Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (7) – Governmental Competence and Credibility

By Ilham Tohti, translated by Cindy Carter, published: May 12, 2015

Continued from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education, III. Religion, IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation, V.  Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals, and VI. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.


VII. Governmental Competence and Credibility


There is a vast disparity between economic and social development in Xinjiang and in other regions of mainland China. This disparity extends to the official mindset: at all levels of government in Xinjiang, we encounter a mentality that falls far short of what is needed to govern and manage Xinjiang’s societal complexities.

The class struggle and dictatorial mindset that died out so long ago in other parts of China (particularly in the economically-developed coastal regions) still exists, to varying degrees, in some places in Xinjiang. Compared to other regions of mainland China, Xinjiang retains more aspects of the planned economy: officials at all levels are inclined to be heavy-handed, and local officials have the final say in what crops farmers are allowed to plant. This occurs not only within the Corps: in some areas, it is only within the last year or two that farmers have won the right to manage their own agricultural activities. Uighur farmers in southern Xinjiang are still in the habit of referring to the township government as “The Commune,” because many people don’t sense that  tremendous changes have transformed China’s society.

Xinjiang’s cadres and officials have a weak grasp of modern concepts of legality. There is a distinct “generation gap” in the mentality of cadres in Xinjiang’s developed cities, such as Urumqi, and their contemporaries in even more developed regions of China; likewise, there is a “generation gap” in the mindset of cadres in rural southern Xinjiang and cadres in Xinjiang’s more developed northern cities. During the July 2009 ethnic unrest, rural cadres from southern Xinjiang were transferred to Urumqi en masse to help maintain order; their behavior was so boorish that even the local cadres in Urumqi were appalled.

The program to transfer laborers from Xinjiang to Shaoguan in Guangdong Province [where the “Shaoguan Incident” of June 25-26, 2009, took place] started out as a positive and worthwhile endeavor.[1] The way in which it was carried out, however, called to mind coercive methods that were more prevalent in the 1980s: home demolitions, forced relocations, land confiscation, and so on. Poor governance at the grassroots level doomed the program from the start, and bred a climate of suspicion and resistance.

In southern Xinjiang in particular, Chinese cadres are very nearly regarded as “stand-ins” for all Han Chinese, representatives of an entire race of people. As such, if their methods of governing are unjust or inept, conflicts between citizens and officials can easily escalate into ethnic conflict.

Therefore, we may surmise that the quality of Xinjiang’s cadres is a decisive factor in determining how smoothly the government can implement its policies there.

Zhang Chunxian now faces the test of rebuilding the government’s image within the community. There are two aspects to this test: the former is restoring government credibility, the latter is convincing citizens that they will not be punished for exercising their right to free speech.

Regarding the former: Between the Shaoguan incident of June 2009 and the syringe attacks later that year, there were all sorts of rumors flying in both the Han Chinese and Uighur communities. Certainly, this was the result of long-simmering ethnic tensions and mutual distrust, but it also reflected the local government’s approach to handling news and information. Over the years, this approach has eroded public trust in the media and made people unwilling to believe anything the government has to say.

Regarding the latter: in Xinjiang’s peculiar legal environment, people can be punished just for speaking out—and punished very severely. This pervasive, coercive atmosphere of fear still exists.


Xinjiang’s remoteness, an economy still dominated by centralized planning, social development that lags behind other areas of China, and two decades of political upheaval on its periphery have naturally led to the dictatorial mindset that prevails at all levels of Xinjiang’s local government.

In addition, local governments in Xinjiang are tasked with providing jobs to demobilized military officers, which means that a large proportion of Xinjiang’s grassroots cadres are former military officers. Long years of indoctrination about being the “first line of defense,” combined with military working methods, has given rise to a unique governing style among Xinjiang’s lower-level cadres. Particularly in southern Xinjiang, where living and working conditions are difficult, grassroots cadres are selected primarily for their political qualifications and reliability. As for overall mindset and quality of character, these are not even on the list of criteria, and Xinjiang’s limited resources make it impossible to provide systematic training for grassroots cadres spread far and wide.

Since 1997, overall society in Xinjiang has been in a state of high alert against “the three forces” [of terrorism, religious extremism and separatism], thus further strengthening the dictatorial tendencies of Xinjiang’s grassroots cadres. When it comes to dealing with societal and ethnic conflicts, they are resolved to do whatever it takes to smother potential conflict as quickly as possible before it can spread.

Thoughts and Recommendations

  1. Crack down on corruption. Official corruption in Xinjiang is far more brazen than in other parts of China, and its methods and nature even more vile. The only way to restore people’s confidence in government is to eliminate corruption.
  1. Conduct training for all cadres in the areas of legal regulations, effective governance, and civilized law enforcement. Supplement this with various and convenient methods of social supervision and public reporting to enhance and improve awareness among Xinjiang’s cadres.
  1. Enhance information transparency. Learning from the experiences of more progressive areas of China and allowing local media more latitude to function will create a positive atmosphere that empowers the community and boosts public morale.
  1. When transferring or exchanging cadres, focus on sending cadres to (or accepting them from) the southeastern seaboard region, the major metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and similarly developed areas, while reducing the number of cadres from the north. Use the latest ideas and concepts from these developed areas to influence awareness and promote a positive change in local attitudes.
  1. When recruiting and promoting cadres or civil servants, focus on quality of character, vision, experience and other factors, and place less emphasis on political reliability or obedience.
  1. At an opportune moment, release a group of intellectuals who have been unfairly detained, unfairly arrested and unfairly convicted—for example, Memetjan Abdulla of the China National Radio Uighur service, or Xinjiang Economic Daily reporter Gheyret Niyaz (Niyaz, an intellectual who grew up in a military family, repeatedly tried to warn local authorities of the danger signs before the July 2009 violence in Urumqi). Releasing some of these individuals as a sign of goodwill would send a positive message to the Uighur community and help to allay some of its pessimism and frustration.


[1] The Shaoguan incident of June 25-26, 2009, was a violent dispute between Uighur and Han Chinese migrant workers at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. The dispute began with allegations of the sexual assault of a Han Chinese woman, and escalated into a conflict in which at least two Uighurs were killed and hundreds injured (witness reports and casualty estimates vary.) The Shaoguan incident was likely a contributing factor to the July 2009 ethnic violence in Urumqi. – Translator


Previous installments:

I. Unemployment,

II. Bilingual Education

III. Religion

IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation

V. Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals

VI. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps





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


One response to “Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (7) – Governmental Competence and Credibility”

  1. […] Continued from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education, III. Religion, IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation, V.  Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals, VI. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, and VII. Governmental Competence and Credibility […]

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