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China’s ‘Protracted War’ in Xinjiang

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China Power

China’s ‘Protracted War’ in Xinjiang

One of China’s top leaders preaches stability and ethnic unity in Xinjiang, even as news of more violence emerges.

China’s ‘Protracted War’ in Xinjiang

Armed police in Urumqi in 2009.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Ccyber5

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China’s northeast. Beijing has been taking every opportunity to celebrate the anniversary by calling to attention to advances in Xinjiang’s prosperity, even while violence and ethnic tensions continue to plague the region.

October 1, China’s National Day, was also the anniversary proper of the XUAR. Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, was in Xinjiang to mark the occasion. Yu spent the week of September 25 – October 1 in Xinjiang promoting “stability and unity” in the region.

On Sunday, he visited Kashgar Prefecture, in western Xinjiang, which has been the site of intermittent violence for years. According to Xinhua, Yu “praised local residents for their efforts in fighting terrorism and urged them to cherish stability and unity.” He said that locals were living on the “front-line of terror,” and said they must be ready to fight a “protracted war” to ensure stability.

On Wednesday, Yu turned his focus to the role of China’s military – both the Xinjiang Military Area Command and the para-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) — in safeguarding stability and fighting terrorism. He praised both groups “for their contribution to Xinjiang’s stability and social development,” Xinhua said, while singling out the XPCC for its role in improving “communications between people of various ethnic groups.”

Those sentiments – an emphasis on stability and security – were the major themes at Yu’s big speech on October 1 as well. The top priority for Xinjiang is “long-term stability and security,” with a focus on counterterrorism, Xinhua said, citing Yu’s remarks. A series of terrorist attacks across China in 2013 and 2014 upped the emphasis on fighting domestic terrorism, though critics says China’s crackdown has led to across-the-board repression of Uyghurs.

“The three forces (separatism, terrorism and extremism) are the biggest threats for Xinjiang and the common enemies for people of all ethnic groups. We must clench our fists tight and take the initiative to crack down on violence and terror activities strictly and lawfully and fight the three forces,” Yu said in his speech.

Yu also encouraged ethnic unity. Much of the violence in Xinjiang is tinged with ethnic tensions, as the native Uyghur population often complains of being marginalized by immigrants from China’s Han majority ethnic group. Tensions are exacerbated by religious differences; many Uyghurs are Muslim, and have complained over restrictions on their religious practices, from growing beards to fasting during Ramadan. In a nod to those religious tensions, Yu spoke of the need to “actively guide religions to adapt to a socialist society.”

But Yu also promised that the government would “balance security efforts with the need for economic development.” Citing progress (for example, Yu said the region’s GDP is 115 times what it was 60 years ago), Yu praised the Communist Party of China for the region’s advances.

“The success achieved by Xinjiang over the 60 years has proven that only by firmly sticking to the leadership of the CPC, the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and the regional autonomy system can we do the region good,” he said.

Yu also painted a glowing picture of Xinjiang’s future as a hub on the Silk Road Economic Belt, which China envisions will connect itself with Central Asia and beyond. Indeed, the “Belt and Road” plan is in part designed specifically to bring stability to China’s northwest. Beijing believes more economic development in Xinjiang will solve its stability woes.

Yet even as Yu began his week-long tour of Xinjiang, reports emerged of another major violent incident in the region: Radio Free Asia just reported that a racially-tinged attack on a coal mine in Aksu on September 18 left 50 dead. The victims were mostly Han; police said the attackers, armed with knives, were separatists. Five of those killed where police officers, RFA reported.

There was a tragic irony in RFA’s report coming out even while Yu praised stability, security, and ethnic unity in Xinjiang. There are serious tensions in the region, and Beijing still has not figured out how to wage what Yu called the “long-term, complicated and fierce” fight against separatism without alienating large portions of the Uyghur population. It’s a vicious cycle of repression, radicalization, violence, and more repression – and so far, there’s been no sign that Party leadership has any new ideas on breaking that deadly pattern.