China's Xinjiang Policy: An Appraisal
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), an autonomous region of China in the north-west, is mainly populated by Turkic-speaking Muslims, the majority of whom are Uyghurs, one of the 56 ethnic minorities residing in the country.[i]
Since the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 Xinjiang enjoyed varying phases of autonomy as well as Chinese reabsorption of the region till October 1955 when it was finally classified as an “autonomous region” of the People’s Republic of China. The reason China, right from the beginning, wanted to assert its control over Xinjiang is the fact that Xinjiang, with a population of nearly 20 million, occupies one-sixth of total landmass of China with abundant oil and mineral reserves.[ii]
It is also because of the fact that it holds a strategic place in China’s domestic as well as foreign policy manoeuvres as it shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Historically speaking, despite a long tradition of exchanges with China, these people are linked, primarily by ties of culture and religion, to the Central Asian world. Probably this is one reason why, though they are becoming increasingly integrated with China, they have never very willingly accepted the idea of sharing a common destiny with the Chinese people. Ever since the transformation of the province of Xinjiang into an autonomous region in 1955, the autonomy has only been symbolic leading to a powerful sense of frustration in the region and preventing Uyghur society from realising many of its aspirations. The 2005 White Paper on Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities in China, though granting the ethnic autonomous regions the right to be the master of their own land, make the autonomy enjoyed by the ethnic autonomous regions predicated on the central government’s recognition.[iii]
China follows the view that ‘a weaker China is a vulnerable China and hence is going to attract external hostilities’.[iv] However, none of China’s neighbours have expressed support for the Uyghurs, but the region’s porous borders have always been a worry for the Chinese. Chinese officials worry that militants who slip in and out of Xinjiang can promote anti-state activity, which is why they have vowed to crack down what they call as three evil forces in Xinjiang – separatism, extremism, and terrorism.
To avoid such activities of cascading effects, China has been promoting rapid industrialisation and urbanization coupled with influx of Han Chinese in the region. Since 1990s, China has been investing in various projects in Xinjiang, e.g. the Tarim Basin Project to increase agricultural output. It has also been investing on the region’s infrastructure but all geared only towards binding Xinjiang more closely to the rest of China. China’s threat perception which includes the possibility of external interferences and spillover of extremism from Pakistan and Afghanistan into Xinjiang, has led to its obsessive degree of control of Xinjiang.[v]
Its pre-emptive defense has led to its policy of overt assertion, further enraging the region leading to widespread dissatisfaction prevalent in the region bringing extremism and protests. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement has become much more hostile to the authorities than ever before. Uyghurs have been blamed for a number of high-profile attacks in China. Recent examples include an altercation in Lukqun in June 2013 (35 killed), a deadly knife-wielding assault in Kunming railway station in March 2014 (33 killed), and an attack at a coal mine in Aksu last September (50 killed).[vi]
These events are indicative of deteriorating ethnic relations between the Uyghurs and the Han. While international media agencies and human rights group have been critical toward China’s ethnic policy, the government’s stance on the issue remains unchanged despite international pressure and domestic pushback. The 2015 White paper on Xinjiang Ethnic Equality and Unity reaffirmed the “development and progress in Xinjiang marks the successful implementation of China’s system of ethnic regional autonomy”.[vii]
The first counter-terrorism law’s provision to enable elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or People’s Armed Police (PAP) to engage in counter-terrorism operations abroad has also led some to suggest that Beijing is set to significantly modify its adherence to its much-touted foreign policy doctrine of “non-interference” in the face of rising Islamist terrorism inspired by Islamic State (IS).[viii]
Even here, however, Beijing’s Xinjiang calculus is apparent. While Beijing has seized on reports that “hundreds” of Uyghur militants have been engaged in fighting with various Islamist groups in Syria it has done so to convince the West that Uyghur terrorism in Xinjiang is “spiritually supported and commanded by foreign terrorist organisations” and mute international criticism of its hard-line policies in the region rather than to justify any shift toward Chinese intervention in the Syrian crisis.[ix]
In reality, the Uyghur violence has stemmed from their desire for a separate state further inflamed in part by large ingress of Han Chinese into the region which has undermined the social stability of the region. Uyghur separatists claim that the region is not a part of China, but that the Second East Turkestan Republic was illegally incorporated by the PRC in 1949 and has since been under Chinese occupation. Moreover, Chinese authorities have banned or strictly controlled their faith, i.e. observance of certain Muslim practices which they had been practising for centuries, such as growing beards and fasting during Ramadan. In retaliation to the acts of violence, China has decided to contain the situation by threat and coercion. China has brought the three aspects of the government together- diplomatic, economic and military to meet ‘the three evils’ of Xinjiang society. This act has further instigated social unrest between the Hans and Uyghurs in the region.
The Communist Party says its policies in Xinjiang are designed to promote economic development, not demographic change, but in reality the Han migration in Xinjiang has put strain on limited resources like land and water. In fact, China’s policies have been motivated by the very fact that Xinjiang has vast natural resources. China is, therefore, prompted to bring in economic growth through industrialisation but hiring of the Han Chinese as workers increases the gap and dissatisfaction among the ethnic groups. In an attempt to minimize the ethnic dimension of the Uyghurs and assimilate them with the Chinese mainland, the authorities have also banned their language, further imposing English and Mandarin. As a result, the Uyghurs are losing out on employment. Moreover, the hardening of stance in Muslim-majority Xinjiang to crush the three evils has not only alienated many ordinary ethnic Uyghur people but has also provoked significant disquiet in its own ranks.[x]
After 2009 riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi left at least 192 people dead, the party acknowledged that it needed to address Uyghur grievances. But later, with an increase in violent attacks by Uyghurs, the party changed course, asserting at a major meeting on the region in 2014 that the priorities were stability and unity rather than economic development and combating discrimination. Beijing has long claimed that Islamic State (IS) is recruiting Uyghurs from the mainly Muslim region of Xinjiang, and blamed outside forces for fomenting deadly acts of violence there and elsewhere in the country that have claimed hundreds of lives. However, China’s policies towards Xinjiang have themselves worked as “a push factor driving people to leave the country and look elsewhere for a sense of ‘belonging’”, the Washington-based New America Foundation wrote in a study of leaked registration documents for IS fighters.[xi]
Chinese historical mindset that links neiluan (domestic disturbance) with waihuan (external threat or foreign aggression)[xii] further contributes to the politicization and securitization of the Xinjiang issue, creating an impasse between the Chinese central government and ethnic minority group in Xinjiang.[xiii]
Yang Shengmin, the dean of the School of Ethnology and Sociology in Minzu University, writes in the China’s Ethnic Groups Magazine that “attributing all riots in Xinjiang to the influence of Western forces is misinformed; the root of separatism in Xinjiang lies in the adoption of a misguided development model in Xinjiang”.[xiv]
The Chinese government, however, tends to politicize the ethnic issue, “categorizing all everyday grievances as evidence of Xinjiang or Tibetan separatism and attributing all social problems which are the result of policy failure to Western intervention”.[xv]
To minimise the acts of violence and to resolve the issues, China, thus, must publicly acknowledge the deepening inequality between the Uyghur and Han ethnicities. To maintain security and stability in the long term, China should endeavour towards integrating its minorities with the other communities and must not adopt coercive and discriminatory policies which will only fuel the unrest further.
China’s policies, domestic and foreign, have always been beset with assertiveness and an expansionist ambition. China’s Xinjiang policy, more or less, seems to be a manifestation of the same with China starting to exert strict control over the region taking into account the perception that its western neighbourhood is deeply Islamised and fearing that religious sentiments travelling from Central Asia would be a catalyst for radicalization in XUAR.[xvi]
Though China is right in maintaining the order of the State, but it should not end up victimising and punishing the entire Uyghur population for the wrongs of a few. China must not let its threat perception lead to discriminatory policies perpetuating the ethnic stereotypes. Finally, China should abandon the dominant and overwhelming use of coercion and embrace strategies to reach out to the Uyghur community which would ultimately help China in meeting its concerns, perceived and real.
[ii] The Uygyr ethnic minority, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/ljzg_665465/3584_665493/t17921.shtml
[iii] Jing Yu (2016), “Tibet, Xinjiang, and China’s Strong State Complex”, The Diplomat, http://thediplomat.com/2016/07/tibet-xinjiang-and-chinas-strong-state-complex/
[iv] Swati Arun (2015), The Problems with China’s Xinjiang Policy: Linkages between Domestic and External Behaviour, Air Power, Vol. 10, No. 3.
[vi] China needs to overhaul Xinjiang Policy, http://m.dailyhunt.in/news/india/english/the-siasat-daily-english-epaper-siaseten/china-needs-to-overhaul-xinjiang-policy-newsid-54874283
[vii] Jing Yu (2016), “Tibet, Xinjiang, and China’s Strong State Complex”, The Diplomat, http://thediplomat.com/2016/07/tibet-xinjiang-and-chinas-strong-state-complex/
[x] China cracks down on aggrieved party cadres in Xinjiang and Tibet, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/08/china-party-dissent-xinjiang-tibet
[xi] Beijing Policies in Xinjiang driving Chinese Muslims to join ranks of Islamic State, says US think tank, South China Morning Post, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1992418/beijing-policies-xinjiang-driving-chinese-muslims-join
[xii] S. Shirk (2007), China: Fragile Superpower, Oxford University Press, p. 64.
[xiii] Jing Yu (2016), “Tibet, Xinjiang, and China’s Strong State Complex”, The Diplomat, http://thediplomat.com/2016/07/tibet-xinjiang-and-chinas-strong-state-complex/
[xvi] Andrew Scobell, Ely Ratner and Michael Beckley (2014), “China’s Strategy towards South and Central Asia: An Empty Fortress”, RAND, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR500/RR525/RAND_RR525.pdf