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Confused about the Xinjiang riots? Follow the money.

The unrest is less about Islam and more about economics.

“In key business sectors such as energy, industry, as well as most white-collar sectors, ethnic minorities, particularly the largest group, the Uighurs, have been systematically excluded from employment,” Arienne Dwyer, a Xinjiang expert at the University of Kansas, wrote in an email. “This is an inter-ethnic conflict over autonomy and access to resources.”

The government doesn’t break down income figures by ethnicity, but Tuman suggests those who doubt the disparity can make quick visit to his hometown.

“Just go to Kashar and look around,” he said. “During the day, the streets are filled with Uighurs. But you go out at night and it’s all Han. Why? Because the Han Chinese have the jobs. They’re working during the day.”

It’s a pattern that reaches back through the centuries. Writing about the most successful Uighur revolt against Chinese rule — the Muslim Rebellion of 1864, when Uighurs and ethnic Chinese Muslims chased out Qing Dynasty troops and succeeded in establishing the state of East Turkestan (1864–1877) — historian James Millward argues it wasn’t religious conflict but instead “economic distress and rampant misrule from the 1850s that created the conditions underlying the uprisings.”

In the Xinjiang of the current era, economics and culture have become entangled in complex, and potentially explosive, ways. An example is the government’s decision in 2002 to replace the “out of touch” Uighur language with Mandarin in the region’s classrooms. Sold by officials as an effort to help Uighurs integrate more smoothly into the modern economy, it was seen by many Uighurs as an attack on their very existence as a people.

In the eyes of many regular Chinese people, the policy seems reasonable enough.

“I think a lot of Han Chinese are being genuine when they say they don’t understand why Uighurs don’t appreciate what the government is doing for them,” said one American scholar who preferred to remain anonymous to preserve research access to Xinjiang.

“It’s matter of different ideas about what development means,” the scholar added. “The way Americans are about democracy, it’s the same way Han Chinese feel about their economic model.”

While he believes the only true solution to the Han-Uighur conflict is the establishment of a new East Turkestan, Tuman is realistic enough to acknowledge China has far too much invested in Xinjiang to let that happen in the foreseeable future. He suggests that as an interim solution Beijing set up an independent unit of the provincial government to represent the concerns of Uighurs with real power to change policy.

“I can understand the idea of government as parents looking out their children’s interests,” he says. “The problem is this government isn’t doing a good job of parenting.”

But with last week’s violence having stoked the ethnic animosity in China to toxic levels, Tuman isn’t hopeful even that step will be taken. “This is a terrible disaster for us,” he says. “It’s only going to lead to more killing, which will generate even more hatred.”

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