Xi Jinping’s campaign of repression in Xinjiang is tinged with an urgency that only historical parallel can provide. The Soviet Union’s collapse haunts his brutal crackdown there. Xi and his advisors have long identified ethnic unrest and separatist forces at the fringes of Soviet empire as one impetus for the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Xi’s eyes, before his extreme intervention, similarities between Chinese and Soviet ethnic policy risked a disastrous splintering of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authority in the region.
Ever since the Soviet Union unceremoniously imploded and dissolved, China’s leaders have parsed the collapse for lessons to inform strategy and mistakes to avoid repeating. Over the course of a year of research, I have examined the powerful sway the Soviet analogy has had on Chinese leaders in the 30 years since. Tracking the Chinese Communist Party’s understanding of the lessons of this collapse has revealed the preoccupations of CCP leadership in crucial periods of crisis and change.
One finding struck me: Chinese narratives about the Soviet collapse have been marshalled to justify the escalating horrors of ethnic assimilation in Xinjiang. Xi’s reading of Soviet history will not dissuade him from cultural genocide in Xinjiang. It will only steel his belief in the urgency of the endeavor.
The terrain west of Xinjiang was once subject to Moscow’s authority. By the 1970s, Central Asia was causing serious trouble for the Soviet leadership. It was a hotbed for the kinds of separatism that would ultimately dismantle Soviet imperial rule there. For over a decade, Ma Rong, an influential academic at Peking University in Beijing, has been publishing articles that point to the “failures” of Soviet ethnic policy in Central Asia. He, and others like Hu Angang of Tsinghua University, believe that the Soviet Union’s inability to subordinate ethnic identity and stamp out local nationalities was the primary reason the federation dissolved.
This type of historical reasoning is now cited to encourage ethnic repression in Xinjiang. In one analysis published in 2019, Ma detailed the way lax ethnic policy triggered the Soviet Union’s downfall. That nation’s biggest governance mistake stemmed from the legal right it afforded to its so-called “autonomous republics” to leave the Soviet Union and form independent nations. In good times, “when [Soviet] state power was stable and the system highly centralized,” Ma said, none of the Soviet Union’s autonomous republics “really tried hard to realize this ‘right to independence.’” However, when Soviet control weakened during the Gorbachev era and “the country’s political system began to waver,” some of these republics “sought to establish independent countries on the basis of the constitution’s ‘right to leave.”
Chinese law nominally grants its autonomous regions, like Xinjiang, a legal “right to leave,” similar in statute to the one that doomed the Soviet Union. Could this right to leave – articulated in a clause within China’s Ethnic Regional Autonomy Law – become “the legal justification through which ethnic autonomous areas could openly challenge the authority of the central government?” Ma wondered. “This is how the Soviet Union, formerly a ‘superpower,’ fell apart.” Without harsher steps to suppress ethnic nationalism, “minority group identity” will be “strengthened and politicized,” instead of cohering around Chinese identity. This would be a perilous development, bound to encourage separatism, according to Ma.
In a series of speeches delivered in 2014 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, Xi explicitly gestured to the Soviet Union’s collapse to explain his overhaul of Chinese ethnic policy. Although Chinese state media have sometimes alluded to the existence of these speeches, they have never officially been released. Instead, they were leaked to reporters at the New York Times, who published their contents in 2019.
These speeches reveal the degree to which Xi conceptualizes China’s greatest threats through the lens of the Soviet collapse and show how closely Xi has hewed to Ma Rong’s analysis. The Soviet collapse is a long-lasting obsession of Xi’s. While head of the Central Party School 10 years ago, he commissioned a study of the fall of the Soviet Union.
In one speech in Urumqi, Xi referenced the Soviet Union’s dissolution to reinforce his claim that economic investment in Xinjiang would not be enough to prevent the forces of ethnic separatism. The Baltic republics were some of the richest in the Soviet Union, but they were among the first to leave the federation when the Soviet Union fell, Xi pointed out. Yugoslavia, which was also relatively wealthy, did not survive the forces of separatism either. “We say that development is the top priority and the basis for achieving lasting security, and that’s right, but it would be wrong to believe that with development every problem solves itself,” Xi told assembled cadres.
Rising incomes would not be enough to stop Uyghur unrest. “In recent years, Xinjiang has grown very quickly and the standard of living has consistently risen, but even so, ethnic separatism and terrorist violence have still been on the rise. This goes to show that economic development does not automatically bring lasting order and security,” Xi added.
So, instead of traditional methods of taming ethnic unrest in Xinjiang – like economic or infrastructure investment – the experience of the Soviet Communist Party suggested that an ideological propaganda campaign, not an economic investment push, would be required. This calculation undergirds the shocking reeducation and mass internment efforts underway in Xinjiang today.
The violence in Xinjiang could have dangerous implications for the rest of China, Xi has also insisted. Without serious measures to prevent further unrest, “social stability will suffer shocks, the general unity of people of every ethnicity will be damaged, and the broad outlook for reform, development and stability will be affected.”
China does not study the possibility of its own collapse and dissolution – except by proxy. China’s leaders know how separatism plagued their communist neighbor to the north. The centrality of Soviet parallels in Chinese political decision-making today provides compelling evidence of the existential stakes of Xi’s project of repression in Xinjiang. To Xi Jinping and his advisors, the horrific crackdown in Xinjiang is an essential feature of regime survival.