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Xinjiang, China: Ethnicity and Economic Development

Submitted by on April 22, 2013 – 7:02 pm 7 Comments |  
China GDP by Prefecture MapAn impressive map of China’s per capita GDP by prefecture, reposted here, appeared in late 2012 on the website Skyscraper City, posted by user “Chrissib” Cicerone.  According to the map, the two poorest parts of China are in southern Gansu province, an area demographically dominated by Han Chinese, and in southwestern Xinjiang, an area demographically dominated by Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, Sunni Muslim people.

As noted in the previous GeoNote, the level of economic development in Xinjiang as a whole is slightly lower than the Chinese average, as measured by per capita GDP. But as Chrissib’s map shows, Xinjiang shows striking disparities in its own regional economic patterns. As a comparison of a detail of his map with a Wikipedia map of ethnicity in Xinjiang shows, areas dominated by Han Chinese have much higher levels of economic productivity than those dominated by Uighurs. Also essential to note is the fact that the Han Chinese domination of eastern Xinjiang largely stems from relatively recent immigration to the region, a process much resented by Uighur activists.

Xinjiang GDP and Ethnicity mapChina is currently seeking to enhance the economic development of Xinjiang, along with the country’s other western regions. But as Preeti Bhattacharji explains in a recent article published by the Council on Foreign Relations, the project faces a number of ethnic issues:

Xinjiang’s wealth hinges on its vast mineral and oil deposits. In the early 1990s, Beijing decided to spur Xinjiang’s growth by creating special economic zones, subsidizing local cotton farmers, and overhauling its tax system. In August 1991, the Xinjiang government launched the Tarim Basin Project to increase agricultural output. During this period, Beijing invested in the region’s infrastructure, building massive projects like the Tarim Desert Highway and a rail link to western Xinjiang. In a 2000 article for the China Journal, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said these projects were designed to literally “bind Xinjiang more closely to the rest of the PRC.”


Ethnic tension is fanned by economic disparity: not only are the Han-dominated areas more productive, but the Han individuals tend to be wealthier than the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Some experts say the wage gap is the result of discriminatory hiring practices. The CECC reported in 2006 that the XPCC [Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps] reserved approximately 800 of 840 civil servant job openings for Han. This policy was changed in 2011, however, and the XPCC “left almost all positions unreserved by ethnicity.” But the 2011 CECC says both government and private sectors had discriminatory hiring practices against the Uighurs and also denied them religious rights such as observing Ramadan and allowing Muslim men to wear beards and women to wear veils.


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  • It seems as if many countries have a particular ethnic group, usually immigrant but sometimes native born, that’s more or less permanently at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale and permanently incapable of functioning within the larger society. Some of them are the Pakistanis in Britain, the Algerians in France, the Turks in Germany, the Chechens in Russia, and the Lebanese in Australia.
    I guess the Uighurs are China’s bottom-of-the-barrel people.

    • I am not sure that I’d characterize the Chechens as “bottom-of-the-barrel” people in Russia. See also:

    • I’m not sure that the Uighurs necessarily fit the paradigm you mentioned, Peter. Leaving aside the case of the Chechens, those populations you mention are populations of relatively recent immigrant origins, in many cases (Turks in Germany) having been selected on the basis of having menial skills. It is not a surprise that long-term integration has been problematic.

      (I will note that the case of the Lebanese of Australia is interesting, inasmuch as almost everywhere else the Lebanese are a high-achieving mercantile diaspora. They even made it to Prince Edward Island!)

      I think that the UIghur can more profitably be classified as an indigenous, colonized people–compare the Inuit or First Nations of Canada, the Aborigines of Australia, et cetera.

      • Yes, that sounds right about the Uighurs. They also might be compared to the Gypsies in some eastern European countries.

        Sometime ago I read an online screed complaining about all the crime the “Lebos” were committing in Australia. Not having previously come across that bit of Down Under slang, I thought the writer was complaining about the crime-prone Lesbos in Australia!

        Seriously, though, supposedly the reason for the woes of the Lebanese in Australia is that they’re mostly Muslim, while the Lebanese diaspora elsewhere in the world in predominately Christian. I’m not sure if this is the whole story, however. It might just be another example of the blogosphere’s hatred of Muslims.

        • I wouldn’t compare them to the Gypsies, inasmuch as the Uighurs have a homeland. They’re fast becoming a minority in their homeland, granted, but they still have a discrete territory, a homeland with a tradition of autonomy.

          The Lebanese Muslim diaspora is successful in Africa, though, and (I think) in the West generally.

          • I have considered doing a post on the Lebanese diaspora, as it seems under-reported to me. Many people of Lebanese descent in Latin America have been very successful, including the world’s richest person, Mexico’s Carlos Slim. According to the Wikipedia, the diaspora is roughly 70 percent Christian. The article also claims a Lebanese diasporic population between 16 and 20 million — four to five times the size of Lebanon itself. Brazil is the leader, by a substantial margin, with some 12 million. I am sure, however, that many Lebanese-Brazilians are of mixed descent.

  • TimUpham

    Xinjiang is probably the second most rebellious place in China, after Tibet. Tibet now has more Chinese living there than Tibetans. But in Xinjiang, China is suppressing culture. Many Uighur writers have been imprisoned, and the widespread use of the Chinese language, over the native Turkic language. But while resistance in Tibet is centered around the Dalai Lama, in Xinjiang Al Qaeda is starting to take a hold. Just like Chechnya in Russia.

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