Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (5) – Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals

By Ilham Tohti, translated by Cindy Carter, published: May 6, 2015

Continued from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education, III. Religion, and IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation


V.  Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals


Widespread official distrust of ethnic minority cadres and intellectuals is one blatantly obvious and tremendously important facet of Xinjiang’s ethnic problem. In 1997, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s “Document No. 7” marked a watershed moment in Xinjiang’s ethnic conflict: in it, the Party Central Committee expressed its belief that the biggest problem facing Xinjiang was the threat of the “three forces” [of terrorism, religious extremism and separatism.] In Xinjiang, this new policy thrust resulted in a series of policies that soon transformed the entire Uighur population into suspected separatists, and precipitated a rapid decline in the responsibilities and status given to Uighur cadres. This marginalization of Uighur cadres, in turn, bred a subtle climate of distrust between Han and Uighur officials as they went about their respective duties.

Although today’s Chinese Communist Party is a political party that transcends ethnic, class and interest group boundaries, the consensus within Uighur society can be summed up as follows: Han Chinese equal power, therefore power equals Han Chinese; Han Chinese equal the Communist Party, therefore the Communist Party equals Han Chinese.

In reality, Uighur officials account for a very small proportion of total government officials, and Uighurs who occupy positions of real power – bureau-level cadres or higher – are even rarer. Some powerful governmental departments such as Finance, Public Security and the SASAC [State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission] have virtually no Uighur officials. The situation is even more glaring in Xinjiang’s state-owned enterprises: one would be hard-pressed to cite even a single example of a state-owned enterprise headed by a Uighur.

Whether in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference [CPPCC], the National People’s Congress [NPC], or the Communist Party Congress, the number of Uighur committee members and representatives is disproportionally low. Underrepresentation and low levels of political participation reflect the declining political status and increasing marginalization of Uighurs in China.

The CPPCC, entrusted with the role of “political participation and deliberation,” is an important component of the Chinese political system, but the number of ethnic Uighur CPPCC committee members is disproportionately low, both at the national and the regional level. Among the thirteen chairmen or deputy chairmen of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region CPPCC, only four are Uighur. At the regional level, Uighur representation in the CPPCC is numerically and proportionally small, and the cadres tend to be low in rank.

In the Twelfth National Committee of the CPPCC, only 10 members [of 2,237] are Uighur, continuing the downward trend of recent years. And of the 107 members of the Xinjiang CPPCC new Standing Committee, only 27 (about 25%) are Uighur. There is a serious discrepancy between the small number of Uighur CPPCC committee members and the proportion of Xinjiang’s population that is Uighur (about 47%), a discrepancy that is at odds with the rightful stature of the Uighur people as a self-governing ethnic group within the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Of the 2987 delegates who attended the 12th National People’s Congress this year, only 409 were ethnic minorities, an average of one delegate for every 270,000 ethnic minority citizens. Among the minority delegates, only 25 were Uighur (23 from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and 2 from the People’s Liberation Army delegation), which works out to one delegate for every 400,000 Uighur citizens. Although the overall proportion of minority delegates exceeded the proportion of ethnic minorities relative to China’s total population, the opposite was true for Uighur delegates, whose numbers were disproportionately low.

As we can see from the above, Uighurs have been excluded from the center of power, and their political stature in China is in sharp decline.

In the early days of the People’s Republic of China, the biggest issue facing the Chinese Communist Party was how to train up an echelon of competent and qualified ethnic minority cadres. Now that the Party has been in power for sixty years, however, finding talented minority cadres should not be a problem. There are long-term factors that impact the training of minority cadres, but the distrust of minority cadres derives from a certain historical context. It is widely believed that after 1997, the stature and perceived trustworthiness of minority cadres plummeted. This created a vicious cycle: marginalization bred distrust, which led to anger and alienation, and this alienation was then turned back into an excuse for finding minority cadres untrustworthy.

Political marginalization and the sense that they are not fully trusted can create problems for minority cadres. Compared to their Han Chinese colleagues, ethnic minority cadres tend to become more timid and risk-averse, afraid to voice their opinions, and inclined to grumble in private. A decade of tension has created a situation in which no one within Xinjiang’s Uighur community dares to speak up. As Deng Xiaoping once said: “The silence of the masses is a terrifying thing.” But having Uighur cadres who are afraid to speak up is an even more terrifying thing, because these cadres tend to have a fairly accurate grasp of prevailing moods and attitudes within the Uighur community. Over time, their silence makes it difficult for local government policy makers to hear the voices of the Uighur community.

Uighur intellectuals find themselves in much the same dilemma. Long-running social tensions and a coercive atmosphere have brought about a collective silence from the Uighur intelligentsia, a group that should, by rights, be more outspoken. Even their social contribution and creativity have, unlike in the past, diminished. And their sense of critical awareness and social responsibility is generally weak, especially compared to Han Chinese intellectuals in the interior.

Naturally, nationalism is the business of a nation’s elite, and cadres and intellectuals represent a gathering of the national elite. Their ideas can sway the emotions of an entire community, giving expression to the vested interests of that community, while also serving as the voices of moderation and rationality. When cadres and intellectuals of the Uighur elite find themselves increasingly constrained by narrower and narrower circumstances, their resentment, depression and ethnic grievances cannot help but spread through the entire community.

The existence of Uighur cadres reflects the issue of the political legitimacy of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. If the appointment of Zhang Chunxian fail to restore the trust of Uighur cadres and intellectuals to pre-1997 levels, then the Uighur elite will likely lose confidence altogether and perhaps even plunge into despair, for Zhang’s appointment has so far given hope to a considerable number of people who have long believed that the present mistrust of Uighurs is an exception to the rule, the product of stability policies run amok under a few dictatorial leaders, rather than a true reflection of Han Chinese attitudes toward Uighurs.


  1. Inadequate training of ethnic minority cadres.

Selecting and training a cohort of minority cadres was an important component of national ethnic policy during the first few decades of Chinese Communist Party rule. Because of low education rates, lagging social development, and a shortage of qualified candidates in minority areas, the government put a great deal of effort into selecting and training minority cadres who would later help to implement national ethnic policy.

These days, however, the selection criteria and training methods used for minority cadres seem to have fallen behind the times. Qualities such as competence, vision and breadth of knowledge should be considered just as important as political reliability. The present system of training does not adequately factor in just how much Xinjiang lags behind other areas of mainland China. Some key postings may simply require higher levels of conceptual skill, knowledge, governing ability and cognitive capacity.

  1. Stability maintenance policies have elevated perfectly normal feelings and expressions of ethnic pride and ethnic self-interest to the level of secessionism. By constantly emphasizing the dangers of local ethnic nationalism, the government has overlooked growing Han Chinese chauvinism. In Xinjiang, the inverse of local ethnic nationalism is a growing trend toward Han Chinese chauvinism and ethnocentrism.

Thoughts and Recommendations

  1. Ethnic sentiment is an innate and natural emotion, but it can also be controlled, guided and balanced. In the same way that we recognize that different economic classes have different interests and demands, we should also recognize that different ethnic groups have their own specific interests and demands, and take this into consideration when balancing the government’s interest in national unity with respect for the interests of ethnic minorities. Originally, there was a tacit agreement to respect Uighur ethnic sentiment, and such unwritten rules and their underlying logic should be clearly spelled out.
  1. Overall, there are too few Uighur cadres, particularly in the upper echelons. We should look to the long run and begin to train a cohort of qualified, top-tier ethnic minority cadres. To enhance Xinjiang’s long-term development prospects, we should consider a bold plan to send young ethnic minority cadres from Xinjiang to undergo intensive study and field training in the economically developed regions of China’s southeastern seaboard. Training minority cadres in the southeast would not only help spread progressive ideas, it would also fundamentally deepen emotional ties to other areas of China among Xinjiang’s minority elites.
  1. According to the “Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law of the People’s Republic of China,” Uighur and Mandarin enjoy equal status as working languages, but at present, few Han Chinese cadres speak Uighur. This is especially true in southern Xinjiang, where poor language skill among Han Chinese cadres has been widely criticized. The government should encourage local Han Chinese cadres to work harder to attain at least a certain level of proficiency in Uighur or another minority language, and these language skills should gradually be incorporated into the performance assessments of local party cadres and civil servants. Central government staff would be exempt from this rule.
  1. In conjunction with ethnic demographics, pay more attention to the proportional ethnic distribution of cadres. Xinjiang’s demographic pattern of small ethnic enclaves will not change overnight, but we should try, as much as possible, to facilitate integration and exchange via staff assignments and transfers. In regions populated mainly by Han Chinese, it might be appropriate to increase the proportion of Uighur cadres; in Uighur-populated areas of southern Xinjiang, it might be appropriate to raise the proportion of not only Han Chinese cadres, but also of Kazakh, Mongolian and other ethnic minority cadres.
  1. Cultivate a group of talented Uighur intellectual elites. At present, Xinjiang has not yet given rise to a true community of modern intellectuals. There is a shortage of Uighur talent at party- and state-run research institutions, particularly in the social sciences. Systematically cultivating a group of top-tier Uighur intellectuals will not only help lead traditional Uighur society into modernity, it will also, over time, imbue the Uighur elite with a broader national perspective and help inspire confidence in them—this, indeed, might be the greatest contribution of all.
  1. Commission research on the topic of social development in Xinjiang. Academic research regarding Xinjiang’s social development lags Xinjiang’s reality: Xinjiang’s particularly closed nature means that local research on the subject is somewhat out of date, in terms of conceptual and theoretical tools. To a certain extent, some of the academic research being done in Xinjiang today serves little purpose but to endorse existing local policy decisions. The issue of social development in Xinjiang is particularly complex, and will require research projects, commissioned at the highest national level, capable of attracting the long-term participation of outstanding intellectuals nationwide. We should also encourage more local intellectuals in Xinjiang, particularly Uighur intellectuals, to participate in these long-term studies.


Previous installments:

I. Unemployment,

II. Bilingual Education

III. Religion, and

IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation




Chinese original: 《伊力哈木:当前新疆民族问题的现状及建议》

4 responses to “Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (5) – Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals”

  1. tarasherab says:

    Reblogged this on tarasherab.

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