On July 26, 2018, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China held a hearing on the human rights crisis in Xinjiang. It exposed how the Uyghurs, as well as other primarily Muslim ethnic minorities in China, have been subjected to a range of measures ranging from “arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture” to state-of-art pervasive surveillance in a panoptical fashion. Notably, the report also mentions the so-called “political re-education” centers, which reportedly hold up between 500,000 to 1 million people.
In China’s view, securitization can be seen as a strategy to crack down on the “three evils” – religious extremism, separatism, and terrorism. Since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “peacefully liberated” Xinjiang in 1949, incorporating Xinjiang into the People’s Republic of China, Beijing has sought to bind the region closer to the Chinese nation-state. Strategically and economically, Xinjiang features heavily in China’s global expansionist agenda. This is evidenced by its Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to revitalize the ancient Silk Road, and its construction of energy and trade routes through Xinjiang.
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Fundamentally, for Beijing, the idea of a stable Xinjiang is deeply rooted in the broader domestic narrative encapsulated in Deng Xiaoping’s idea that “stability overrides everything” (稳定压倒一切). The crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Protests reinforced the point that weiwen, or stability maintenance, was of utmost importance. This guiding concept was further entrenched after the Party-state learned the lessons of Soviet Union’s collapse and, later, the Falungong threat. But in the unique political context of China, how does the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) utilize the stability discourse to legitimate its actions against the Uyghurs, while at the same time reinforcing the CCP’s legitimacy?
Apart from the extensive development of the weiwen apparatus, the stability of Xinjiang is also tied to the delicate balance between the ability of the state to maintain stability, and Han (the majority ethnic group) perceptions of the legitimacy of their leaders in power. As an illustration of this, following the 2009 Urumqi riots, there was widespread Han discontent that Wang Lequan, then the Xinjiang Party secretary, had failed to prevent the outbreak of riots. Wang was subsequently removed from his post. Wang had based his career as Xinjiang’s Party secretary on the notion of stability and was known for ruling with an iron fist.
Wang was succeeded by Zhang Chunxian in 2010, who proceeded to undertake a more reformist and personable agenda to change the situation in Xinjiang. However, violence continued to persist, with attacks like the 2013 Tiananmen vehicle suicide attack, the stabbing attack in 2014 at a railway station in Kunming, and the attacks at the Urumqi market in that same year. Since taking over the role in 2016, Chen Quanguo, former Party secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), has been noted for his strongman policies, which include the implementation of state-of-art surveillance police stations, convenience police stations, and increased religious and cultural controls. This is said to be in line with Xi Jinping’s call to implement a “Great Wall of Steel” around Xinjiang.
Maintaining Stability Through Pressure
The use of stability as a marker in Xinjiang has started to raise questions about the counterproductive effects of maintaining stability at all costs. Beijing’s obsession with stability maintenance in Xinjiang has been criticized as being incommensurate with the actual links between Uyghur separatists and international terrorist groups, raising questions about the capabilities of Uyghur separatists. Indeed, Beijing’s discursive turn was most pronounced following the Global War on Terror, which saw Beijing’s post-2001 reframing of the Uyghur threat from Uyghur separatism to Uyghur terrorism. Beijing’s efforts have been, in part, aided by the strategic discourse after 9/11 which manifested in the fear and perception of Muslim political mobilization by ethno-nationalist separatist groups all over the world.
With regards to Uyghur political activism worldwide, China has worked to suppress their calls for an East Turkestan Republic. At present, the main advocacy group, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), is based in Munich, Germany and represented by some 30 members who are based in countries in Europe, Central Asia, and North America. Since its establishment in 2004, the World Uyghur Congress has been advocating for a peaceful settlement with Beijing. Apart from the WUC, there are also similar organizations campaigning for Uyghur rights, such as the Uyghur Human Rights Project, International Uyghur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation, and the Uyghur American Association.
Due to the disparate, localized, and disconnected nature of Uyghur activism within the online domain, Uyghurs have thus far not generated enough momentum to challenge the Chinese regime. Nonetheless, China’s approach to these transnational Uyghur activists – framing any secessionist attempts in Xinjiang as challenges to Chinese nationalism, blocking certain internet content domestically, and linking nearly all Uyghur movements with secessionist attempts – reflects the importance it places on any external ripples that might impact upon China’s own internal stability.
The Partnership of Stability
It is possible that Beijing’s willingness to sacrifice its human rights reputation for the sake of ensuring stability along its frontiers has less to do with the Uyghurs than it has to do with the Han population. In this case, it is the Han Chinese that are the audience of the securitization. This symbiosis, or as Thomas Cliff observed, the “partnership of stability,” however, also means that Han Chinese are reified as emblems of the state and rendered complicit in the government’s securitization process.
What this seems to suggest is that Uyghur ethno-nationalist separatism will continually be defined in opposition to the identity of the Han Chinese, who are a national majority, and the tensions inherent in having members of the national majority residing in a secessionist region. Unsurprisingly, Han Chinese have increasingly become targets of attacks in recent Uyghur-related violence, including an attack on Han Chinese dam workers on May 13, 2013, on the Qaraqash River in Hotan (Hetian) prefecture’s Qaraqash (Moyu) county. The Han Chinese are likely to be further protected by the state as a result of these violent attacks, which further perpetuates the distrust toward Uyghurs and creates a cycle of further alienation and marginalization amongst the Uyghur population.
A number of factors have played a role in instigating Uyghur violence – wealth differentials between ethnic groups, coercive state practices, Islamic fundamentalism, and the fall of the Soviet Union. Considering how the large-scale immigration of Han Chinese over the years has intermingled with these factors and reinforced them, there is a need for closer examination of this partnership between the state and the dominant Han ethnic group, particularly with respect to its implications for Uyghur separatism and Uyghur-related violence.
Stefanie Kam is a Ph.D. student at the National Security College, Australian National University.