Empire and the Rising Violence in Xinjiang

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Empire and the Rising Violence in Xinjiang

The upsurge in violence in China’s west is following a historical pattern.

Empire and the Rising Violence in Xinjiang
Credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is failing to deliver on its promises to quell violence in Xinjiang. On July 28, bloody clashes between Uyghur protestors and para-military personnel in Yäkän (Ch. Shache) left at least 96 dead; leaders of Uyghur exile communities put the death toll at 2,000. Three days later, Jümä Tahir, the government-appointed imam at Kashgar’s Id Kah Mosque, was assassinated after morning prayers. These incidents come in the wake of a string terrorist attacks carried out at a morning market in Ürümqi, train stations in Ürümqi and Kunming, and in Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square.

Amid this uptick in violence, Western analysts have scurried for answers. Most have tied the recent violence to policies that infringe on the daily lives of Uyghurs, especially religious practice. Certainly, much attention has been placed on CCP attempts to ban veils and long beards. Officials in Karamay have even temporarily banned women in veils, men with long beards, and individuals in clothing with the star and crescent image from riding public buses. These increasingly repressive policies, analysts have claimed, are responsible for radicalizing some Uyghurs.

Although many Uyghurs are undoubtedly infuriated by these restrictions, I am inclined to agree with Jacob Zenn of the Jamestown Foundation: They do not likely compel people to kill. In fact as early as 2006, I was told by several Uyghurs that veils and long beards were banned in public, students were required to eat during Ramadan (if the academic year and Ramadan overlap), and Party officials were forbidden from entering mosques. In other words, sweeping policies aimed at curbing religious practice were set in motion long ago, not to mention that similar policies banning strict veiling in France have not been met by violent opposition.

How, then, can we explain the escalation in violence? The answer may be found in a critical examination of Beijing’s colonial relationship with its far-western region.

To help us reconsider Beijing’s rule in Xinjiang and the recent unrest, we turn to an unlikely source: Charles Maier’s Among Empires. In his attempt to challenge our understanding of U.S. hegemony in global affairs, the Harvard University professor provides a blueprint for empire that considers recurring processes and structures of historical examples. The basics of Maier’s model may be used as an instructive theoretical lens for bringing clarity to the underlying sources of Uyghur unrest.

1. Empires are products of territorial conquests

Despite the narrative that has been propagated in earnest by the CCP, the historical evidence is overwhelming: the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region only became an “inalienable” part of China in 1949. From 1865-1949, control of the region bounced between indigenous Turkic elites, Qing generals, and Hui warlords who acted on behalf of the Nationalist government. Prior to the nineteenth century, “Xinjiang” did not exist as a unitary administrative region: at various times, parts of Xinjiang (which is three times the size of France) were controlled by Mongol Khans, Sufi Khojas; and, yes, parts were also protectorates of the Middle Kingdom.

Referring to 1949, many of my Uyghur friends purposely substituted for the official term “liberation,” which is azadliq in the Uyghur vernacular, with the near-homophone azabliq – which means “suffering.” Memories are hard to erase. Uyghurs are well aware that in the not-so-distant past, they were their own masters.

2. Indigenous elites in the periphery are subordinate to leaders in the metropole

A hallmark of empires is a clear power imbalance between the center or metropole (i.e., the rulers) and the periphery (i.e., the ruled). In other words, indigenous (i.e., ethnic minority) elite in the periphery are always subordinate to those leaders representing the majority group. Despite its official designation as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Uyghurs have little influence on policy in the region. The most important measures are drafted behind the heavily guarded doors of the CCP’s Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing. In Xinjiang itself, Han Chinese disproportionately occupy high-level government positions, a situation that others have already noted. Moreover, the highest office, Party Secretary currently held by Zhang Chunxian, has been almost exclusively reserved for Han Chinese while the largely symbolic post of chairman of Xinjiang, currently Nur Bekri, has been set aside for Uyghurs.

3. Languages are arranged hierarchically

The CCP has gradually but unmistakably removed the Uyghur language from the curriculum in Xinjiang’s schools. In 1982 policymakers extended formal instruction of Mandarin in schools by three years. A decade later, “experimental bilingual classes” were introduced in the region wherein Mandarin is used for all math and science courses. In 2004, two years after Xinjiang University discontinued its long-standing practice of conducting courses in Uyghur, cities throughout the region opened Mandarin-only schools. Although Uyghurs are expected to master Mandarin, few Han in Xinjiang, even government workers, ever seriously embark upon Uyghur language studies.

4. Legal equality is favored over social equality

Unquestionably, the Constitution of the PRC and the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy protect the interests of all ethnic minorities in China – Uyghurs included. There are provisions for religious freedom, the development and use of minority languages, as well as protection against discrimination. In reality, however, these laws are rarely carried out as they have been drafted. Beyond what we have already covered, young Uyghurs complain about widespread discrimination by (Han) employers. Although Xinjiang’s GDP is booming, few Uyghurs are reaping the benefits. 

5. Remote violence is an inevitable, nay essential, part of the process  

As a civilizing empire seeks to eradicate “barbaric” practices while it promotes a dominant culture, it will surely collide with resisters. We are witnessing this scenario playing out right now. But the violent response by this small faction of radical Uyghurs may have unintended consequences: the attacks are stirring up Chinese nationalism. Backed by the unwavering popular support of China’s Han masses, the CCP will unlikely change its current course in Xinjiang. This stubbornness will likely perpetuate the violence. As Maier has astutely remarked, “the task for the policy maker and the citizen is to decide how much blood can be justified in any given aspiration, even one that seems lofty.” But he cautions that “hard power alone ultimately provokes debilitating revolt.”

6. Finally, empires eventually crumble

Of course, China is far from this point; in fact, the country (and its leaders) may be enjoying more power and prosperity than ever before. Still, eventually empires overextend, tire, and then fail. While China’s leaders struggle to put a lid on internal strife in Xinjiang in Tibet, they are extending their reach in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

Surely the CCP has time to rectify its mismanagement of the violence (and its aftermath) in Xinjiang and avert disaster. To be clear, this exposition is not meant to justify the recent violence (I wholeheartedly condemn the killings); it is meant to show that the extreme measures that some Uyghurs are resorting to cannot be explained by repressive policies (or unverified terrorist networks). Rather their response follows a familiar, almost predictable, pattern of colonial relationships.

If the CCP hopes to avoid the fate of past empires, it should reconsider its relationship with the “periphery.”