The security-led response is leading to greater tension
The streets of Aksu are decorated with posters lauding the heroes of “national reunification” — the Chinese Communist party’s preferred term for its conquest of the vast northwestern territory of Xinjiang in 1949.
Residents of the small city on the fringes of the Taklamakan desert stroll under the watchful gaze of personages including Ban Chao, an accomplished Chinese general of the eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220AD), and the founding “10 marshals” of the People’s Liberation Army. For Aksu’s native Muslim Uighurs, an ethnically Turkish community, the lionisation of Chinese conquering heroes is at best insensitive.
Once an entirely Uighur city, Aksu is now split roughly 50-50 between Uighurs and Han Chinese migrants. Before the PLA’s arrival, Uighurs accounted for more than 90 per cent of Xinjiang’s population.
Today they still rank as the region’s largest ethnic group but only just. In a country that is home to 11.5m Uighurs and 1.2bn Han, the former are destined to become a minority in what the Communist party officially refers to as the “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region” — if they are not already.
In the centuries following Ban Chao’s military campaigns in Xinjiang, imperial China’s control of the region would wax and wane. The decisive demographic shift wrought by the ongoing influx of Han migrants has finally consolidated Beijing’s grip on Xinjiang, without which President Xi Jinping’s efforts to build a “New Silk Road” across the Eurasian land mass would founder.
In recognition of this fact, the party could arguably have chosen a humbler set of heroes for its propaganda barrage in Aksu — people such as Gong Shixiang, 21, and Wang Yongjun, 65.