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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》


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》