Government rushes through Kashgar university plan
The move to set up the new comprehensive university, the first in the southern part of Xinjiang, was announced in the wake of a key meeting of Communist Party officials chaired by China’s President Xi Jinping in late May.
Known officially as the Second Central Work Conference on Xinjiang, its remit was to look at ways to boost social stability and security in the Muslim-dominated region.
Building a university in southern Xinjiang – which borders on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan – was described by China’s official media as an “important strategic approach” to the unrest.
Idle Uyghur youth, particularly in the poorer southern Xinjiang region around Kashgar and Hotan, are seen as fuelling violence that has been high for over a year and has deteriorated in recent weeks.
“There has been a strong security crackdown since May,” said Henryk Szadziewski of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, or UHRP, based in Washington DC. “In the space of two months there has been a whole spate of arrests and sentencing of Uyghurs.”
The university announcement “is part of the broader reforms and proposals to help curtail the violence that has been occurring in the region, and outside the region,” said Xinjiang expert Tim Grose, assistant professor of China Studies at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, US.
Grose was referring to the October 2013 incident when a vehicle crashed into a crowd on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing the occupants and injuring almost 40 bystanders.
Chinese officials claimed a Uyghur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, was behind the ‘suicide attack’, which is widely referred to as a terrorist incident in official media. Significantly, Uyghur unrest had spread beyond Xinjiang itself.
While it was unlikely that the university plan was hatched at the May party meeting, Grose told University World News, “it was part of a package of proposals and policies aimed at limiting and restraining further violence”.
It has also not been lost on the government that better-educated Uyghurs tend to be more moderate.
Pan Zhiping, professor at the Central Asia Research Institute at Xinjiang University in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, said that “an inflection point” had been reached in China's anti-terrorism and anti-extremism drive, with many more well-educated people and social leaders among ethnic minorities openly opposing religious extremists.
Official media said construction of the new university had already begun in late June – just a month after the official announcement.
The southern city of Shenzhen, bordering on Hong Kong and partnered with Kashgar city, which is also known locally as Kashi, is contributing CNY1 billion (US$161 million) towards the project, to ensure it gets off the ground swiftly.
This amounts to around half of the projected budget for the 45 hectare campus. The rest will come from central government and regional funds.
According to Grose, who was teaching in Kashgar at the time, there was virtually no public discussion of the university project before the June announcement.
There had been discussions about a university in Kashgar at the First Work Conference in May 2010, which followed major unrest in Xinjiang in 2009. A proposed university was mentioned in the context of a special economic zone in Kashgar as “contributing talent” for the development of the zone.
The new university expects to enrol up to 13,000 students by 2015 in the liberal arts, science, engineering, management, economics and medicine, among other fields, said the dean of Kashgar’s teacher training college Aierken Wuamaier. This would increase to 15,000 students by 2020.
The move to build the university is seen as a partial shift away from a policy based solely on military and police suppression of Uyghur unrest towards economic development and improving opportunities for the population.
Earlier in the year, President Xi was still saying the emphasis in Xinjiang would be on security and not development. But at the Works meeting Xi reportedly stressed the importance of ethnic unity, education and economic development.
The meeting agreed to upgrade the quality of education “at all levels”.
Cui Yanhu, a professor of anthropology at Xinjiang Normal University in Urumqi, said students who could not further their education after junior middle school contributed to social problems such as unemployment and instability.
The Xinjiang government announced last month that secondary and primary education in Xinjiang would be free, to reduce the numbers resorting to religious education as the only way to continue schooling.
“Free education in high schools will lift the enrolment rate of junior middle school graduates and prevent them from being brainwashed by the extreme thoughts behind terrorism,” according to Cui in remarks carried by Xinhua news agency.
But this move is also anticipated to increase the numbers qualifying for university entrance.
Kashgar, centre of Xinjiang’s southern region which is 90% populated by Uyghurs, has almost no higher education institutions apart from a teacher training college – Kashgar Normal University – and Tarim University in Alar, which was previously an agricultural college.
Unemployment has been a particular issue in Uyghur areas despite constant government denials for years. Analysts said the May Works meeting was important in that the government acknowledged officially that unrest had economic roots.
Ilham Tohti, an outspoken Uyghur academic sacked from his job as professor of economics at Beijing’s Central University for Nationalities and currently under arrest, has long spoken out on the issue of unemployment among Uyghurs.
His views were rejected by the central government and Xinjiang government, which sees them as criticism of government policies to allow millions of Han Chinese migrants into Xinjiang in the past five years – particularly to the more prosperous northern part of the province around Urumqi, where Uyghurs are now a minority of the population.
The region has attracted five million migrant workers, or one-fifth of its total population, making it the biggest importer of labour in western China, according to official figures.
“The treatment of Ilham Tohti by the government is extraordinary given what he has been saying all along about discrimination and the need to address unemployment in Xinjiang,” said UHRP’s Henryk Szadziewski.
“There are widespread reports of employers in the private sector showing preference for Han Chinese. Whether it’s discrimination or language disability, there is an ethnic element to the unemployment situation,” said Grose, who has taught at Xinjiang Normal University in Urumqi.
But Grose warned that providing university places in the region could be a short-term solution.
“Delaying employment by sending more to university could be one way of sidestepping the issue of unemployment. But unless there are jobs available for those individuals when they complete, it will not change the situation.”