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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

Overview

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.

Causes

  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

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Related:

 

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

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (3) – Religion

By Ilham Tohti, translated by Cindy Carter, published: April 26, 2015

 

Continued from I. Unemployment and II. Bilingual Education

III. Religion

Overview                                                       

Since the July 2009 ethnic unrest in Xinjiang, religious fervor within China’s Uighur community has been rising steadily. Whether in traditional villages in southern Xinjiang, among urban officials and intellectuals, or even on college campuses in Beijing, there has been a quiet upsurge in religious conservatism—and the percentage of youthful conservative adherents is at an all-time high. Some observers have noted that, during religious services at mosques, it is not uncommon to see young people praying silently, with tears streaming down their faces. This is a social signal worthy of our close attention.

As an overt symbol of a people’s cultural and ethnic identity, religion comes second only to language; in the most extreme circumstances, religion can become the final spiritual refuge for a people.

The two most serious aspects of the religious problem in Xinjiang are as follows:

1. First is the enormous backlash generated by strict government controls on religion. Xinjiang’s south is home to approximately 24,000 mosques, and each mosque has a designated religious leader supported by the government: one cadre per mosque, responsible for denying admittance to outsiders, youths, or regular worshippers beyond the allotted quota. Such stringent controls display utter disregard for the feelings of believers, consume vast amounts of manpower and resources, and arouse great discontent among the citizenry.

 2. Second is the proliferation of underground religious activities, in marked contrast to the government’s failed religious policies of recent years. Ultra-conservative and xenophobic strains of religious thought imported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places are spreading rapidly in Xinjiang, and being disseminated via the religious underground. Increasing numbers of extremely conservatively dressed citizens attest to the popularity of this religious trend. In private, some Uighur intellectuals decry the new conservatism, complaining that Uighurs no longer dress like Uighurs, but like Arabs.

Although Xinjiang has no shortage of Kazakh- and Chinese-language versions of the Koran, Uighur-language versions of the Koran are not available for sale on the open market. This distinction could easily incline people to suspect that restrictive government religious policies are being targeted at a specific ethnic group. Some years ago, the Saudi king sent one million free copies of the Koran to Xinjiang, where they circulated freely among the local populace. After incidents of ethnic unrest in 1996 and 1997, these copies of the Koran were recalled; these days, a pirated copy of the Koran sells for between 50 and 80 Chinese yuan on the underground market.

Most Uighur intellectuals are wary of and opposed to extremist religious ideology. They recognize the contributions of Communist Party atheism and secular education in abolishing superstition, fanaticism and ignorance within the Uighur community. And yet the government’s current draconian religious policies in Xinjiang are repugnant to Uighur intellectuals, even to those most repelled by religious fanaticism.

Causes

Although the Chinese government is now much more tolerant of religious enthusiasm than it has been in the past, its long-standing adherence to atheism and lack of systematic research on religious issues means that, when confronted with issues involving religion, the government tends to find itself on the defensive.

Specifically, when it comes to dealing with religious issues in Xinjiang, official disdain for the special status of religion in ethnic minority communities makes it hard to see where government promotion of secularization ends, and the suppression of ethnic minority culture begins. Particularly with regard to Islam, the government tends to oscillate wildly between confidence and fear—confidence inspired by the machinery of the one-party state, and fear fueled by a basic lack of religious knowledge.

Since 1997, opposing “the three forces” [of terrorism, religious extremism and separatism] has been the paramount task of local government. Along the way, however, the policy of opposing religious extremism has morphed into a policy of opposing religious tradition and suppressing normal expressions of religious belief.

Recently, Xinjiang’s government has launched a vigorous propaganda push on the dangers of religious extremism, and it is on high alert against religious extremism and its effects. Extremist religious ideology is certainly unacceptable: even from an Islamic perspective, it is a distortion of traditional religious thought. But government policy in practice all too often veers toward rigid uniformity: indiscriminately lumping the wearing of headscarves, veils or beards into the same category as religious extremism, for example, or banning men with beards and women with veils or headscarves from entering buildings or public places. These and other persistent infringements on Uighur human rights are, to a large extent, responsible for creating antagonism between Uighurs and the government, thus amplifying Han-Uighur tensions.

While there is no denying that Xinjiang does indeed have a problem with religious extremism, it needs to be emphasized that extremist religious ideology has never dominated the mainstream in Uighur society, and its actual influence within the Uighur community is quite limited. More importantly, traditional Uighur culture has always displayed a marked resistance to extremist religious ideology. At present, the threat posed by religious extremism appears to be greatly exaggerated, both in government propaganda and in the public imagination. Enacting inappropriate control measures based on this flawed understanding will, objectively speaking, only drive people to embrace more extremist religious views. Moreover, when it comes to voicing criticism of extremist religious ideology, this criticism should come primarily from esteemed and learned leaders within the religious community, rather than from secular intellectuals speaking on matters outside their purview. And the minute details of citizens’ sartorial habits – clothes, beards, scarves and the like – should never be singled out for criticism.

In order to understand the problem of religious extremism in the Uighur community, we must recognize the following key points: (1) It is of great importance to clearly define what is extremist religious ideology and extremist religious behavior; (2) The goal of opposing extremist religious ideology should be to protect and safeguard normal, everyday religious activity; (3) Within Uighur society, religion was originally closely tied to cultural customs and traditions, but now religion has been stripped of its status and deprived of its traditional authority figures; (4) Uighur society has lost its mechanisms  for moral grounding and cultural adjustment; (5) There are no normal channels for positive voices to make themselves heard; and (6) In order to protect their posts and perks of office, some officials are more than willing to burn the wheat with the chaff.

Currently, Xinjiang’s coercive stability maintenance policies, particularly in the area of religion, are having a grave impact on the lives, jobs and mobility of Xinjiang’s Uighur population. If the government does not change its thinking and tactics with respect to religious issues, I fear that religion will become the single biggest cause of ethnic strife and social discord in Xinjiang.

Thoughts and Recommendations

The entire Islamic world, in fact, is being confronted with religious problems along the path to modernity. Turkey, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and other countries have found different and successful ways to balance religion and modernity. There is no shame in learning from their successes or adopting their methods of dealing with religion, in much the same way that China, in the early days of economic reform and opening, looked to the West for experience and guidance.

  1. Establish institutional arrangements for the management of religious sites and places of worship. Places of worship offer a natural way for communities to bond, and the government can draw on foreign experience to develop standards governing the physical size, congregation size, social organization, etc. of places of worship. To facilitate the ability of citizens to practice their faith, the government should allow one place of worship to be built within each defined area or range. Each place of worship should also be equipped with clergy who have been officially recognized and certified by the government, in accordance with clear-cut rules and regulations. This will help to avert the proliferation of home-based and underground places of worship that have sprung up in response to draconian restrictions on the ordinary religious needs of citizens. In establishing such a system, it would not hurt to publicize the fact that some elements of the system were adopted from abroad (from a secular country such as Turkey, for example) in order to defuse opposition.
  1. Establish a system of religious training and certification for clergy members. There are some religious professionals who, despite their lack of certification or authority, still manage to attract adherents who believe them to possess religious wisdom. Professional clergy must complete systematic training and earn some official certification (for example, from the Islamic Association of China). In addition to systematic training in religious knowledge and scholarship, clergy should also possess some knowledge of the modern social sciences, to nurture a mindset that is open, progressive, and attuned to the needs of modern society. In particular, studying how religion and modern society interact and adapt in other countries and learning from their experiences will help provide clergy with a broader and more open-minded perspective.

Regarding the vocational and educational training of clergy, a long-range, well-organized system of religious training should be established in collaboration with top-tier institutions of religious learning in Xinjiang, nationwide and even overseas, in order to gradually train a core group of erudite and broad-minded clergy. In addition, allowing local institutions of religious learning such as the Xinjiang Islamic Institute to strengthen communication and ties with other institutions of religious learning at home and abroad will bolster the quality of local religious scholarship.

  1. To satisfy public demand for religious texts, allow the legal importation and publication of overseas editions of contemporary religious texts. Uighur-language versions of religious texts are nearly impossible to find in Xinjiang today; the copies that do circulate underground are generally smuggled in from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But in fact, Turkey, Malaysia and other successful secular Islamic nations have long been compiling and codifying contemporary editions of religious texts that have not only met the religious needs of their citizens, but also helped to usher in more open and modern societal values. If the government were to organize the translation and publication of these religious texts from abroad, it would satisfy the religious needs of the local community, impede the underground market for extremist religious publications, and promote the spread of moderate, open and inclusive religious values.
  1. Improve research and investment in religion. China is a country with a vast Muslim population, but Chinese religious scholarship that meets modern academic standards of quality, particularly scholarship pertaining to Islam, is virtually nonexistent. China should have prestigious Islamic Institutes, as well as other respected institutions dedicated to the study of Islam. The government should also encourage non-Muslim scholars to participate in religious research and scholarship that satisfies the needs of religious believers and religious scholarship, and meets the demands of social development and transformation. Lastly, increasing research and investment in religion will serve to amplify China’s voice in the Islamic world and allow it to play a more active role.
  1. Leverage the influence of religion in traditional society to positive effect. For communities steeped in religious tradition, the clergy are an irreplaceable and profoundly influential component of society. Particularly in the comparatively insular, economically underdeveloped, and culturally conservative rural communities of southern Xinjiang, the best ways to disseminate modern ideas and information are via the market and via religion.

Indeed, religious leaders have also been thinking about how to address the issue of social transformation. The government has nothing to lose by creating the conditions and opportunities for the clergy to join in this effort, allowing them to contribute their experience, intelligence, wisdom, and considerable social influence. Religious leaders and ordinary citizens alike do not want to see a society plagued by unrest, chaos or hatred. Religion is the pursuit of virtue, after all, and religious leaders are cautious and conservative by nature. Instead of their voices being suppressed, they should be allowed to take their rightful place in the public discourse, so that they may use their own language to offer comfort and consolation to their community.

  1. Make policy regarding the Hajj [the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca] more transparent and open. It would be fair to call the Hajj policy one of the greatest failures of religious policy in Xinjiang. Simply put, the Hajj is something that all devout Muslims aspire to; completing the pilgrimage to Mecca imbues a person with a certain amount of social prestige upon their return, but it does not cause them to become extremist or fanatical. At present, there are stringent bureaucratic criteria for being allowed to go on the Hajj, but this bureaucratic process need not be so opaque. Every year, Saudi Arabia issues quotas for the number of pilgrims allowed from each country. In Xinjiang, only a lucky few meet the qualifications. The quota process could certainly be carried out in a much more open and transparent manner: for example, by publicizing China’s quota and explaining how this quota is allocated. As it stands, the quota system has bred serious bureaucratic corruption and has aroused intense feelings in ethnic minority communities.

 

I. Unemployment and II. Bilingual Education

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Related:

 

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