Can Xi Jinping reverse the tide of violence in Xinjiang?

By Brett Elmer*

Perth, 26 October 2014 (Alochonaa)Eid al-Fitr, the festival where Muslims celebrate the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, was marked by bloody clashes between Uyghurs and Chinese police in Xinjiang this year. On July 28, 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 government-imposed restrictions during Ramadan and the killing of a family of five by authorities, took to the streets in protest. Despite conflicting estimates of the death toll – Chinese state media put the death toll at 96, while Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), claimed the death toll was closer to 2000 – such a death toll had not been seen since 2009, when riots in the provincial capital of Urumqi saw 200 killed.

The violence of July 28 was, sadly, not a random event, but simply the latest in a series of violent incidents attributed to Xinjiang, and its native Uyghur population. Since a car bombing Tiananmen Square on October 31, 2013, the outbreaks have included the mass stabbing at Kunming train station that left 29 people dead, double suicide bombings at Urumqi train station that killed three and injured another 79, as well as car bombings in a central Urumqi market that have killed 31 people and injured another 94. Prominent local figures have also been targeted. In July, the separate assassinations of the wife of a government official (the official himself was severely wounded) and the state-approved imam of Kashgar’s Id Kah Mosque were carried out.

Chinese police have also been guilty of using extreme force to break up Uyghur gatherings and protestors. On one occasion, officials shot at least two Uyghurs dead during a protest over the alleged harassment by officials of women wearing headscarves. On another, a Uyghur teenager was shot dead after running a red light on his motorcycle. Authorities later arrested and sentenced 17 Uyghurs to between six months and seven years in prison for staging a protest over the killing.

Such a rapid escalation of violence most likely points to two factors: The role of what authorities term “hostile external forces” in Xinjiang, and the perception amongst Uyghurs that they have been marginalised by domestic policy orchestrated from Beijing. But while the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long been satisfied to ascribe all Xinjiang and Uyghur-related violence on the former, many outside observers believe the latter to be largely responsible.


Tensions remain high in Xinjiang (Google image)

Regardless of the reason, it is becoming increasingly clear that the situation in Xinjiang is escalating to unprecedented levels. But does the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, have the both the willingness and the ability to reverse the tide of violence?

For as long as it has been in power, the central aim of the CCP in regards to Xinjiang has been the total economic, political and cultural integration of the region with China. Comprising eighteen percent of the country’s entire land mass, China’s western border province possesses abundant oil and natural gas reserves, and is becoming an increasingly important channel for business and political relations between China and the nations of Central Asia and Europe. Moreover, the vastness of its territory is considered ideal for helping to alleviate China’s growing problem of overcrowding in its eastern coastal provinces.

Xinjiang’s value to Beijing underpins the historical unwillingness of the CCP to acknowledge any adverse effects of its policy on the local population. Indeed, immediately following the bomb attack at the Urumqi South Railway station in May, Xi was vociferous in blaming “hostile external forces” for the recent upturn in violence, whilst also pledging that the government would “deal a crushing blow to terrorists and deploy a “strike-first” strategy.” In relation to current CCP policies in Xinjiang, Xi commented, “Practice has proved that our party’s ruling strategy in Xinjiang is correct and must be maintained in the long run.” For their part, Rebiya Kadeer, and outspoken exiled Uyghur commentator Mehmet Tohti, both blamed the upturn in violence on the continuation of existing hardline government policies in the region by Xi.

Beijing has since intensified its efforts to integrate Xinjiang. Economic reforms, public security measures and bilingual education initiatives have been instituted. During Ramadan, yearly “anti-terrorism” measures of preventing fasting and requiring Uyghur restaurants to remain open were even more strictly enforced. In August, it was announced that extra Mandarin teachers would be transferred to schools, women were banned from wearing veils in public and men were made to shave their beards. Authorities in the northwestern city of Karamay even went so far as to ban passengers wearing veils, head scarves, jilbabs (a long and loose-fitting garment worn by Muslim women), clothing including the crescent moon and star, and those with long beards from boarding public buses.

Despite being designed to both boost the economic integration of Xinjiang with the greater Chinese state and close the gap between the culture of the Uyghurs and the culture of the Han Chinese, Beijing’s favoured dual policy approach – the “carrot” of economic development and the “stick” of oppression – has largely failed. History has shown this approach has only further alienated Uyghurs from mainstream society and fostered ethnic tensions. They have done nothing to solve the roots of Uyghur unrest. Neither have more radical ideas, such as a scheme to promote interracial marriages between Han Chinese and Uyghur, which promised eligible couples an annual payment of 10,000 yuan (U.S. $1,630) for five years.

In the long term, however, Xi may have other plans. The second Central Work Forum in Xinjiang (zhongyang Xinjiang gongzuo zuotanhui) – attended by the entire Politburo and more than three hundred of the Party’s most senior officials in Beijing in May – suggested that a change in approach by the CCP to ethnic policy in the region might be in the offing.

Rather than the traditional focus on economic issues, Forum attendees heard the proposal of a more nuanced policy approach to Xinjiang. In a substantial departure from the pronouncements at the first Forum held in 2010, which stressed “development by leaps and bounds,” this Forum emphasised “the complex and protracted nature of the ‘Xinjiang problem’,” subtly recalibrating policy work towards “safeguarding social stability and achieving an enduring peace.”

Although it is yet to be seen how the declarations of officials map into concrete policy, such a change in rhetoric, to the extent that it is genuine, represents a movement towards a focus on interethnic unity. Beijing will attempt to balance the building of a more ethnically diverse labour market through measures which allow Uyghurs to migrate in search of employment, while simultaneously tightening its grip over Xinjiang via stronger security procedures aimed at enabling “deeper penetration into the daily lives of Xinjiang residents by the Party and its security apparatuses.”

In the ongoing absence of policy, Xi continues to practice statesmanship. In his speech at the Forum he urged “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.” Whilst the analogy may be original, the message is not. Chinese leaders have long used platitudes such as this – 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”. Xi must understand, however, that words alone will not placate the Uyghur people.

Xi must bring an end to the escalating violence in Xinjiang. Whilst he may be considered by some to be a true reformer, he knows any steps, however tentative, towards a change in policy in the region must be taken whilst reiterating to both the Party and the public that he will maintain the same zero tolerance approach to ethnic unrest of his predecessors. Moreover, even if this new attempt to improve ethnic unity in Xinjiang does signal of a change of heart and mind in Beijing, implementing any new policy initiatives will be incredibly 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 a potential increase in competition between Uyghur and Han workers for jobs could only serve to further inflame tensions between the two groups. Xi must tread carefully.

*Brett Elmer is a PhD Candidate at Murdoch University and Editor at Alochonaa.com. This post was originally posted in the October edition of Asian Currents and can be accessed here.

**Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com

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