Steven Jacobson is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying business and history.
The 1980s were transformative times for many Chinese. The introduction of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" in 1978 helped create the semblances of a market economy, which eventually helped lift hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. Gone were the days of the forced starvation of the Cultural Revolution. Citizens could move across the country more freely as restrictions on migration were lifted. A new middle class began to form. However, not all in China benefited from these reforms. The Uyghurs of East Turkestan, who had undergone alternating periods of independence and Chinese rule for centuries, were brought firmly under Beijing’s control in the early 1950s. Like the Han, the Uyghurs attempted to share in the relative freedom of the 1980s by moving away from their native Xinjiang’s poorer rural areas to the province’s richer urban ones. However, the Uyghurs have not been able to reap the benefits of the prosperity of the last three decades due to an influx of Han into Xinjiang’s cities.
The Han have outnumbered the Uyghurs in Xinjiang since the early 1950s. This was due to mass government-sponsored resettlements of Han from the country’s east that were meant to populate the region and solidify the border against the Soviets. However, in the first three decades after these programs’ implementation, interactions between the Han and the Uyghurs were much less frequent than they would eventually become. The “Bintguaners,” or mostly Han demobilized soldiers who made up the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, began arriving in the early 1950s.[i] Tasked with building much of the early infrastructure that would make up modern Xinjiang, the Bintguaners lived spatially segregated from other ethnicities.[ii] These early Han settlers and the Uyghur natives lived in what Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi has termed a “parallel society” to each other.[iii]