Xinjiang Work Forum Marks New Policy of ‘Ethnic Mingling’

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 12

The recently concluded Central Work Forum on Xinjiang (zhongyang Xinjiang gongzuo zuotanhui) marked a subtle yet significant departure in the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to ethnic policy. Economic development remains a top priority; yet the new generation of Party leaders understands that money alone will not mollify ethnic and religious tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang. Instead, Chinese President Xi Jinping is seeking a more comprehensive solution to the problems confronting these long-restive frontier regions.

The official Xinhua summary of the Forum’s proceedings outlined a number of priority areas for Xinjiang (Xinhua, May 30):

  • Boosting employment and income levels among Uighurs in Southern Xinjiang through a new round of fiscal transfers and investment.
  • More urbanization and interregional migration aimed at expanding the contact and cooperation between different ethnic groups.
  • Fortifying Party organs and personnel at the grassroots level in order to eliminate the “three evil forces”: splittism, extremism and terrorism) and shore up social stability.
  • Strengthening state education and bilingual instruction so that all minority youth are conversant in the national language and culture.

None of these proposals are particularly new. Yet, the Forum frames them around a new strategic intent: the erosion of ethnic differences, the removal of obstacles to the free “mingling” (jiaorong) of Chinese citizens and the forging of a shared national identity.

For over a decade now, a group of intellectuals and party officials have called for “adjustments” to current ethnic policies, some even speak of the need for a “second generation of ethnic policies” that would eliminate ethnic-based rights and autonomy (China Brief, July 6, 2012). The Xinjiang Work Forum reveals their burgeoning influence on top Party leaders; yet it remains unclear how far the new Chinese administration is willing or able to pursue this contentions agenda.

New Policies for New Conditions

The Second Xinjiang Work Forum, attended by the entire Politburo and over three hundred top Party officials in Beijing from 28–29 May, came a mere four years after the first gathering in 2010. Unlike the Central Work Forum on Tibet, which has been held five times (each roughly a decade apart) since the 1980s, Xinjiang is a far more recent, and now more pressing, concern for the post-Mao Party-state.

Since the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, Xi Jinping has chaired seven Politburo meetings on Xinjiang, while issuing over thirty directives on Xinjiang work (Xinjingbao, May 30; Xinhua, May 3). In April, he personally toured the region. Fellow Politburo Standing Committee member Yu Zhengsheng, who is the Party’s point man on ethnic and religious issues, has made four official visits to Xinjiang, compared to only one to the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Several times over the last couple of months, Xi Jinping has stressed that: “Xinjiang work possesses a position of special strategic significance in the work of the Party and the state” and “the long-term stability of the autonomous region is vital to the whole country’s reform, development and stability, as well as to national unity, ethnic harmony and national security” (Xinhua, May 26; Xinhua, May 1).

It is easy to see why. China has witnessed an ugly spate of ethnic and religious violence since Xi came to power, leaving well over 200 people dead and hundreds more injured. Most of these incidents pit China’s embattled Uighur Muslim minority against a steadily encroaching Chinese state and its Han majority. Even more worrying for the Party-state is the spread of this violence out of Southern Xinjiang, where eighty percent of China’s 10 million Uighurs live, into the regional capital of Urumqi and inland cities like Changsha, Guangzhou and Beijing. The savage March 1 knife-attack on travelers at the Kunming Railway Station shocked the nation, with several commentators dubbing it China’s 9/11.

The official Xinhua News Agency summary of the Work Forum contains many of the usual statements: “The Party’s strategy on Xinjiang has been proven correct and must be continued in the long run” (Xinhua, May 30). Yet, beneath the boilerplate, the language and policy direction outlined in the Forum statement marks a significant departure. Since the 18th Party Congress, Party officials have stressed that “new conditions” (xin xingshi) in Xinjiang create “new requirements” (xin yaoqiu).

Like the initial Work Forum, economic development is identified as an important agenda item, and we are likely to see a raft of new initiatives and money aimed at boosting Uighur skills, employment and living conditions over the coming months. Yet, the Xinhua statement leads with ethnic and religious issues rather than economic ones, and the First Work Forum’s key phrase, “leapfrog-style development” (kuayueshi fazhan), is mentioned only once. Rather the Forum stressed the complex and protracted nature of the “Xinjiang problem,” subtly recalibrating the “general goal” of Xinjiang work towards “safeguarding social stability and achieving an enduring peace.”

In contrast to previous assurances that trouble in Xinjiang is not linked to ethnic and religious issues, the Forum unambiguously asserts: “Xinjiang’s most sustained problem is the problem of ethnic unity,” and Xi Jinping is quoted as urging “all ethnic groups to show mutual understanding, respect, tolerance and appreciation, and to learn and help each other, so they are tightly bound together like the seeds of a pomegranate."

New Focus on Ethnic Fusion

Since coming to power, Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed the importance of forging a shared national identity. The “China dream,” he contends, is foremost about the great revival of the “Chinese nation” or “Chinese race” (Zhonghua minzu), a term first coined by Liang Qichao in 1902 and employed by Chinese leaders from Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin in order to stress the conjoined history, fate and consanguinity of the Chinese people.

In a speech at the Central Party School on the importance of studying history then Vice President Xi Jinping praised the “all-under-heaven grand union” (tianxia datong) tenet, which he maintains bound together the Chinese nation/race for centuries (Phoenix, September 5, 2011). “In the course of the great family of the Zhonghua minzu’s formation, there was more exchange and fusion than contradiction and conflict among different ethnic groups, so that relations became more intimate through this conflict and fusion and became the main current of ethnic relations….thousands of years of exchange and fusion caused all the ethnic groups to be inextricably linked together, and in the end, took shape in the linked blood relations, common fate, and joint advancement of the great family of the Zhonghua minzu that is collectively formed by 56 ethnic groups.”

When he visited Inner Mongolia in early 2014 (Xinhua, January 29), Xi spoke about the need to “bind the people of each ethnic group into a single strand of rope.” On several occasions, Xi Jinping and Yu Zhengsheng have stressed the importance of the “four identifications” (sige rentong): identification with the motherland, with the Chinese nation/race, with Chinese culture and with the socialist road with Chinese characteristics. The aphorism was first employed in the early 2000s, but seldom appeared in Hu Jintao’s official speeches.

Xi Jinping’s new language bears the distinct influence of Zhu Weiqun, the former Executive Director of the Party’s United Front Works Department (UFWD) who moved across to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the 18th Party Congress, and now works under Yu Zhengsheng as the Director of the CPPCC’s Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee. In the past, Zhu has echoed Peking University Professor Ma Rong in declaring that ethnic “blending and mingling is not ‘Hanification,’” but rather the natural course of Chinese history (Study Times, February 15, 2012).

Despite his less prominent position today, Zhu Weiqun’s public and media profile remains high, far greater than his successor at the UFWD Zhang Yijiong. In recent months, for example, he delivered an important speech on urbanization in frontier regions at the CPPCC (Xinhua, March 9), gave a wide-ranging and widely circulated interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix media (Phoenix, April 2), and led an inspection tour of grassroots religious management in Southern Xinjiang (Xinjiang Daily, May 7).

In the Xinjiang Work Forum summary there is repeated talk about the need to remove ethnic barriers and forge collective identity. The statement includes the controversial phrase “strengthen interethnic contact, exchange and mingling” (jiaqiang minzu jiaowang jiaoliu jiaorong), which the influential Qinghua University economist Hu Angang declared a “new policy orientation” when he outlined his contentious proposal for a “second generation of ethnic policies” in late 2011 (Aisixiang, March 31, 2012).

In his interview with Phoenix, Zhu Weiqun admits the concept of interethnic “mingling” elicited a strong response following its inclusion in Hu Jintao’s remarks at the Fifth Tibet Work Forum in January 2010. This was due to fears that, in his words, “this would mingle the ethnic minorities out of existence,” and thus the phrase was subsequently left out of the official statement that concluded the First Xinjiang Work Forum.

However, Zhu argues: “In adjusting to the general trend of today’s socialist market economy, we must place more emphasis on the common ground and communality of the Zhonghua minzu, minimizing and getting rid of those things that set apart different ethnic groups and ethnic autonomous regions from non ethnic autonomous regions” (Phoenix, April 2).

The sort of “melting pot” Zhu and other ethnic policy reforms believe is in keeping with both Chinese tradition and global norms. Yet there remains hefty opposition to these proposals in the Chinese bureaucracy and other parts of society, not to mention concerns about the implications of any radical shift in the status quo. If Xi Jinping sympathizes with these reformers, as his public statements seem to suggest, it is still unclear whether he possesses either the political capital or the desire to pursue this sort of agenda to its full conclusion.

Policy Implications

This new focus on interethnic fusion will see the Party-state pursue two potentially contradictory courses in Xinjiang over the coming year. First, it seeks to build a more ethnically integrated labor market by allowing minorities like the Uighurs to migrate into both regional cities like Urumqi as well as costal centers like Shanghai and Beijing. Second, it will redouble its hold over Xinjiang through a deeper penetration into the daily lives of Xinjiang residents by the Party and its security apparatuses.

By calling for “the establishment of a mutually embedded social structure and social environment,” the Xinjiang Work Forum signaled a new intention to break down barriers to interethnic migration. The Forum’s concluding statement calls for “orderly expanding the number of Xinjiang minorities who receive education, find employment and live in the interior,” and “orderly guiding the masses of each ethnic group in entering cities for employment.” The building of a “silk road economic belt,” which would link Central Asia with China proper via a network of infrastructure and human flows running through Xinjiang, is also mentioned. 

At present, over 63,000 Xinjiang students (mainly Uighurs from Southern Xinjiang) are studying at inland schools as a part of a dislocated schooling program started in 2000 (Xinjiang Daily, February 20). There have been similar “export labor” schemes that send unemployed Uighur men and women to work in factories along the Chinese coast. Yet, the scope of these programs is small compared to the size of the idle work force in Southern Xinjiang.

Going forward, we can expect these programs to be ramped up, as will the number of Uighur migrants in Xinjiang cities. The regional government has ambitious plans to double the number of urbanites in Xinjiang by 2030 from 9 million at present to 20 million (Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, June 4, 2012). Han inward migration is not mentioned, but the Forum did call for the expansion of the Bingtuan, the paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which is nearly ninety percent Han.

Increased interethnic mobility necessitates new social management tools. In order to counter any instability, the Forum stressed the need to beef-up early warning and mass prevention controls, with Xi Jinping quoted as calling for “nets in the sky and traps on the ground” aimed at curbing ethnic and religious violence. Since 2009, the official public security budget for Xinjiang has quadrupled and now amounts to nearly $1 billion per year (Ministry of Finance, February). Money is being spent not only on new equipment and personnel but also new methods of social monitoring.

Early this year, the regional government announced it would dispatch 200,000 high level Party cadres to live and work in grassroot communities for a year at a time (Xinjiang Daily, February 15). They are tasked with not only assisting and consoling the masses, but also gathering intelligence in order to nip any potential problems in the bud. In urban areas, Xinjiang is following other cities in building a “grid-style” (wangge hua) social management system. The technique divides communities into geometric zones and then assigns personal responsibility for social stability to a team of party members who are equipped (in theory at least) with the latest computer-enhanced technologies for near total surveillance (Yaxin, January 24, 2012). “In order to achieve complete grassroots coverage,” Xinjiang Party boss Zhang Chunxian recently stressed, “[we must] thoroughly enter and garrison [Xinjiang society] in order that no blank spaces are left behind” (Xinjiang Daily, March 5).

The Rocky Road Ahead

The Forum’s full set of recommendations has yet to be made public, and any new initiatives will face serious implementation challenges on the ground. In the past, vested interests and poor governance have blocked reform efforts, with, for example, the current hukou (household registration) system hindering large-scale interethnic migration. In addition, there are at least two blind spots in the Party’s optics on Xinjiang, important obscurations that portent more trouble ahead.

First, increased interethnic contact will intensify labor competition as Uighur and Han workers more directly contend for limited resources and opportunities in shared urban settings. There is ample social scientific evidence demonstrating how ethnic competition fortifies ethnic boundaries and, under the right circumstances, increases ethnic conflict and violence.

The Party, for example, recently announced new hiring quotas mandating that state-owned enterprises in Xinjiang employ seventy percent of their new staff locally, including twenty-five percent from ethnic minorities (South China Morning Post, June 1). Yet, the Party-state’s “two hands,” the invisible hand of the market and the visible hand of state power, often work at cross-purposes (Foreign Affairs, June 3). The size of Xinjiang’s state-owned sector is shrinking, and thus undermines hiring quotas; and the rumored opening of the massive petrochemical sector to private investment will only make matters worse. China’s current political and legal environment lacks the necessary safeguards to ensure that reforms benefit Xinjiang’s ethnic communities equally.

Second, Xi’s new approach fails to address the underlying yet chronic racism in Chinese society. Despite lofty statements about a unified, inclusive, and harmonious nation-state, most Uighurs feel unwelcome and unwanted in China. Their language, religion and cultural traditions are alien to mainstream Chinese society, and despite efforts to create multicultural spaces, Party-defined pluralism is colorful yet largely hollow. Uighurs, in the eyes of most Han, are dangerous criminals and thieves to be avoided; the Han, for most Uighurs, are dirty and infidel invaders who cannot be trusted. Faced with these mutual suspicions, neither community is likely to welcome the other to live side-by-side in the same community, let alone “fuse” through increased contact, cooperation and intermarriage.