led the CCP to cultivate good relations with ethnic minority groups because he realized their geostrategic importance in uniting the territories of the former Chinese empire into one state. Many ethnic minority groups, like the Uighurs and Tibetans, live along China’s borders. In order to win the support of these groups, the CCP had to give minority groups a stake in affirming the legitimacy of the Chinese state by giving them special treatment and encouraging them to identify first and foremost as Chinese citizens.

Chinese officials worry separatist groups might eventually compromise the territorial integrity of the state. If the CCP is not able to hold the various provinces of the Chinese state together, this will reflect badly on their ability to rule the country. Thus, they have incentivized the migration of Han Chinese into contentious areas in case minority groups begin to challenge the CCP’s control en masse.

While China’s relations with Uighur and Tibetan minorities have always been marked with a degree of tension, its relatively good relations with other ethnicities have become more nuanced and strained as ethnic groups have been left behind during China’s economic reforms. Prior to the 1980s, many ethnic minorities made a living as farmers, but when the government began to stop subsidizing farms, many famers could no longer make a profit and had to look elsewhere for work. Many minorities have thus had to migrate from their villages into urban areas to find work, causing the dissolution of ethnic strongholds in rural China.

However, minorities lack the necessary training and language skills to find jobs that make a comparable living and have suffered a decrease in their quality of life. For example, many ethnic Korean minorities who live in the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in Northeast China would rather take third-rate jobs as garbage men and factory workers in South Korea because they cannot communicate well enough in Mandarin to find employment with Han companies in China. However, in stark contrast, the Han majority has generally prospered under China’s new economic structure, and Han guanxi (relationship) networks have fueled Han chauvinism and posed barriers for minorities to enter into the business market.

China is concerned that the recent attack could also signal increasing foreign influences within Uighur separatist groups and communities. Although protests by Uighur separatists have spiraled into violence in the past, separatist groups have not displayed this level of militarization before – leading the Chinese government to believe that Uighur separatist groups are receiving training from terrorist organizations based in Central Asia. In fact, Uighur fighters have been captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan and, after past incidents of violence on the part of Uighur separatists, Chinese officials say those arrested admitted to having received training in Pakistan.

It is unclear if the recent attack was inspired by the brand of Islamic jihadist that is associated with Afghanistan and Pakistan’s terrorist organizations or by ethnic-fueled grievances against the Chinese state. Even so, the United Nations, the United States, and others have joined China in labeling the Kunming attack as an act of terrorism.

The attack poses an additional challenge for the Chinese state in managing ethnic relations. It will be important that the Chinese people do not begin to associate all Uighurs with the few separatist groups that pursue violence as means to achieve their goals. The attack could fuel ethnic tensions between Hans and Uighurs and result in a backlash of violence against Uighur communities. How the Chinese state chooses to handle the aftermath of the attack could harm or help trends in its relations with ethnic minority groups.

For more information on the Kunming attack and Chinese ethnic minorities, see the following news articles:

The Diplomat“Implications of the Kunming Terrorist Attack”

The Economist“Never Say Dai”

The Economist“Tibet Policy: Bold New Proposals”

The New Yorker“The Dangers of China’s Ethnic Divide”

The New York Times“Opposing Narratives in Piecing Together Kunming Attackers’ Motives”

The New York Times“After Prodding, U.S. State Department Labels Kunming Attack ‘Terrorism’”

Washington Post“A Guide to China’s Ethnic Groups”

For Chinese language news on this topic, see the sources below:

Huan Qiu(环球)“在昆维吾尔族同胞:那些人不能代表整个民族”

Radio Free Asia“昆明血案后警方盘查扩及藏族僧侣”


Compiled and edited by Amanda Conklin