Xi Jinping Is Not Stalin
How a Lazy Historical Analogy Derailed Washington’s China Strategy
Last October, a sport-utility vehicle sped onto a crowded Beijing sidewalk and exploded at the foot of Tiananmen gate, killing five people and injuring nearly 40 others. In the aftermath of the attack, the Chinese government declared the explosion an act of terrorism committed by Islamic jihadists from western China. Meanwhile, the foreign media turned the spotlight on the home province of the attackers -- China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region -- where some nine million Turkic-speaking Muslims, known as Uighurs, have lived under the control of the Chinese Communist Party since 1950. This arrangement has not been altogether peaceful; just this week, for example, local police gunned down six people in the city of Xinhe.
In the aftermath of such violence, newspapers have been quick to publish stories about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant Uighur separatist group, and Beijing’s recent crackdown on Uighur dissidents. Scores of reporters have questioned whether ethnic nationalism or religious extremism was to blame for the bloodshed in Tiananmen. But the media has largely overlooked a more fundamental issue: How Beijing’s drive to develop the region economically -- in the face of an already resentful and restless minority -- has failed to create stability there.
Yet the central government and the Uighurs have not been the only players in the story of Xinjiang’s recent economic and social development. During Zhang Chunxian’s tenure as Xinjiang’s party chief, which began in 2010, the relationship between the regional government and Han immigrants has been just as important. It is the latter group’s support for Beijing’s economic plans that has made Xinjiang at once more lucrative and more restive.
The Uighurs of Xinjiang have a long history of resisting Chinese rule. During the twentieth century, two independent, Uighur-dominated governments -- the Turkic-Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan (1933–34) and the East Turkestan Republic (1944–49) -- controlled various parts of the region. And in earlier times, dozens of other regimes laid claim to other areas. For many Uighurs, memories of these periods remain potent. Add to this the more recent influx of Han immigrants (the Han population has grown from 220,000 in 1949 to 8.4 million in 2010), the fear of Han cultural imperialism, and the rise of jihadist ideologies in Central Asia, and it becomes clear that Beijing has good reason to fear Uighur unrest.
Wang Lequan, who headed the region from 1994 to 2010, implemented heavy-handed policies meant to deter Uighur dissent. But tensions between Han and Uighur communities flared in July 2009, resulting in days of riots and ethnic violence committed by both groups in Urumqi, the regional capital. After that, Wang’s popularity with local Han plummeted. He had failed to maintain stability or provide security, and he paid the political price; in 2010, under pressure from the Han immigrant community, the central government removed him.
When Zhang was appointed party chief of Xinjiang in 2010, many China watchers hoped that he would bring about a new era for the troubled region. At the time, he was already a rising star in the Communist Party. Zhang had served as party chief of Hunan since 2006, cultivating a reputation as an effective economic manager and an outspoken champion of reform. During his tenure, Hunan ranked among the top ten Chinese provinces in terms of GDP growth and, in 2009, received more foreign direct investment than any other region.
Moreover, most Chinese considered Zhang one of the country’s most media-savvy politicians -- a skill some credit to his wife, Li Xiuping, a well-known news anchor for China’s state-run television channel. His press conferences during National People’s Congress meetings are still among the most popular because he welcomes sensitive questions. He has also proclaimed a willingness to disclose all his personal and family-owned assets to the public -- a symbolic yet significant gesture in a political climate thick with anticorruption sentiments.
In some ways, Zhang’s installation in Xinjiang has been a success. The Chinese media, for one, have contrasted Wang’s “pure iron-fisted rule” with Zhang’s “flexible iron-fisted rule.” Following the 2009 riots, for example, Wang restricted Internet access in Xinjiang for ten months. Zhang’s first significant act as party secretary was to bring the province back online.
For Uighurs and human rights activists, Zhang put forward a number of encouraging reforms. He enacted a pollution-control system, supplied natural gas to Uighur households, overhauled the tax regime on natural resources, and campaigned against corruption. These policies sought to counter Uighur accusations of Chinese extractive colonialism. Along the way, local and national media outlets were quick to buy into Zhang’s populism, which he buttressed with carefully staged visits to Uighur communities and farming households. On the second anniversary of the 2009 riots, Zhang even appeared at a food court in Urumqi, handing out kebabs and beer to promote investment in Xinjiang.
But Zhang’s policies have failed to address the major sources of Uighur discontent. Many Uighurs still consider their language and religion to be under attack. Under Zhang, the regional government has set a minimum age for attending mosque, prohibited Arabic language instruction, and made it difficult for Uighurs to fast during Ramadan, especially in schools. Bilingual education has not only failed to reverse Uighur disadvantages in the job market, but also convinced many Uighurs that the government is attempting to phase out their language. Meanwhile, most of the wealth generated by Zhang’s policies has gone to the Han, and the Uighurs still disproportionately occupy the lower rungs of the economic ladder. And Uighur violence has continued. Last April, a dispute outside of Kashgar, prompted by local officials who had been pressuring Uighur men to shave their beards and women to take off their veils, led to violent clashes that left 25 dead. Two months later, Uighur protesters in Lukqun, a township in Turpan Prefecture, attacked a police station, government offices, and a construction site, resulting in 35 deaths.
Focusing on Uighur dissident activity, however, obfuscates the deeply strained relationship between Han immigrants and the regional authorities. Just as there is a Uighur problem, there is also, in a political sense, a Han problem. The Xinjiang government must be responsive to its Han constituency, which Beijing considers a crucial source of stability -- a means of bringing investment, educated labor, and droves of loyal citizens to the troubled and resource-rich region. From the central government’s perspective, its investment in Xinjiang has paid off: From 2004 to 2009, Xinjiang’s GDP doubled, and it currently grows by about 11 percent annually. The region’s energy resources are substantial, comprising the largest stores of oil, natural gas, and coal in China. Xinjiang alone accounts for up to 40 percent of China’s coal reserves. In return for moving to Xinjiang, Han migrants expect security, subsidies, and other forms of preferential treatment from the state. A failure to deliver on such benefits is a sure way to tempt Han discontent.
Ironically, even after years under Zhang’s rule, many Han in Xinjiang still feel that the government has ignored their needs. State policies that favor Uighurs in the realms of family planning and higher education have increased friction between the Han and Uighur communities. The one-child policy (in its revised form after the Third Plenum), for example, does not apply to Uighurs. And the standardized test scores of Uighur students are weighted as a kind of affirmative action.
Yet Beijing already gave Zhang and his policies the ultimate nod of approval in November 2012, when Zhang won a coveted a seat on China’s 18th Politburo. His hard-line policies in Xinjiang and reputation for transparency clearly proved popular among party leaders preoccupied with social unrest and corruption. The Zhang era never really brought about any fundamental policy reversals, then. For the most part, the politician acquiesced to the demands of the Han immigrant population, exchanging government benefits for supposed stability -- a bargain that already appears to be unsustainable.