Beijing’s Post Olympic Shakedown in Xinjiang and Tibet

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 17

XAR Party Secretary Wang Lequan

While the catchwords and slogans of the just-ended Beijing Olympics trumpeted “harmony” and “One World, One Dream,” the traditionally tense relations between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities – particularly Uyghurs and Tibetans – could worsen significantly in the foreseeable future. Four quasi-terrorist attacks in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR) in August resulted in the death of at least 22 People’s Armed Police (PAP) officers and police. This is despite the fact that since the riots that hit Tibet and four neighboring provinces in March, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration has tightened security in the Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions. President and Commander-in-chief Hu Jintao, the only member of the Politburo Standing Committee with personal experience in handling ethnic-minority disturbances, has so far said nothing concerning the Xinjiang attacks. Yet indications are that Beijing will amplify its two-pronged approach by employing even tougher strategies to “nip troublemaking in the bud” while at the same time earmarking more funds to win over the support particularly of needy Uyghur and Tibetans.

Hardball tactics against underground separatist groups in Xinjiang include cutting off their overseas supply lines, in addition to intensifying what China critics call scorched-earth, search-and-destroy operations. It is instructive that the first foreign trip that Hu made after the Olympics included a visit to neighboring Tajikistan, where he attended a summit of the heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). From Beijing’s viewpoint, a key function of the SCO, which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is to ensure that backers of Uyghur separatists in Turkey and other countries cannot funnel money and weapons into the XAR through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. It is not surprising that at the SCO conclave, Hu expressed hopes about “deepened cooperation among SCO member nations in arresting members of the ‘three evil forces’” of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism” (China Daily, August 28; People’s Daily, August 28).

Xinjiang officials have also made it clear that People’s Liberation Army (PLA), PAP and police units would step up their “life-and-death struggle” in southern and western Xinjiang, where the bulk of anti-Beijing groups are based. At mobilization meetings convened before and during the Olympics, XAR Party Secretary Wang Lequan and member of the XAR CCP Committee in charge of law and order Zhu Hailun called for “steely” measures to smash the “three evil forces.” For instance, at a provincially televised conference on “stability work” held during the Olympics, Zhu pointed out that the “people’s war” against separatists and terrorists would be a “long-term and arduous” undertaking. “We must take the initiative in launching attacks, hit them [separatists] wherever they show up, and undertake pre-emptive strikes,” said Zhu. He added that law-enforcement personnel must “close all loopholes … and use their fists of steel to crack down hard on various disruptive activities” (Xinjiang Daily, August 14 and 19; Xinhua News Agency, August 20).

Diplomatic analysts in Beijing have pointed out that since disturbances broke out in Xinjiang and Tibet early this year, the Central Military Commission has at least on a temporary basis transferred additional troops and PAP officers to the two autonomous regions. Among China’s seven military regions, the Lanzhou Military Region (LMR) and the Chengdu Military Region have jurisdiction over Xinjiang and Tibet, respectively. The LMR, which is responsible for the provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang, boasts two group armies (each with about 30,000 personnel). According to Professor Ka-Po Ng, a PLA specialist at Aichi Bunkyo University in Japan, three to four divisions (each with 3,000 or more soldiers) are stationed in the Xinjiang Military District, which reports to the LMR. Since early this year the PAP, which maintains two divisions in Xinjiang, has been focusing on taking out pockets of Uyghur separatism in southern and western XAR [1]. Moreover, several units from China’s six other military regions have taken part in war games that have recently been staged in the XAR. For example, jet fighters from the Nanjing Military Region recently took part in military drills in western Xinjiang (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], August 4 and 26). Given the improvements in China-Russia ties – and the fact that tension in the Taiwan Strait has subsided since Taiwan’s pro-reunification Nationalist Party came to power last May – it is possible that the CMC may transfer PLA and PAP units responsible for the Sino-Russian border and for the Taiwan Strait to the restive western regions (Ming Pao, August 26; Wall Street Journal Asia, August 23)

As of late August, Xinjiang authorities claimed that they had smashed at least one quasi-terrorist ring that was responsible for two major August attacks on the PAP and police (Ming Pao, August 31; China News Service, August 31). Security officials also pointed out that 18 “overseas-trained terrorists” had been nabbed this year (People’s Daily, August 6). Yet owing to the news blackout particularly in southern and western XAR, little is known about the extent to which the troops and police have succeeded in eradicating the “terrorist gangs.” What is certain is that compared to recent years, more arrests of destabilizing elements have been made, and that control of and surveillance over large numbers of mosques and lamaseries in Xinjiang and Tibet, respectively, has intensified. In Tibet, the authorities have boosted the numbers of PAP officers guarding lamaseries, particularly those viewed by Beijing as headquarters for insurrectionary activities (The Guardian [London], August 22; Wall Street Journal Asia, August 23; Times of London, August 25). While visiting France last month, the Dalai Lama told Le Monde that about 10,000 Tibetans in Tibet and nearby provinces had been detained by police since early this year, and that Chinese authorities were “accelerating the construction of military camps.” “The military presence in Tibet is old, but the frenzy of new construction in the Amdo and Kham regions makes me say that this colonization by the army is designed to last,” he said (The Associated Press, August 21; Reuters, August 22).

In accordance with Beijing’s long-standing carrot-and-stick approach, the CCP leadership is also boosting united front efforts so as to win over ethnic minorities through channeling more funds for economic development and welfare payouts. While most of the Politburo Standing Committee members remained in Beijing during the Olympics, Premier Wen Jiabao visited the Ningxia Autonomous Region, where he preached the gospel of the harmonious coexistence of nationalities. While talking to members of the Muslim minorities in Ningxia, which borders Xinjiang, Wen said: “The party and government will never forget you. Muslim and Han Chinese are brothers.” The premier indicated that there would be more transfer payments from the central government to energize the economy and to expand the social security net. “We will not only improve environmental conditions but also ensure that peasants can grow reach,” the official media quoted Wen as saying (CCP News net, August 19; Xinhua News Agency, August 18).

Xinjiang authorities have recently announced a plethora of statistics that seems to show that the economy is doing well while social welfare for disadvantaged sectors has been augmented. For example, 20 billion yuan was spent in the first half of the year on irrigation, industry and transport infrastructure in the XAR. In the same period, jobs were found for 12,350 Xinjiang residents who lacked technical and other sought-after qualifications: 49.7 percent of these were members of ethnic minorities and 53.2 percent of them female (Xinjiang Daily, July 11; Xinjiang Peace Net, August 12). In an apparent effort to settle disputes amicably between Xinjiang residents and government departments, judicial and law-enforcement agencies have since early 2008 been using mediation and other “harmonious methods” to diffuse what the party calls “contradictions among the people.” Du Jianxi, Party Secretary of the XAR Judicial Department, indicated last month that front-line law-enforcement officials who had successfully addressed grievances by the masses would be rewarded with promotions. Police and judicial offices have also been asked by XAR authorities to be “more open and helpful” in resolving petitions filed by residents who have gripes against individual government departments (Xinjiang Peace Net, August 8).

These palliatives notwithstanding, some observers fear that the Olympics – particularly Beijing’s harsh policies toward upholding stability in the two autonomous regions – could become a milestone in the deterioration of ties between Han Chinese on the one hand and Uyghur and Tibetans on the other. And while the PAP and police may be justified in stamping out violent or “quasi-terrorist” gangs, a good proportion of Tibet and Xinjiang residents feel they have also been targeted just because of their ethnicity. Thus in the run-up to the Games, Uyghur and Tibetans ranging from hawkers to big-spending businessmen could not find hotels along the coast. Widely deemed to be security risks, Uyghur and Tibetans were also subject to frequent inspection and interrogation by police. Yili Hamu, a Uyghur lecturer at Beijing’s Central University for Nationalities, told the Hong Kong media that he was worried about increasingly fragile ties between his people and Han Chinese. “We understand the security requirements of the Olympics,” Yili Hamu said. “Yet such measures should not be aimed at specific groups.” The scholar claimed that discrimination against Uyghur was palpable. He added that many Uyghur “fear being marginalized even as they are being deprived of opportunities to share in the wealth created by oil fields and other economic development in the XAR” (Cable News [Hong Kong], August 4).

As for Tibet, whatever enthusiasm that CCP authorities may have in seeking a negotiated settlement with the exiled government seems to have fizzled out with the end of the Summer Games. After two fruitless sessions between the party’s United Front Department and the Dalai Lama’s emissaries, no new meetings have been scheduled. In the meantime, attention has been focused on whether Beijing will speed up so-called Sinicization of the region, mainly through encouraging more Han Chinese to migrate to and work in Tibet. In his meetings with French parliamentarians last month, the Dalai Lama asserted that Beijing would accelerate the process of moving as many as a million Chinese to Tibet after the Olympics (Reuters, August 22). Also in August, the Ministry of Railways announced that six branch lines would be added to the Qinghai-Tibet rail network, which has been criticized by the Tibet exiled government as primarily a vehicle for Sinicization (China Times, August 19).

While top leaders such as President Hu and Premier Wen have steered clear of making comments on Beijing’s problematic relations with Uyghurs and Tibetans, it is clear that the CCP leadership has abandoned the conciliatory ethnic policies associated with former party chief Hu Yaobang, who headed the CCP’s liberal wing in the early to mid-1980s. After hitting a brief high note with the string of shuttle talks between Beijing and representatives of the Dalai Lama in the lead up to the Olympics, communications have broken down between Beijing and dissident groups in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the possibilities are high that an exacerbation of Beijing’s hard-line, play-tough tactics in the two autonomous regions could stoke mutual suspicions – and nudge relations between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities into a vicious cycle.


1. Author’s interview with Dr. Ng on August 31, 2008.