Under the pretext of joining the global war on terrorism, the Xi Jinping administration has imposed unprecedentedly harsh restrictions on the civil liberties and rights of the 10 million Uighurs living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The shift in President Xi’s Xinjiang policy was marked by the replacement of the region’s Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian (张春贤)—a moderate cadre noted for his “soft and flexible methods in running Xinjiang”—with Chen Quanguo (陈全国) (Dwnews.com [Beijing], August 29, 2016; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], August 28, 2016). The persistence of violence in the XUAR, however, has called into doubt whether Beijing’s draconian tactics will work towards the goal of changzhi jiu’an (长治久安; “perennial order and stability”).
Chen, 61, who served as Party Secretary of neighboring Tibet Autonomous Region from 2011 to 2016, announced in his first meeting with local cadres a comprehensive, ten-pronged package of stringent rules to rein in anti-Beijing activities in Xinjiang. These included promoting intelligence gathering; tightening control over the media and “Internet space”; hitting out at pockets of Uighur resistance according to law; improving “religious work”, boosting law enforcement in cities and the countryside; increased policing of Xinjiang’s borders; and improving “comprehensive law-and-order management” (People’s Daily, September 18, 2016).
What critics call Beijing’s scorched-earth policy has pushed the boundaries of the Orwellian police state to their limit. In November, all XUAR residents were told to surrender their passports to police for safekeeping. Uighurs, in particular, who want to travel abroad must go through elaborate police vetting before they can get their travel documents back (Hong Kong Free Press, November 25, 2016; Human Rights Watch, November 21, 2016).
Police are also taking aim at the weapons used in attacks. Firearms are very carefully regulated in China, and most violent crime in China including in Xinjiang has involved knives and cleavers. Authorities now require purchasers of knives to have their names and ID card numbers carved on the blades. According to police circulars posted on the walls of knife vendors, this stricture applies to kitchen knives, meat cleavers, choppers for killing animals, cutting knives used in cloth-making, swords used in martial arts classes, farm sickles, axes and other sharp metal implements (Radio French International, January 10; Oriental Express [Hong Kong] January 10). These measures complement frequent body searches of “suspicious looking” Uighurs by police and the para-military People’s Armed Police (PAP) in subway stations, bus terminals, airports and highway checkpoints.
Combatting Terror with People’s War and Community Policing
Chen has promoted the concept of waging a “people’s war” against destabilizing forces, which was first used by Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in the capital city. Some 850,000 volunteer-vigilantes in Beijing were hired by the Ministry of Public Security to keep track on “suspicious characters” in the immediate neighborhoods of the volunteers (See China Brief, July 17, 2008). Since the horrendous anti-Beijing riot in Urumqi in July 2009, which resulted in the death of close to 200 Han Chinese, Xinjiang authorities have devoted huge budgets in turning ordinary Han Chinese residents into part-time spies. In August 2014, XUAR authorities broke all records by earmarking 400 million yuan for rewards for citizens who could provide intelligence and other kinds of assistance in cracking a “terrorist” cell in Maiyu County, Hetian District. With the assistance of 30,000 mainly Han Chinese residents, the police were able to track down this gang of ten Uighurs. In the ensuing battle, nine Uighurs were killed and one captured. Not a single police or Han Chinese volunteer was injured (People’s Daily, August 4, 2014; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], August 4, 2014).
Since the early 2010s, Xinjiang has pioneered the establishment of cunjing (村警) or village police tasked with ensuring political stability in the relatively remote southern and western XUAR, where Uighurs outnumber Han Chinese by significant margins. Unlike the police or PAP, cunjing officers, who are attached to particular villages, participate in farm work during daytime and patrol their designated territories at night. So successful was the Xinjiang experience that the cunjing system has also been adopted by provinces and regions with large ethnic minorities (China News Service, May 6, 2016; Tianshan Net, April 11, 2014). Chen has further beefed up the surveillance apparatus by putting together a labyrinthine network of “convenience police stations” in both urban and rural areas. These law-and-order outlets are on the one hand citizen-interface centers where police and other officials help residents seek government benefits such as health insurance and stipends for the severely handicapped. On the other hand, “convenience police stations” function as intelligence-gathering and filtering centers where police mingle with ordinary residents who may report juicy stories about their Uighur neighbors. The capital city of Urumqi alone is set to have some 950 such stations (Foreign Affairs, December 23, 2016; South China Morning Post, December 12, 2016).
Chen has also upped the ante in reining in the religious, cultural and educational life of ordinary Uighurs. Huge numbers of both uniformed and plainclothes police and PAP officers are being deployed to monitor activities in the XUAR’s mosques, which are seen by Han Chinese authorities as hotbeds for radicalizing Uighur youths. Despite his reputation as a tolerant leader, former party boss Zhang initiated the policy of forbidding men to grow long beards and schoolchildren to observe Ramadan. It is understood that Party Secretary Chen is gravitating toward the idea of gradually reducing the number of mosques particularly in southern and western Xinjiang. As of 2015, there were 20,000 mosques in the autonomous region, ten times more than the figure of three decades earlier (Xinhua, March 2, 2015). However, many Han Chinese Uighur experts are convinced that mosques are prime sites for nurturing Islam fundamentalism as well as anti-Chinese sentiments. For this reason, the number of places of worship may be curbed despite anticipated opposition from Uighurs (China Review Net, November 28, 2013; Club.China.com, July 1, 2013).
The Chen leadership is optimistic that investments in the XUAR by the central government and state-owned enterprises will improve the overall living standards of Uighurs—and serve to defuse ethnic tensions. Since coming to office, Chen has advocated a “double-fisted approach”, combining tough crackdowns with economic incentives. “[Economic] development is the key to solving all problems,” Chen said in January (Xinjiang Daily, January 10). The projected GDP of Xinjiang in 2016 was 955 billion yuan, a rise of 7.6 percent over that of 2015. While the economic expansion is one percentage point higher than the national average, the figure is a disappointment given the fact that western Xinjiang is supposed to serve as an important launch pad of President Xi’s ambitious One Belt One Road global infrastructure game plan (Finance.china.com, January 12; Xinjiang Daily, August 20, 2016). Moreover, it is a long-established fact that Han Chinese are doing much better economically than their Uighur neighbors. Statistically the education level of Han Chinese is much higher leading to greater economic opportunities. At the personal level Han Chinese are often linked into the requisite guanxi (“connections”) networks of friends and favors to find jobs and bring in investment from different parts of China.
To Chen’s credit, apart from attracting mega-infrastructure projects, he is paying attention to modernizing agriculture, an area where Uighurs stand to benefit. Urumqi has been promoting organic or ecological agriculture as well as agriculture tourism (Xinjiang Daily, January 11; Xinjiang Economic Daily, December 21, 2016). Moreover, the government has emphasized reviving Xinjiang’s textile industry—the one sector that has the potential to employ large numbers of both Uighurs and Han Chinese. According to the regional government’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020), Xinjiang is set to become a key hub for textile production. It will also expand the industry chain from cotton spinning to making garments. By 2020, Xinjiang is expected to produce about 500 million garments annually and create more than 600,000 jobs (China Daily, February 15, 2016).
Will Chen’s new gambit be successful? Few Xinjiang watchers doubt the zeal and the long hours that the party boss is putting into his work. Since the time of former Party Secretary Wang Lequan—the so-called “Xinjiang Emperor” who ran the XUAR from 2002 to 2010—the position of Xinjiang party secretary has carried Politburo status. And should he gain the trust of President Xi, it is probable that Chen will be inducted into the Politburo at the 19th Party Congress slated for this autumn. This is despite the fact that in terms of factional affiliation, Chen is much closer to Premier Li Keqiang, who is the top representative of the much-diminished Communist Youth League Faction. Chen was as one of Li’s deputies when the latter served as acting governor, governor and then party secretary of Henan Province from 1998 to 2004 (BBC Chinese, September 27, 2016; Ming Pao [Hong Kong] August 30, 2016).
However, terrorist incidents have continued unabated since Chen took office. Last September, a deputy head of the Public Security Bureau in Pishan County, Hetian District was killed and several policemen injured when they tried to crack an underground terrorist cell which doubled as an explosives factory. This is despite the fact that Pishan, being infamous as a base for anti-Beijing activists, has been under significantly higher levels of scrutiny by police (Radio Free Asia, September 19, 2016; Radio French International, September 19, 2016).
Nevertheless, in late December, Uighur activists detonated a bomb when they rammed a vehicle into the office building of the Party Committee of Maiyu County. Five people, including a Han Chinese official, a policeman, and three Uighur perpetrators were killed in the ensuing gun battle (Xinhua, December 29, 2016; Oriental Express, December 29, 2016).
Equally significant is the fact that a growing number of radicalized Uighur youths have become jihadists. Many have successfully left the XUAR and hooked up with international terrorist groups including the Taliban as well as affiliates of the Islamic State. Turkish police arrested several Uighur young men who were allegedly involved in the New Year’s Eve attack on a nightclub in Istanbul in which thirty-nine people perished. Official Chinese media has claimed that would-be Uighur jihadists went to Turkey by way of Thailand and Malaysia (Global Times, January 13; Deutsche Welle, January 6; Hurriyet Daily News [Ankara], January 4).
The exacerbation of police state mechanisms under Chen has obviously failed to deter the growth of radicalism in the autonomous region. As Patrick Poon, China researcher of Amnesty International pointed out, “repressive tactics [in Xinjiang] will only backfire.” “When the Uighur people can no longer tolerate the discriminatory measures, some of the more radical ones might fight back,” he added. “The authorities’ restrictive measures can never bring peace to the region.”  For many liberal Chinese intellectuals, the path to perennial stability in Xinjiang lies not in oppression but in the resumption of dialogue between Han Chinese and Uighurs—particularly the younger generation who fears for the loss of their cultural and religious identity. “How can we create a multi-faceted and common culture [in Xinjiang] without a genuine public sphere for reciprocal [dialogue]?” asked Tsinghua University professor Wang Hui, a respected public intellectual (Dong Yue Tribune, May 18, 2016).
If only for a short spell, Xinjiang authorities seemed to be making some efforts towards reconciliation across ethnic lines. In March 2016, former party secretary Zhang designated the year as “Year for Unity and Progress of the Nationalities.” While saluting the imperative of CCP leadership, Zhang urged “various nationalities [in Xinjiang] to boost their communication, interchange and blending together.” “Members of different nationalities should mutually respect, reconcile with, and appreciate each other,” Zhang said, adding that they should “learn from each other, help each other so that their feelings for each other should ceaselessly increase” (People’s Daily, March 30, 2016). Unfortunately, Zhang lost his position five months later, and the “Year for Unity and Progress of the Nationalities” became a thing of the past.
- Author’s interview with Patrick Poon, January 16.