How China’s Securitisation of Xinjiang Reflects the Impossibility of a Unified China
Xinjiang Province has been a part of China for over a century now. First named Xinjiang in the Qing Dynasty, it continued to remain under Chinese rule after the Republic of China took over in 1912. Today, it is one of the People’s Republic of China’s five autonomous regions, along with Tibet, Guangxi, Inner Mongolia and Ningxia. Choice of the word autonomous has always been problematic in this debate (the Chinese term is zizhi, literally translating to self-governance) as it’s quite the misnomer.
The so-called autonomous regions of China all have large ethnic minority populations: Tibetans, Mongols, Turkic Muslims, Zhuang, Miao, and so on. Chiefly, it is because of these people that the above-mentioned zizhi qu, or autonomous regions, are self-governing. Xinjiang, for example, is over 45% Uighur and around 39% Han, a number which is rising quickly. For context, Beijing is over 95% Han. These ethnic minorities, though astronomically dwarfed by Han Chinese, have been a constant source of anxiety for China’s Communist rulership.
Numerous thinkers have approached the ethnic minority policy question in China from different angles. Tsering Topgyal, for example, has made immense contributions to the literature on the Tibetan situation. Here, I will focus only on Xinjiang.
Hegemony is a word applied to various circumstances in the Western oecumene, for instance, heterosexist hegemony or white male hegemony. The concept is liberally applied when discussing Asia, especially China, a country which is not widely known to be as ethnically diverse as it is. And yet, this word is an apt descriptor for much of contemporary Chinese history.
The Hans account for around 91% of China’s population. The UK is around 87% ‘white or white British’, a statistic that includes millions of white Europeans and Americans. With that in mind, you should have a clearer impression now of how dominant the Han Chinese are. Population demographics don’t automatically equate to hegemony, but the driving force behind modern China’s ascent to international power, the Chinese Communist Party, reifies the hegemonic model.
The CCP therefore relies on a united China. That was, after all, how they took power from the Nationalists. Mao Zedong was a staunch believer in the power of the lao bai xing (ordinary folk), and how revolution had the power to drastically alter the people’s conscience. Unity arrived in the form of class unity, but now, class is not so easily defined in China. Most of the Han-dominated provinces have burgeoning numbers of middle-class citizens, while less than 10% of Xinjiang is even inhabitable land. Understandably, there are less opportunities for economic prosperity in the region. The majority of Uighurs are therefore deprived of the socioeconomic mobility attainable in metropolises like Shanghai and Shenzhen.
So how might a Beijing-educated CCP official reach a young Muslim in Xinjiang, whose livelihood revolves around subsistence farming and pastoral care? A shared love for China? In the past, there certainly may have been a seductive pull to the CCP. But the image of the rebel guerrillas combatting both the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist force has long ebbed. It has no hold over Uighurs.
Uighurs don’t see saviours when they see Hans, but subjugators. They don’t want to be assimilated, and they don’t want their identities to be eclipsed by promises of false unity. But the CCP is not a machine designed to be flexible. It may recognise 55 ethnic minorities, but it has never set out to meet all of their demands. There are a few ways to for the CCP to reach this Muslim majority population, thus, the hegemonic model encounters a fundamental problem. The CCP’s answer? Securitisation.
Securitisation is a two-pronged phenomenon. Firstly, it refers to the way a problem (to be precise, a security threat) is constructed in the national imaginary. What comes next is the way that security issue is handled. In the case of Xinjiang, my belief is that forced assimilation is the answer to the alleged security threat.
Assimilation has taken a sinister turn in Xinjiang province. The digitised surveillance of Uighur people has been well-documented internationally. A litany of measures to curb Islamic cultural expression, such as beard bans, veil bans, and fasting during the Ramadan are all in effect in Xinjiang today, and those caught subverting the public order have little chance of evading the watchful eye of the party-state. Moreover, the state has determined that the practice of Islam in Xinjiang is a threat to the sovereignty of the Chinese nation. Islamic culture, which is equally inseparable from Uighur identity as Buddhism is from Tibetan people, is being diluted to the point where the incontrovertibility of Han Chinese culture is becoming absolute for Uighur people.
You may be wondering why an autonomous region’s titular ethnic minority’s culture is being diluted at all. A brief history lesson. After Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up in the 1980s, the profound message of a bloodline of peasants lost traction. The PRC’s iconoclastic adolescence was appeased by the same thing that the West had been preaching for decades: capitalism. As a corollary, prosperity and the economic boom of China’s rich coastal regions accelerated the anaemia in the West, i.e., Xinjiang. State-sponsored intra-provincial migration has been couched as the remedy to this, but in reality, it only exacerbates an already dire situation.
Migration of Han Chinese en masse to Xinjiang has evened out provincial demographics, and played a decisive role in clogging the channels for career prospects relied upon by the local Turkic population. Furthermore, the Han migrants amplify the notion of a dangerous and hostile Uighur population in need of tempering. The more Hans in the region, the more ‘good eggs’ to influence the wily Uighurs. A poor solution.
Another example of an inadequate solution: the division of Xinjiang into thirteen sub-autonomies. China has implemented this allegedly in order to promote diverse leadership in the region. However, the policy leaves Xinjiang fragmented and disproportionately representative of its constituent minorities. For instance, Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture in the southeast of Xinjiang is only around 5% Mongol, yet 33% Uighur. This allows greater political representation for Mongols in the region compared to Uighurs. Oppression of Uighurs is ingrained in the political infrastructure.
The fear that Uighurs desire independence is at the root of this repression. This isn’t new either. As early as 1985, Xinjiang’s Family Planning apparatus limited the amount of babies Uighur families could have, amid more sinister reports of racial genocide.
Treating Xinjiang as a security issue in this way is underpinned by the belief that China must be cohesive in its unity for it to achieve its development goals. Xinjiang remains the necessary stepping stone into the rich lands of Central Asia, and thus, invaluable to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. In this imagined future China, there is no room for others; this is about cultural erasure of anything which contests Han supremacy. The veil bans, beard bans, refusal of minors to enter mosques, fasting ban, crackdowns on private Quran lessons all point to the insecurity of China’s Han leaders, and their fear of divergent belief systems.
Whilst they may see it as the historical succession to their past acculturation of barbarian neighbours, today, evidence for this is scant. Instead, it elucidates the same insecurity witnessed in Taiwan and Hong Kong, that there is not one China, and not one Chinese people. The unification of this people is imaginary, and the continued repression of China’s kaleidoscopic others only attests to a chimeric national unity.