ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This week, the western Chinese province of Xinjiang has witnessed violence and repression, reflecting the tensions between Chinese authorities and member of the ethnic Uighur minority. Early today, two trucks smashed into a market, killing more than 30 shoppers and injuring more than 90. Earlier in the week, police opened fire on a Uighur protest. The Uighurs, who are a Turkic Muslim people, were protesting against a crackdown on women who wear headscarves and men with beards. Professor James Millward of Georgetown University is a specialist in the region and joins us now for some background on what's happening in Xinjiang. Welcome to the program.
JAMES MILLWARD: Hi. Good to be here.
SIEGEL: And first, many people are unfamiliar with the Uighurs, even the name Uighur. So, tell us who they are, starting with a spelling lesson.
MILLWARD: The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking, mainly Muslim people who live in far northwestern China. That territory came under rule of Beijing in the 18th century under the Xing Dynasty and then was inherited by the Republic of China. And then the People's Republic of China in 1949, exerted much closer control. They're ethnically close to Uzbeks and other central Asians. There are about nine million of them in the Xinjiang region and a few hundred thousand abroad. And their name, although it's spelled various ways, would be pronounced wee-hoar in their own central Asian language. And it's best spelled U-Y-G-H-U-R.
SIEGEL: Now, to what degree are the Uighurs in opposition to the Chinese government? What are they asking for and what kind of movements are we talking about?
MILLWARD: Well, those are all good questions to which we really don't know the answer, because the Chinese keep a very close lid on news and reporting from the region. There's talk of a separatist movement and there have been sort of flurries of that here and there over the last several decades. But really, current events, including the violent events of today and the last couple of weeks, have gone without claims of responsibility and there is no spokesman for the Uighurs telling us what it's all about.
SIEGEL: Does this strike you as similar to the situation of the Tibetans? That is, are the Uighurs in a similar relationship with Beijing?
MILLWARD: There's a broad similarity in that both of these places were colonial territories of the Xing Dynasty that have since become a part of the Chinese state. And there are issues of real cultural differences between Tibetans and Han Chinese, and between Uighurs and Han Chinese.
SIEGEL: Han Chinese being the majority.
MILLWARD: Being the majority Chinese, yeah. And in Xinjiang, in the course of developing the region over the last 20 years or so, there's been a great number more Han Chinese moving out, taking jobs, working in the energy sector, working in construction. And this also created a widespread perception among Uighurs that they're not getting fair access to this economic growth, that Han are getting all the opportunities.
SIEGEL: Would one hear a Uighur language being spoken in Xinjiang as opposed to Mandarin?
MILLWARD: Oh yeah. Uighurs almost entirely continue to be able to speak Uighur. It used to be there was a dual track educational system - one entirely in Uighur, one entirely in Chinese, all the way up to the university level. Over the last 10 years or so, that's been replaced by a Chinese-only educational system, which is one cause of resentment on the part of Uighurs.
SIEGEL: Is a week like this one, you know, a conflict between protestors and police in one prefecture and a murderous truck attack on a market in the provincial capital - is this is a typical week or are things escalating in terms of danger? What would you say?
MILLWARD: This is very unusual. There have been violent events sporadically for some time. There was a quiet period for about 10 years from 1998 through 2008, around the time of the Beijing Olympics. And then there was a horrendous riot in 2009, which, although China characterized it as a terrorist incident, seems much more akin to the kind of race riots that we had in the United States in the 1960s.
SIEGEL: We're coming up on the fifth anniversary of those. Will that be meaningful to people, do you think, there?
MILLWARD: That's a good question. And there's no - again, we don't know. There's no indication that these were caused by that. But certainly Chinese security forces will be very aware of that anniversary, as they are of the Tiananmen anniversary that's also coming up.
SIEGEL: Well, Professor Millward, thanks a lot for talking with us today.
MILLWARD: Thank you very much for having me.
SIEGEL: That's Professor James Millward of Georgetown University talking about the Uighurs of Xinjiang province in China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.