The Main Dangers in Xinjiang

Wang Lixiong, July 18, 2019

Beijing has designated “the main dangers affecting the stability of Xinjiang” as being “separatist forces and illegal religious activity.” This, as a matter of logical extrapolation, naturally divides the Han and local ethnic minorities into opposed groups. Because the Han are neither in favor of separation, nor do they hold religious beliefs (in particular the Islamic faith of the local people), the terms “separatist forces” and “illegal religious activities” are aimed at the local ethnicities, while the Han are the mass base (群众基础) of “anti-separatism” and support the authorities’ stance on ethnic issues. Even the temporary recruits of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (新疆建设兵团) from rural areas in China proper, who are the typical victims of oppression by corrupt officials, have taken the initiative when it comes to suppressing and fighting against the local ethnicities. Eventually, the local ethnicities will be pushed to not only oppose the Chinese authorities, but also into antagonistic relations with the Han Chinese people.

The ethnic problem has morphed into a racial problem; from political oppression to ethnic oppression, which is a most perilous development. Political oppression can be lifted through political reform, allowing different ethnic groups to build a new community together. But if the Han themselves are perceived to be oppressors, then political reform will be incapable of ending the fundamental conflict, leaving national independence as the only means of resolution. This, in fact, is the main danger in Xinjiang.

As Mao Zedong said, “nowhere on earth does hate exist without cause.” Separatism does not spring out of nothing. If you take others as the enemy, can you blame them for wanting to break away from you? The Xinjiang authorities’ policy of repressing the local ethnicities can be summed up as “be proactive in attacking, strike whoever shows his face, and attack the enemy preemptively” (“主动出击、露头就打、先发制敌”). Now, this stance has further progressed to “strike them even if they don’t show their faces, and fight them in pursuit” (“不露头也要打,要追着打”). This follows the regime line established after the June Fourth movement in Beijing: “vanquish all elements of instability in the bud.”

But when people petition, protest, or even riot, it shows that they still hope to settle their grievances through interaction with the authorities. When they cease their expression and activism — when all the buds are vanquished — what remains is not stability, but despair. Deng Xiaoping famously said: “the most frightening thing is the silence of the masses,” but this lesson has been lost on his successors. The malicious tyranny that calls for “striking them even if they don’t show their faces, and fighting them in pursuit” has become regime doctrine that puts the arrogance and ignorance of the leadership on full display. Civil disputes or criminal cases that have occurred in large numbers in China proper are politicized when they happen in Xinjiang, where small unremarkable cases become big separatism-related cases, and good-natured masses becoming “terrorists.” The wanton arrogance with which the authorities come down upon the people using the harshest punishments can have a temporary suppressive effect, but it does nothing to resolve the contradiction. Instead, this accumulates hatred that explodes in unpredictable outbursts, and is guaranteed to create a nesting ground of terrorism. What happened on July 5, 2009, is a good example.

The Xinjiang authorities’ other approach is to develop the economy. It is hoped that popular support for ethnic separatism can be dissolved by raising the standard of living, and that religious sentiment can be diminished through secularization. In these years, both published figures and observations can attest to the rapid development of Xinjiang’s economy. Despite this, ethnic problems in Xinjiang have not faded. The basic mistake of this kind of thinking is that at the root of ethnic strife is not economics but politics. It is an error to attempt to solve the political problem in the economic arena. Moreover, the political pressure is being reinforced continuously, cancelling out the effects of economic development.

Beijing may genuinely hope to narrow the economic gap between the local ethnicities and the Han. However, the Han people control most of the resources when it comes to government, economy, and information. They are the ones to enjoy most of the benefits whenever a new opportunity arises. Economic principle also has a role to play: the market pursues profit and efficiency, not justice or equality. Since the Xinjiang economy is necessarily tied to the rest of the Chinese economic system, the Han people have an advantage over the locals. Simply gaining proficiency in Chinese language has become a primary obstacle to employment and development opportunities for the local ethnicities. In Xinjiang, most high-level positions across various fields are occupied by Han Chinese. The locals have been misled by the authorities into harboring high hopes, only to discover the massive gap between those expectations and the disappointing reality.

Once the market economy becomes host to distinctions based on ethnicity, ethnic strife will not only persist but also grow. If ethnic issues in the past were mainly related to broad and historical issues, and relatively removed from everyday life, the economic gaps of today are tangible to everyone in the minutiae of daily existence. Ethnic conflict is no longer a metaphysical issue, but something close to every individual, stimulating a deeper, more personal ethnic sentiment.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime has caused a disruption in passing on the cultural and historical lineage to the next generation. Today’s bureaucrats with good professional education possess knowledge, but no soul. They worship the powerful and scoff at the weak, relying solely upon the system and methods of power. They are only good at administration and suppression. The intense campaigns, severe punishments, strict regulations, and the like may yield short-term results, but they are no cure for the root troubles. It is akin to drinking poison to quench thirst. The dearth of humanistic spirit makes it impossible for power groups to delve deeply into the issues of culture, history, faith, philosophy, and so on. Their methods of solving problems are monotonous, foolish, and self-righteous. Finding the right way to handle ethnic issues requires a refined humanity. In this light, it is inevitable that ethnic strife in China will get stuck in a deadlock with no solution, because the revival of the humanistic spirit is not something that can be simply summoned out of thin air.

Like many things that undergo a shift from the quantitative to the qualitative, there is a tipping point. Before that, there is still room for recovery. But once that critical point is passed, Xinjiang will descend into a perennial ethnic conflict, like the war between Palestine and Israel to which there is neither a solution nor a foreseeable ending date. The “separatist forces” in Xinjiang are waiting for China to fall into its own turmoil. The most likely time for chaos is the transition period between authoritarianism and democracy. This is a hurdle that China has never experienced,  but must one day pass. The more stubbornly the authoritarian system resists the decision to reform proactively, the more likely change will come in a sudden burst, causing other crises to erupt simultaneously. State control will decline drastically, which is when the possibilities of separation are greatest, and when popular racial antagonism is most likely to get violent at the mass level. It is hard to imagine the scale of violent conflict that will erupt, or the vicious cycle of mutual animosity that is bound to continue with no end in sight.

Wang Lixiong (王力雄) is a Beijing-based Chinese writer best known for his political prophecy fiction, Yellow Peril, and for his writings on Tibet and China’s western region of Xinjiang. Wang is regarded as one of the most outspoken dissidents, democracy advocates in China. Between 1980 and 2007 when My West China; Your East Turkestan (in Chinese) was finished, he made nine trips to Xinjiang and his travels brought him to every part of the region. While traveling in Xinjiang in 1999, he was briefly detained by the Chinese secret police for suspicion of collecting classified information. But his prison time in unexpected ways helped the writing of this book. Wikipedia (in English) has a list of Mr. Wang Lixiong’s works.

Also by Wang Lixiong:

Excerpts from “My West China, Your East Turkestan” — My View on the Kunming Incident, March 3, 2014.

One response to “The Main Dangers in Xinjiang”

  1. […] Noted writer Wáng Lìxióng 王力雄 warns of coming trouble in Xinjiang on ChinaChange: […]

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