The peak of ethnic tension in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China, was reached in July 2009, when in the capital of Urumqi thousands of Uyghurs clashed with Han ethnic groups. The police forces, sent to suppress clashes, were soon to face both sides and responded harshly. According to official figures released by the Chinese authorities the riots ended with 197 dead and 1721 injured. Other sources close to the Uyghurs, claimed that the victims were actually a few hundred. Human Rights Watch testified that there were police raids in the days following the clashes, with the subsequent disappearance of dozens of Uighur militants.
The tension between Uyghurs and Han has gone on for many decades, in fact since 1949, when the People’s Liberation Army took control of what was called the Second Republic of Eastern Turkestan, annexing it to the nascent Republic of China. That it was an imperialistic invasion or a peaceful annexation with the consent of the inhabitants has since then be subject of discussion and confrontation. Certainly, the strong independence movement that claims to represent 45% of the Uighur Muslim population against social and demographic invasion of the China of the Han, the main group of the whole country, has always fought to preserve the cultural specificity of Xinjiang minorities, coming several times to open conflict with the central state authorities.
Since 2009 there no other episodes of similar severity has happened, but accidents are not missed and tensions remain. The Han, which account for 41% of the region population compared to 45% of the Uyghurs, complain of discrimination on various fronts, including the workplace. Uyghurs and other minorities of the largest administrative division of the People’s Republic, continue instead to oppose what they see as China’s cultural imperialism, whose main instrument is identified in the imposition of Mandarin as the official language at the expense of the indigenous languages of Turkmen origin.
To ease tensions and try to start an ethnic peace process, the central authorities have decided to promote a campaign for the dissemination of bilingualism in preschool education, as to allow the younger generations to master both Mandarin and indigenous languages. Xinjiang will thus be allowed to use central government funds to take from two to three years the period of bilingual preschool education provided to rural areas in the next four years, from 2016 to 2020. The aim is to bring 85% of children in the region, by 2020, to have access to these programs.
Funds budgeted for the first year is 154 million dollars and will be used for the construction of 552 bilingual kindergartens in the autonomous region, starting from the rural areas of the south.