In President Xi Jinping’s speech to the 19th Party Congress October in 2017, he emphasized a new focus for the Chinese government: creating a “better life” for the Chinese people (the phrase “mei hao sheng huo” (美好生活) appeared fourteen times in his speech). It was his stated vision that “the new era . . . will be an era for the Chinese people of all ethnic groups to work together and work hard to create a better life.
Meanwhile, for China’s Uyghurs, a Turkish ethnic minority group indigenous to China’s far western regions, life has gotten dramatically worse.
In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China’s desert-like far west, interethnic tensions between the Uyghurs and migrant workers belonging to China’s dominant Han ethnic group, who comprise around 92 percent of China’s overall population, have erupted in deadly riots and knife and bomb attacks three times in the past ten years (2009, 2014, and 2017). In response to ethnic unrest, authorities declared a “strike-hard policy” against alleged Islamic terrorism, subjecting the region’s twenty million indigenous Uyghurs, most of them Sunni Muslim, to draconian ethnic suppression policies and a pervasive surveillance state.
Low-level insurgency and occasional outbreaks of violence have been a staple of life for decades in Xinjiang, but not for the reasons that Beijing maintains. Rather, for the past two decades, Beijing’s strategic focus on Xinjiang has marginalized the Uyghurs alongside an increasing number of Han migrants, who came to Xinjiang to reap the benefits of state-driven economic growth. The government’s choice to treat all Uyghurs as potential terrorists ignores the root cause of ethnic unrest and destabilizes the rhetoric of ethnic unity in China.
Counterterrorism Measures in Xinjiang
Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s current regional Communist Party secretary and rising star in the Chinese Communist Party, is the architect of ethnic suppression and mass surveillance policies in Xinjiang. Chen became a household name amongst the Chinese politico during his tenure as party boss in Tibet, where he first implemented his innovative policies designed to control and suppress ethnic minorities suspected of secessionist tendencies. After his appointment as party boss of the XUAR in August 2016, Chen wasted no time in transforming the state’s presence in Uyghur society into a reign of terror.
His efforts in Xinjiang are two-pronged: suppress any aspect of Uyghur culture which differentiates them from the Han, and implement massive security measures to keep an ever-watchful eye on Uyghurs. His first move was to collect all passports from those carrying Xinjiang residence cards in November 2016. In February 2017 he issued orders that all cars in Xinjiang were to be installed with GPS tracking systems to further increase the government’s ability to track the movement of Uyghurs within the region. In September 2017, body scanners were installed in military checkpoints along Xinjiang’s major highways. Han drivers are allowed to bypass these scanners through a “green lane,” while Uyghurs are stopped and searched.
Borrowing from his Tibet playbook, Chen also oversees the construction of a vast network of tens of thousands “convenience” police stations, concrete bulletproof kiosks providing everything from umbrellas to diapers to phone chargers. These convenience stations provide 24-hour “zero-distance” policing, meaning police officers can respond to any disturbance in under a minute. Such a gridlike network of miniature and nondescript police stations further increases the ability of security personnel to control society.
Under Chen’s reign, spending on internal security in Xinjiang in 2017 was at least forty-five billion yuan, or 6.5 billion dollars, a 50 percent increase from 2016. Police-per-capita rates in Xinjiang are now forty times that of Guangdong, China’s most populous province in the southeast. Han security personnel hired by the state earn three times that of Uyghur personnel, which is indicative of a deliberate attempt to create a mostly Han police force watching over indigenous Uyghurs.
Such security measures are complemented by the militarization of the region. In February 2017, thousands of paramilitary troops were flown into Xinjiang’s Hotan prefecture to march alongside columns of tanks. This show of military zeal was in response to a bomb and knife attack in Pishan allegedly perpetrated by Uyghurs, in which five people were killed.
Uyghurs have also been subject to a rising tide of policies targeting Islamic religious practices. Following the knife attack in February, authorities issued laws outlawing long beards and the wearing of veils in public places, and banned more than two dozen traditional Uyghur names. During Ramadan in May, authorities attempted to ban fasting by ordering all restaurants to stay open. In August, authorities banned the teaching of Uyghur language in schools, and in December, children were banned from attending religious events. Meanwhile, officials in the prefecture of Kashgar have been either demolishing mosques (around five thousand were demolished between October and December of 2016) or repurposing them for use as propaganda centers.
In interviews with journalists, Uyghurs claim to be living in a state of terror as family members disappear into the shadows of the security machine. In January 2018 alone, twelve thousand Uyghurs accused of holding “extremist” or “politically incorrect” views have been detained in political reeducation camps in the prefecture of Kashgar alone.
Chen’s policies appear to have been effective so far. Since February 2017, there have been no reported attacks in the XUAR. But the extreme severity of the crackdown has been justified by Chinese authorities on the grounds of fighting Uyghur terrorists with links to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. These claims give authorities justification for targeting Uyghurs as enemies of internal stability and also for outlawing many aspects of their culture associated with Islam. Yet most scholars argue that even militant Uyghurs have little connection to international terrorist organizations.
Many may be puzzled as to why the Chinese government pays such a high cost to control a region whose name most Westerners do not even recognize. These extreme measures may simply be motivated by a desire to prevent further attacks. But, as will be shown below, such attacks may very likely be rooted in government policies which alienated and marginalized Uyghurs in the first place. So what explains the extreme cost the government is paying to control Xinjiang?
Strategic Reasons for Focusing on Xinjiang
The underlying motive of authorities’ ethnic suppression policies is to consolidate their grip over a region of critical strategic importance. Xinjiang borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India; it thereby acts as a bridge to trade partners in Central Asia and the Middle East and perhaps as a launching point for power projection across the Eurasian heartland. Furthermore, Xinjiang is home to 38 percent of China’s coal reserves and produces 13 percent of China’s crude oil output and 30 percent of its natural gas, while also being an important source of renewable energy. Due both to its location and its abundance of critical resources, Xinjiang lies at the heart of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious and sprawling New Silk Road Initiative, a program announced in 2013 to invest in transnational infrastructure and build trade deals with governments across Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
Uyghurs have seethed under the rule of a Han-majority state since the annexation of Xinjiang into the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Historically, Chinese leaders have feared that a small presence of Han Chinese, plus low levels of economic infrastructure in China’s ethnically heterogeneous west would make it vulnerable to geopolitical rivals such as India or Russia. Meanwhile, as China’s market reforms of the 1980s and 1990s were increasing the wealth gap between China’s east and west, the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of independent Central Asian nation-states provided fodder for low-level insurgency activities amongst Uyghurs, who have closer cultural ties with their Central Asian neighbors than with Han Chinese.
Economic Policies Underlying Ethnic Unrest
Over the past two decades, the Chinese government has sought to close the development gap between China’s east and west with massive stimulus packages designed to draw industry and Han migrant workers to the region. Policymakers in China believed, or at least claimed, that economic development would act as a panacea to ethnic unrest by improving the lives of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang. The Western Development Program (WDP), a part of the tenth “Five Year Plan” issued in 2000, brought infrastructure and energy sector jobs to Xinjiang through seventy billion yuan ($8.36 billion) in state investments. But these jobs mostly went to Han migrants, who continued moving to Xinjiang in droves due to a lower cost of living and a higher minimum wage relative to the rest of the country. Although these developments have delivered significant economic growth to the region, they have also given rise to a feeling among Uyghurs that Xinjiang has been transformed into an internal colony of the Chinese government, who exploits the Uyghurs’ indigenous home for its natural resources and transformed Uyghurs into second-class citizens.
In Xinjiang, Han migrants tend to live amongst themselves, and refuse to intermingle with Uyghurs. Han migrants also tend to get higher-paying jobs while Uyghurs find themselves resorting to the informal sector of the economy to earn a meager living. Although the government pursued affirmative action policies for Uyghurs in civil service jobs, the real source of Xinjiang’s new wealth are jobs in the infrastructure or energy sectors. Yet employers in these industries tend to discriminate along ethnic lines—employers believe Han migrants are better educated and more hardworking than Uyghurs. As a result, infrastructure and energy companies, such as China National Petroleum Corp, have been viewed as accruing economic benefit solely to Han migrants, while Uyghurs remain in low-level service jobs and are for the most part excluded from the economic benefits that government stimulus packages have delivered to the region.
Thus, while Xinjiang’s GDP was rising relative to other western provinces, the quality of life of Han migrants far outstripped that of Uyghurs. Add to this the popular sentiment among Uyghurs that in-migration of Han people was eroding Uyghurs’ unique culture and relegating the native Uyghurs to the status of second class citizens, and it is no wonder tensions seethed under the surface, with occasional outbursts throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
In 2009, these tensions boiled over into riots between Uyghurs and Han that broke out in the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, culminating in two hundred dead. This was a level of violence that China had not witnessed since the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. The WDP had clearly failed to quell interethnic tensions. Yet the government’s response was “leapfrog development,” a policy which aimed at even more rapid growth than what the WDP delivered. Hundreds of billions of yuan were invested towards infrastructure construction and modernization of agriculture in Xinjiang.
Uyghurs activists claim such strategic focus on Xinjiang only brings more repression, and does little to improve the socioeconomic situation of Uyghurs or their relations with wealthier Han migrants. As late as 2013, Uyghurs on average earned 29 percent less than Han migrants in Xinjiang, even when controlling for education and work experience.
During a tour of Xinjiang in 2014, Xi Jinping both praised local construction projects for their potential to improve the quality of life for Uyghurs and emphasized the region as the frontline for counterterrorism in China. The former of these policies fits nicely with the New Silk Road Initiative; the latter policy came to its fullest fruition under Chen Quanguo. These dual policy goals of treating all Uyghurs as potential terrorists while also promoting economic growth as a panacea for interethnic violence seem directly contradict each other. This is why many speculate that the underlying motive for pouring money into Xinjiang is to strengthen Beijing’s grip on a region of crucial strategic importance.
In Xinjiang, two states exist in parallel. One is a state rich with opportunities for higher wages and industry success. This state belongs to the Han. The other is a police state, where Uyghurs live in fear and under the authoritarian gaze of the Chinese police state. By labeling the violence as Islamic terrorism, the Chinese government is able to paper over the fact that these tensions were largely created by hasty economic development policies. As the eyes and ears of the state permeate every street corner in Xinjiang and its indigenous population are told how to dress, how to act, and what to believe, calls for “ethnic unity” sound increasingly empty. The government has not been creating a better life for all ethnic groups. It has instead been pursuing economic and strategic power at the cost of the happiness of millions of its own citizens.JB is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons.