Xi walks tightrope on Xinjiang policy

Xi walks tightrope on Xinjiang policy

Beijing signals a change in tack in dealing with its intractable western province, writes BRETT ELMER.

Eid al-Fitr—the festival where Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan—was marked in Xinjiang this year by bloody clashes between Chinese police and Uyghurs. On 28 July, violence broke out in Shache (in Uyghur, Yarkand) county, Kashgar province, in southern Xinjiang. Uyghurs, apparently angry over the killing of a family of five by authorities, and by government-imposed restrictions during Ramadan, took to the streets in protest.

[ratina][/ratina]Chinese state media put the death toll at 96, while Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, claimed the death toll was closer to 2000. Such a toll—whatever the numbers—had not been seen since 2009, when 200 were killed in riots in the provincial capital of Urumqi. The violence of 28 July was the latest in a series of incidents, including a car bombing in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 31 October, attributed to Xinjiang and its native Uyghur population. Other incidents have included a mass stabbing at Kunming train station that left 29 people dead, double suicide bombings at Urumqi train station that killed three and injured 79, and car bombings in a central Urumqi market that killed 31 people and injured 94.

Prominent local figures in Xinjiang have also been targeted. In separate incidents in July, the wife of a Chinese government official was assassinated and the official himself severely wounded, and the state-approved imam of Kashgar’s Id Kah Mosque was also assassinated. In addition, Chinese police have been guilty of using extreme force to break up Uyghur gatherings and protests. Officials shot dead at least two Uyghurs during a protest over the alleged harassment by officials of women wearing headscarves. In another incident, police shot and killed a Uyghur teenager who ran a red light on his motorcycle. Authorities later arrested and sentenced 17 Uyghurs to between six months and seven years in prison for protesting the killing.

‘Hostile external forces’

The rapid escalation of violence most likely points to two factors: the role of, what authorities term, ‘hostile external forces’ in Xinjiang, and the perception among Uyghurs that they have been marginalised by domestic policy orchestrated from Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long ascribed all Xinjiang and Uyghur-related violence to hostile external forces, but many outside observers blame Beijing’s domestic policy. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that the violence in Xinjiang is escalating to unprecedented levels.

The CCP’s central aim has always been the total economic, political and cultural integration of Xinjiang into China. Comprising 18 per cent of China’s land mass, the giant western border province has abundant reserves of oil and natural gas, and is becoming an increasingly important channel for business and political relations between China and Central Asia and Europe. Xinjiang’s vastness is also considered ideal for alleviating overcrowding in the eastern coastal provinces.

Xinjiang’s value to Beijing underpins the CCP’s unwillingness to acknowledge any adverse effects of its policy on the local population. Immediately after the bomb attack at the Urumqi South railway station in May, Chinese president Xi Jinping vociferously blamed hostile external forces and pledged that the government would deal terrorists a crushing blow and deploy a strike-first strategy.

Xi reiterated that the party’s strategy in Xinjiang was correct and ‘must be maintained in the long run’. Rebiya Kadeer and outspoken exiled Uyghur commentator Mehmet Tohti, however, blamed the continuation of the government’s hardline policies in the region for the upturn in violence.

Authorities even went so far as to ban men with long beards and women wearing veils, head scarves, jilbabs and clothing that displayed the crescent moon and star, from boarding public buses.

Beijing has since intensified its efforts to integrate Xinjiang, instituting economic reforms, public security measures and bilingual education initiatives. During Ramadan this year, antiterrorism measures preventing fasting and requiring Uyghur restaurants to remain open were even more strictly enforced.

In August, it was announced that extra teachers of Mandarin would be transferred to schools in Xinjiang, women would be banned from wearing veils in public, and men would be made to shave their beards. Authorities in the northwestern city of Karamay even went so far as to ban men with long beards and women wearing veils, head scarves, jilbabs (a long, loose-fitting garment worn by Muslim women) and clothing that displayed the crescent moon and star, from boarding public buses.

Carrot and stick approach

Beijing’s favoured policy approach—the ‘carrot’ of economic development and the ‘stick’ of oppression—for boosting the economic integration of Xinjiang with the greater Chinese state and closing the cultural gap between Uyghurs and Han Chinese has largely failed. It has only further alienated Uyghurs from mainstream society and fostered ethnic tensions—and done nothing to solve the roots of Uyghur unrest. More radical ideas, such as a scheme to promote interracial marriages between Han Chinese and Uyghur by promising eligible couples an annual payment of 10 000 yuan (US $1630) for five years, have also failed.

Xi Jinping may, however, have other long-term plans. The second Central Work Forum in Xinjiang in May, attended by the entire Politburo and more than 300 of the CPP’s most senior Beijing officials, suggested that a change in approach to ethnic policy in the region might be in the offing. In a major departure from the pronouncements of the first Forum, held in 2010, which stressed ‘development in Xinjiang by leaps and bounds’, the second Forum acknowledged the complex and protracted nature of the Xinjiang problem, and the need to subtly recalibrate policy towards safeguarding social stability and achieving an enduring peace.

Such a change in rhetoric—to the extent that it is genuine—signals a movement towards inter-ethnic unity. Beijing will attempt to balance the building of a more ethnically diverse labour market by allowing Uyghurs to migrate in search of work with tightening its grip on Xinjiang through stronger security procedures.

In the ongoing absence of any new policy, Xi continues to practise statesmanship. At the Forum, he urged all ethnic groups to show mutual understanding, respect, tolerance and appreciation, and to learn and help one another, so they were ‘tightly bound together, like the seeds of a pomegranate’. While the analogy may be original, the message is not. Chinese leaders have long used such platitudes, based on the assertion that strong bonds of mutual affection, class and patriotism exist between Hans and Uyghurs, to promote the idea of minzu (ethnic)solidarity.

Although considered a true reformer by some, Xi Jinping knows that any steps—however tentative—towards a policy change for Xinjiang must be taken while reassuring both the Party and the public that he will maintain a zero-tolerance approach to ethnic unrest. Implementing new policy initiatives will be extremely difficult. Governance in Xinjiang remains poor and beset by vested interests, the current hukou (household registration) system prevents large-scale migration of ethnic groups, and an increase in competition between Uyghur and Han workers for jobs could further inflame tensions between the two groups.

Uyghurs visit a market in Xinjiang, China. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

Brett Elmer is a PhD candidate at Murdoch University. His thesis topic is the Uyghur issue in China’s International Relations from 2001–2012.

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