As fresh violence erupted across Xinjiang in June, the outlines of a new ethnic policy—one rooted in Xi Jinping’s “mass line” approach— slowly may be coming into focus (Xinhua, July 3). One aspect of this shift may be the appointment of a new Chairman of the Xinjiang Work Coordination Small Group, Yu Zhengsheng, which was revealed during his tour of the region in late May. A Standing Committee member and Chairman of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Yu’s appointment breaks from a past tradition of handing control over Xinjiang affairs to hardliners within the political-legal affairs (zhengfa) system. This change in direction also may signal that, despite a resurgence of ethnic violence in the region, the party wishes to redouble efforts at fast-paced economic development, and that Yu, as former party secretary of Shanghai, may be the man to do so.
Yu’s appointment was hinted at following his meeting with the delegation from Xinjiang during the National People’s Congress session in March and revealed formally during his five-day visit to Xinjiang in late May (Caixin, May 29). According to a Xinjiang Daily report, Yu undertook an expansive tour that included visits to Hotan, Kashgar, Yili and Urumqi, and he was accompanied by Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian and CPPCC chief of staff and new vice chair of the leading group Wang Wei (Xinjiang Daily, May 29). In an unusual move, Yu also visited Bachu County, which had witnessed a brief bout of sectarian bloodletting the month before. It was here that Yu pledged a “resolute strike” against terrorism, while paying condolences to the government “martyrs” and “heroes” that died in the incident (Xinhua, May 28).
Despite Yu’s boilerplate rhetoric on stability, evidence suggests an ongoing yet discreet debate within the Party on how violence in Xinjiang should be handled. Following the Urumqi riots in 2009, the removal of the hardline local Party Secretary, Wang Lequan after inordinately long fifteen-year tenure marked the first step in a different direction. While Wang continues to attend policy meetings on Xinjiang through his new role as vice chair of the Central Political-Legal Committee (CPLC), his replacement, Zhang Chunxian, has emphasized “liberated thinking” and development-based solutions to Xinjiang’s ethnic tensions (Xinhua, May 28; Xinjiang Daily, March 4). Zhang’s policy of “flexible iron-fisted rule” has become the party’s new mantra for the region. The multi-billion dollar state-led development drive unleashed at the 2010 Xinjiang Work Forum also marked a watershed in Beijing’s policy toward its troubled western frontier .
The retirement of Zhou Yongkang, China’s politics and law chief from 2007 to 2012, and the subsequent downgrading of his portfolio from the Standing Committee to the Politburo level may yield further policy implications for Xinjiang. While acting as China’s security chief, Zhou wore a separate hat as head of the Work Coordination Small Group and also was the region’s delegate to the 2012 National People’s Congress (Tianshan Net [Urumqi], May 19). In this regard, Zhou followed his predecessor, CPLC chief Luo Gan, who also headed the Work Coordination Small Group, and marked the first link in a line of security officials spearheading policy in China’s far west.
Rumors now abound in the overseas Chinese press that the removal of the CPLC from power in Xinjiang marks another step in the targeted relegation of that organization after the 18th Party Congress (People’s Daily, February 5). Indeed, the year preceding the leadership transition witnessed a broad public debate on social management and the party’s stability maintenance apparatus. The CPLC in particular came under fire in party publications for overstepping its authority, interfering in the work of other government bodies and exacerbating social tensions through its heavy-handed reaction to social unrest (“Central Party School’s Critiques Suggest New Leadership Dynamics,” China Brief, June 22, 2012). While the downgrading of the political-legal portfolio after the 18th Party Congress is unlikely to have been driven by minority-related concerns, Xinjiang may now be subject to a broader move within the party away from top-down, coercive methods of stability maintenance. This has been reflected in a recent wave of articles in the People’s Daily and party journals calling for a shift away from a government-centered approach to social management toward an embrace of the “mass line” (Wen Wei Pao [Shanghai], July 4; People’s Daily, May 19; Study Times, December 10, 2012).
“Following the mass line” (zou qunzhong luxian) was first revived toward the end of the Hu administration (“Resolving Contradictions in Social Management,” China Brief, September 21, 2012). Under the banner of fighting “formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance,” Xi Jinping also has called repeatedly for reinvigorating the party’s grass roots work, warning that “winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the CPC’s survival or extinction.” China’s internal security organs have since fallen in step, and are now embarking on an education drive amongst grass roots officials about what the mass line entails. On 2 July, China’s Minister of Public Security, Guo Shengkun, called for “all work units to fully understand the significance of the party’s mass line”, and to ensure that “the masses can see, believe and are satisfied with its results” (Legal Daily, July 3). As violence erupted again in Xinjiang in late June, Yu Zhengsheng himself announced in a visit to the region that, in fighting violence and terrorism, the party should “greatly strengthen grass roots work” and “extensively mobilize and closely rely on broad based party members, cadres and the masses.” In a widely reported remark, Yu also singled out “religious figures and the masses of believers to make a greater contribution to building stability in Xinjiang” (sina.com.cn, June 29).
The mass line may also explain a raft of what Xinjiang news outlet Tianshan.net terms “new stability measures” by the local public security bureau (PSB). In the first two days of July, Xinjiang’s PSB announced three notices calling the public to come forward with information on terrorist threats and urging individuals to hand in knives and explosive weapons. An official responsible for the new initiative described its “core objective” as to “mobilize the masses, rely on the masses and garner the support of the masses” (Boxun, July 4). Xinhua later reported that the PSB is offering 50,000–100,000 yuan (roughly $8,000–16,000) for valuable information (Xinhua, July 3). On July 1, Beijing also dispatched 50 senior officials to “hostile communities” (di sheqing) in Xinjiang to lead local officials in a grassroots campaign to “widely propagate the party’s ethnic and religious policies,” “ensure that the masses of every minority deeply feels the party center’s concern” and that these ideas are “propagated down to every village committee and every household” (sina.com.cn, July 2).
The possibility that the mass line may bring improvement to the Xinjiang problem should be treated with caution. It should be noted, for example, that a string of incidents this year—including the April violence in Selibuya and fatal stabbings of Han Chinese policemen in Atush city in early July—reportedly have been driven by house-to-house inspections by “community workers” and local police (Radio Free Asia, July 5; Phoenix News, April 25). Grass roots work aimed at achieving stability is also not a new innovation. The “People’s War” launched during the Beijing Olympics by former CPLC chief, Zhou Yongkang, sought to create an extensive network of informants and closed circuit television surveillance systems in cities nationwide (“Beijing Intensifies ‘People’s War’ Against ‘Splittism’ as Nationalism Rears its Head,” China Brief, April 28, 2008).
The mass line, however, is indicative of willingness by Beijing to explore solutions that are—in the Maoist sense—socially transformative as opposed to suppressive in nature. Official statements describe the mass line as a symbiosis between the party and the people in which local cadres ostensibly are better attuned to public needs and expectations. In this respect, the decision to consolidate China’s ethnic portfolio under the CPPCC—and its subordinate body, the United Front Work Department—may be an effort to build an ethnic policy that is more responsive to grassroots opinion and also more capable of influencing that opinion. The need for a new approach may even have been formally reached before the advent of the Xi administration. In Hu Jintao’s Work Report at the 18th Party Congress, China’s former leader singled out the united front as “a powerful instrument…for harmonizing relations between political parties, ethnic groups, religions, social groups and compatriots and home and overseas” (Xinhua, November 17). In an August 2012 article in the Study Times, CPPCC member and new Deputy Party Secretary of Xinjiang Han Yong also argued “mass line work under new conditions is the fundamental guarantee of social stability and of realizing long-term peaceful governance” in Xinjiang, later adding that “the masses are the main force in the struggle against splittism and building stability” (Study Times, August 20).
As Chairman of the CPPCC, Yu’s appointment may prove to be a modest step away from the previous government hard-line approach to Xinjiang. His past as a prodigious economic performer provides a further reason for his appointment. Since the Xinjiang Work Forum in 2010, the government has embarked on an ambitious development program that has seen a marked increase in foreign investment; a pledge for $10 billion to be allocated to the region on an annual basis; and a twinning policy called “duikou” that pairs Xinjiang localities with more prosperous eastern/coastal counterparts (“Xinjiang’s April 23 Clash the Worst in Province since July 2009,” China Brief, May 23).
Having successfully steered Shanghai through the global recession, Yu Zhengsheng is well placed to spearhead Xinjiang’s development. During his tenure as Shanghai party secretary, Yu pushed through a new initiative to turn Shanghai into “dual center” (shuang zhongxin) of international finance and shipping center by 2020 and achieved considerable success in rebalancing Shanghai’s economy away from fixed capital investment to consumer spending and FDI (China Economic Watch, November 19, 2012) . This experience will prove useful in the government’s ongoing attempts to open Xinjiang further to regional trade and investment—an effort currently underway through the transformation of Kashgar and the northern city of Khorgos into Special Economic Zones, which have both been recently highlighted by Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian as a regional priority (Qiushi, May 16). Indeed, Yu presided over Shanghai’s support for Kashgar under the duikou policy. This partnership involved the opening of direct flights between the two cities and a multi-billion dollar boost in investment by over 50 Shanghai-based companies, including the creation of a major new Shanghai-Volkswagen plant in Urumqi (China Daily, April 26, 2012; Tian Shan Net, February 14, 2011).
While in Shanghai, Yu also proved himself an able public relations operator with the Chinese press lauding his deft handling of a high-rise fire in 2010. In the face of widespread public protest over the Maglev project, he showed an ostensible ability to compromise, promising to postpone the project until further discussions (South China Morning Post, October 1, 2012). Given that Xinjiang continues to suffer low levels of investment—largely due to fears over security—Yu’s appointment makes sense. Indeed, during his May visit to Xinjiang, Yu opened a new series of talks with local officials on how to building stability for industry and commerce (gongshang wending daji). This was followed by Yu’s publicized assurances that tourism, which is a major source of regional revenue, was safe for the public (Duowei, May 28).
The appointment of Yu Zhengsheng as head of China’s Xinjiang Leading Small Group indicates a willingness to explore alternative solutions to the problem in Xinjiang. The fact that both of the party’s new initiatives in Xinjiang—the mass line and accelerated economic development— are drawn from existing Party orthodoxy raises doubts over how the far the center ultimately is willing to go. One Uyghur dissident recently dismissed Yu’s appointment in Xinjiang as “old wine in a new bottle” (huan tang bu huan yao) (Voice of America, May 31). The extent of the shift from a top-down focus on security to one rooted in the mass line will be become clearer as Yu’s tenure progresses.
- “Uyghur Homeland, Chinese Frontier: The Xinjiang Work Forum and Centrally Led Development,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, June 2012, Available online <>https://docs.uyghuramerican.org/Uyghur-homeland-Chinese-Frontier.pdf> .
- Cheng Li, “Reclaiming the ‘Head of the Dragon’: Shanghai as China’s Center for International Finance and Shipping,” China Leadership Monitor, No. 28, Spring 2009, Available online <https://media.hoover.org/sites/default/files/documents/CLM28CL.pdf>.