Beijing will not lose control of Xinjiang in the scenarios described above, but there is a rising risk that it will have to devote far more manpower and funds to maintaining security and control – a long term “surge” that turns into yet another tax on the country’s economy. As the country’s economy levels off onto a lower growth trajectory, China is likely to increasingly face not just “guns versus butter” tradeoffs but also “guns versus guns” as internal security concerns compete with the externally focused military services for budgetary resources.
The increased instability in Xinjiang has truly national security implications. China has other restive border areas such as Tibet, less violent than Xinjiang but which still command significant attention and resources from the security services. This situation is likely to worsen when the Dalai Lama passes from the scene with no heir apparent. Most importantly, the trouble Beijing is having containing the actions of what amounts to probably a few thousand true Uyghur separatists who are actually willing to take up arms suggests that serious economic disruptions in coming months and years could trigger social disorder that even the current muscular repression apparatus could not contain. A number of foreseeable events – a severe debt or real estate crisis, say – could rapidly trigger a time of economic reckoning in China. Moreover, a complex multi-trillion dollar economy such as China’s holds meaningful potential to produce various types of economic “black swan” events that could prove at least as disruptive as the foreseeable ones.
If tens of thousands of security cameras, two million internet monitors, and large internal paramilitary forces cannot resolve and contain the problems in Xinjiang, how would they cope with potentially millions of angry citizens roiled by economic problems? A gaping socioeconomic divide helps fuel violence in Xinjiang and such gaps exist elsewhere in China as well, raising the specter of additional attacks throughout the country as unhappy groups without a real political voice turn to violence as an outlet for their grievances. Indeed, on November 6, multiple bombs in the coal-mining center of Taiyuan killed one person and injured at least eight. China may be in for a new trend of metastasizing violence that originates in the ethnic minority borderlands, but comes to affect Han interests around the country. If Beijing is forced to more tightly control people movements, vehicle movements, and access to basic dual-use goods such as nitrate fertilizers, the resultant “terrorism tax” would have profound effects on trade and economic activity.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
China’s leadership has proven smart and capable, but the current problems emanating from Xinjiang increasingly point to a future in which repression alone will not be enough. Beijing’s likely near-term solution will be to do everything it can to prop up growth, but the financial and policy measures required to do this simply raise the stakes down the road. Zhongnanhai faces an unenviable and complicated set of decisions as it grapples with rising domestic unrest.
Gabe Collins is the co-founder of China SignPost and a former commodity investment analyst and research fellow in the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].