Xinjiang in the Xi Era: Preliminary Remarks

Amb. Vijay Nambiar, Honorary Fellow, ICS, former Indian Ambassador to China,     and Chef de Cabinet to United Nations Secretary General

Image: Cover of Countering Internal Security Challenges in Xinjiang: Rise of Surveillance State?

For many scholars of history, the rule of Qing dynasty over Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang did not differ in principle from the European colonial penetration of Asia and Africa. Indeed, Manchu territorial expansion to the north, west and south of China proper was described, in magnitude, as one of the largest territorial expansions in 17th and 18th century world history.

Though the declared aim of the imperial rulers then was to “educate” the Uyghurs without changing their customs, religion, moral principles, food, clothing or language, the induction of Han administrators and the steady policy of population transfers encouraged during Qing times, led inexorably, by the end of the 19th century, to a consolidation of Manchu sovereignty and Xinjiang was turned into a province of China in 1884 bringing it under the Qing junxianzhi or Confucian-trained magistracy.

In the post-1911 (Xinhai revolution) period, Chinese leaders like Sun Yat-sen used the rhetoric of the unity of the “five peoples” [wuzu]—Manchu, Mongol, Han, Muslim, and Tibetan’ —to bring the territory under republican control. During the 1950s, under the PRC, quasi-military Han settlements called Production and Construction Corps were established in northern Xinjiang to exploit the agricultural and mineral resources and to populate the region. Han migration and settlement in Xinjiang continued over the decades and today the Han population in Xinjiang is over 40% as compared to 46% Uighurs.

Comprising one sixth of the country’s landmass, Xinjiang has abounded in natural resources, and provided China connectivity with Eurasia. While the region has faced stability challenges throughout its history, it was since the breakaway of the Central Asian republics from the USSR in 1992 that Beijing began, particularly, to see Xinjiang’s integration as a strategic and economic imperative for advancing its overall position in Central Asia.

For outsiders, the Xinjiang problem is a manifestation of identity politics, marked by the ethno-national resurgence of the Uyghur population.  This has stemmed from a prolonged history of interethnic tensions, discrimination and prejudice that have defined the policies of the Chinese state combined with other elements such as Han supremacism, the suppression of protest or dissent, as well as the repression of all forms of Islamic practice and local culture in the region. 

Within China, however, the troubles in Xinjiang are portrayed against the backdrop of the “three evil forces” (san gu shili) namely, religious extremism, ethnic separatism and terrorism, which have been the major source of internal security challenges in Xinjiang. The Chinese official media has persistently viewed Uyghur political activities through the single prism of their ethno-religious identity. Viewed as a “biological threat”, “a virus” in Chinese society that had to be eliminated, Uyghur identity was consistently projected in binary terms and its affiliation towards Islam was seen as a symptom of the “extremization” of the community and a threat to the national security of China. At the same time the Chinese state, its academics and media have constantly underlined the “sinister designs” of external terrorist organizations and the “anti-China” designs of some foreign countries.

While Hu Jintao’s focus was primarily economic development-oriented, his dictum being that functioning markets, water, electricity and heating were as much part of counter-insurgency operations as “police work and brute force,” with Xi Jinping’s accession to power, a novel approach to governance was adopted in Xinjiang in the light of what was called “new circumstances”. The new focus was firmly on advancing “social stability and permanent order” and the modernization of the Xinjiang governance system and capacity. This shift occurred primarily in the context of Xinjiang’s increased geopolitical importance in China’s neighborhood diplomacy in Central, South, and West Asia. The two main priorities of governance were to advance “ethnic unity” and promote “de-extremization”. Ethnic unity was defined as inter-ethnic relations based on parameters defined by the Party Centre. It stressed patriotism and the subordination of local identity to the larger national purpose determined by Beijing. “De-extremization” effectively meant the redefinition of all local religious and cultural practices from the viewpoint of national unity. It involved the regulation of Uyghur values, beliefs, and loyalties including adoption of dress, appearance and behavior as well as social campaigns, community events, and visual propaganda in public spaces in a manner that was instrumental to the consolidation of political stability. 

The author of Countering Internal Security Challenges in Xinjiang: Rise of Surveillance State? explains that two different trajectories were successively followed in Xinjiang by two senior party officials in the period immediately before and during the Xi Jinping era. Initially, under Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang’s official policy of fighting extremism, violent separatism, and terrorism was pursued with great nuance by delinking religion and ethnicity from extremist ideas. Zhang mingled with people from all walks of life and brought a balanced approach by emphasising improved conditions of the people’s livelihood and by scaling down of the rhetoric of the campaign against separatism and terrorism.

However, the violent attacks inside the region and other parts of China between 2013 and 2014, and especially during Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang in April 2014 changed all that.  In May 2014, Zhang Chunxian, himself in a People’s Daily article called for a “people’s war on terror” and for social stability, in which he declared that terrorists should be “chased down the streets like rats”.  This is hardly the kind of speech that would come from a moderate. In fact, though he was speaking of “terrorists”, his use of dehumanizing references is extremely revealing considering that around the world such references had invariably been used in instances where very grave crimes against humanity had subsequently taken place. Late in May 2014, the party held the famous Second Central Xinjiang Work Forum (XJWF-II) where all seven Politburo Standing Committee members attended and which signaled the new priority attached to Xinjiang by the leadership. 

With the replacement of Zhang Chunxian in August 2016 by a confirmed hardliner Chen Quanguo, it was clear that the central leadership had decided to abandon any kind of moderation in dealing with the troubles of this Muslim-dominated region. Under Chen’s leadership, counter-terrorism, stability maintenance and de-extremisation work were all integrated within a single social control system and surveillance mechanism in Xinjiang. Stern steps were also taken against all elements suspected of providing support to such forces or working against the interest of the state. A whole range of surveillance measures were adopted including physical, electronic, digital and biological surveillance, the setting up of extra-judicial detention camps as well as measures to crackdown on irregular groups mobilising any kind of local religious or cultural symbols and even targeting Uyghur pride.

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping also began to unveil his ambition of an Economic Belt linking China with the rest of Eurasia and Europe along with a Maritime Silk Road linking China through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean all the way to the West, Xinjiang was to become the very fulcrum of this ambitious initiative.  As the main gateway to Central and West Asian as well as European markets through the land, Xinjiang could emerge as a major growth centre in Western China. The plan was to develop the region into a major logistic centre under the Initiative with a railway network in Kashgar connecting eventually to South Asia.

Crucially underpinning such a grandiose vision for the region was the assumption that a secular culture could be nurtured in this region characterized by urbanization, consumerism, education and modern communication. Such a culture, it was assumed, would replace the outmoded religious and ethnic values of the local population of Xinjiang. The new phase of economic development and integration under the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) in Xinjiang was seen as an opportunity to raise the conditions of the local population to a higher level, while, at the same time, establishing the success of the Party’s national and social security policies in Xinjiang.

But things do not seem to be panning out in this manner.  Rather Xinjiang is increasingly becoming the flashpoint of political confrontation between China and the Western powers. On the one hand, a rising China is showing off its economic successes and rise as exemplifying a new model of leadership to the world, one characterised by what Professor Yan Xuetong calls “humane authority” or “Wangdao” (kingly way) of governance, in contradistinction to what he calls the “hegemonic authority” or “Badao” of the “liberal democracies” of the West. But this is belied by the ruthless Chinese policies of detention, forced labour, forced sterilization of women of the minority Uyghur community and Han majoritarian assimilitionism inside Xinjiang.

This has produced a major international backlash, arousing condemnation of China, with calls in the UN Human Rights Council and elsewhere for China to be more accountable, for it to formally adhere to the ILO Convention against Forced Labour and for punitive measures against it including cancellation of the recently concluded investment agreement with the EU, boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics etc.

China’s official response to such charges has, predictably, been to describe them as part of a “deliberate smear” campaign, a sign of anti-China bias and illustrative of the obsolete mentality of ideological confrontation of the Cold War.

Within Xinjiang, however, it is still unclear if the state’s growing determination to control Uyghur minds, to police Uyghur society, and to reorient popular Uyghur attitudes will succeed in bringing local sentiment closer toward Beijing. The present indications, at least are not very promising.

This blog piece is based on the opening remarks by Amb. Nambiar as Chair for ICS webinar on ‘Xinjiang in the Xi Era’  held  on 14 April, 2021.

China-North Korea Relations under Xi Jinping

Gunjan Singh, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

North Korea has regarded China as its most natural ally and supporter since the Korean War. The relationship had begun to show signs of strain after the continued nuclear tests by North Korea and it became increasingly difficult since Xi Jinping came to power. The last Chinese leader to visit North Korea was Hu Jintao in 2005. Even though China is the only country helping North Korea manage its domestic problems and economic difficulties, the relationship has started to show signs of strain. Beijing will not totally abandon Pyongyang or push it towards a total breakup as the influx of refugees is a major concern for China and for its border security and regional peace. However, the last few years have highlighted that China is ready to use its leverage to steer North Korea’s behaviour in a more acceptable direction.

There were reports that Xi Jinping may visit Pyongyang on September 9 for the 70th anniversary of the North Korea’s Foundation Day. Continue reading “China-North Korea Relations under Xi Jinping”

Tsai’s Cross-Straits Conundrum

Gunjan Singh, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

The rise of China to an economic and military power has had the most significant effect on its relationship with Taiwan. China has always been assertive about the use of One-China Principle in its dealings with Taiwan. However, the change of the political system in Taiwan from an authoritarian to a democratic system has further complicated this relationship. China was comfortable dealing with Taiwan until it was dominated by the single Kuomintang Party but the recent development of a vibrant multi-party democracy in Taiwan appears confusing to China. To face such a problematic issue when it comes to dealing with its own ‘getaway province’ is rather ironical. The oscillation between reunification, supporting Kuomintang, and a pro-independence Democratic People’s Party (DPP) government in Taipei has led to a very muddled policy in Beijing towards Taiwan.

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping there have been very strong assertions towards ‘not giving up’ even an inch of its territory (indicating towards Taiwan, which is currently under the DPP rule). The 19thParty Congress report provided some insights into the upcoming Chinese policies towards Taiwan under Xi Jinping. Continue reading “Tsai’s Cross-Straits Conundrum”

Wang Qishan: Xi Jinping’s Man Friday

Bhim B. Subba, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

On 17th March 2018 Wang Qishan got elected as the Vice-President of PRC succeeding Li Yuanchao. This is major political news. Wang, 69 who resigned from the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) at the 19th National Party Congress in October 2017 polled 2969 votes in the total of 2980 deputies and making a comeback indicates a boost to Xi Jinping’s power. At the sidelines of the lianghui- ‘two meetings,’ the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – Xi emphasised that ‘human talent’ as  one of the ‘Three Firsts’ in Xi Jinping Thought (人才是第一资源 rencai shi di yi ziyuan). He was almost certainly referring to bringing Wang Qishan as state vice-president, a ‘special talent’ which Xi did not want to waste and which can help him maintain his grip on party’s anti-corruption campaign and control over the 1.39 billion strong party-state.

Although Wang’s continuation as a PBSC member was much debated in the run-up to the party congress in fall 2017, his non-selection as a Central Committee member was not surprising. The party adhering to the ‘7-up-8-down’ principle (七上八下 qi shang ba xia) led to retirement of all  PBSC members above 68 years. But with Xi’s continuing emphasis on party building ( 党建设dang jianshe) and anti-corruption campaign (反腐败运动 fan fubai yundong), a trusted lieutenant like Wang Qishan became indispensable for Xi Jinping. Hence, what better than Wang becoming a ‘deputy’ occupying the state vice-president’s post, a ceremonial position. With Wang, the position becomes a power centre to reckon with in the coming future. It is also speculated that Wang is attending closed-door PBSC deliberations even after his retirement. Thus, getting elected as a National People’s Congress (NPC) deputy from Hunan and a member of the 190-member NPC Presidium, Wang’s elevation as Xi’s deputy was on the cards. Wang’s seating position in the NPC presidium was a clear message of Wang’s comeback. Recently, he was also among the select few Chinese leaders who met with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when the latter had a secret visit to Beijing.

 From ‘Worker-Peasant-Soldier Student’ to Financial Honcho!

Wang Qishan, a Shanxi native, who joined the CPC in 1983 was also a ‘sent down youth’ during the Cultural Revolution. A student of modern history, he did everything but history when he joined the Rural Development Research Center after becoming a party member. He was one of the early beneficiaries of the reform period’s ‘successors training program’ where scores of young elites were recruited in the party-state echelons. Marrying Yao Mingshan (姚明珊),daughter of Yao Yilin, a conservative vice-premier under Zhao Ziyang, Wang’s political career rose steadily as pioneer of rural and agriculture reforms.

Later, Wang headed prominent national banks including as a governor of China Construction Bank (1994-97) and vice-governor of People’s Bank of China (1993-94). He was also instrumental in establishing China International Capital Corp (CICC) China’s first investment bank and served in Zhu Rongji’s cabinet. Even in the Hu-Wen era, Wang’s financial acumen was employed in negotiating the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue post-2008 financial crisis. Given that they are old US hands, President Xi can also delegate to the Wang Qishan and Liu He combine in engaging with the US especially after Trump’s call for trade war with China.

China’s Crisis Man to Anti-Corruption Czar

Wang’s new position as deputy to Xi also shows how these two individuals’ careers led them to working together in Beijing. Wang Qishan was appointed as the vice-mayor of Beijing post-2004 SARS outbreak, when he successfully helped the state machinery to check the deadly epidemic then referred to as ‘China’s Chernobyl.’ However, it was in mid-2000s when Xi was state vice president and Wang Qishan was Beijing City Mayor in-charge of preparations for Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics that their friendship flourished and they shared an amicable working relationship. As PBSC members in 2012, their partnership led to the party rectification through anti-corruption campaign. Since then, Wang  has become Xi’s ‘fire brigade chief’ (救火队长 jiuhuo duizhang)   or ‘samasya nivarak.’

With a trusted confidant like Wang, Xi has successfully sidelined many of his political detractors. Investigations against Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua and Sun Zhengcai were more dealt within the ambit of anti-party activities than in the form of political persecution. From 2012-17, from the party-centre to local levels, and in state agencies, SOEs and in financial institutions, the anti-graft campaigns have been successful in snaring many ‘tigers’ and flies. In 2017, alone 160,000 officials were investigated for graft and party indiscipline.

The amendment of the PRC constitution to remove term limits for the President and Vice-President at the 13th National People’s Congress recently, reinforced both Xi and Wang as the No 1 and 2 in the power hierarchy. Wang’s comeback as Xi’s ‘trouble-shooter’ must be closely watched especially after Xi’s becoming a so-called people’s leader’ (人民领袖renmin lingxiu). One needs to ponder who the ‘crisis man’ represents — Xi’s Man Friday or the party-state’s? The larger question however, is of how Xi will address this ‘revolving door’ appointment of a once retired party colleague and the ramifications to Chinese elite politics in coming years.

 

 

 

Wang Huning: China’s Amit Shah

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

If Shah’s job is to help Modi do the electoral math and draw up strategies to win elections, it is Wang’s job to help create the narrative that legitimizes Xi Jinping in power in an authoritarian system.

As the National People’s Congress in China cleared a constitutional amendment on Sunday allowing President Xi Jinping to remain president for life, here is a look at Xi’s closest confidante and politburo member Wang Huning, who is also known to be the brain behind President Xi.

Wang has been speechwriter and ideologue to three successive General Secretaries of the CPC –- Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now Xi. Many key concepts for these three leaders have been fashioned and refined under Wang’s watch in the Party’s Central Policy Research Office since 2002 and later as a member of the Central Secretariat.

Indeed, one might wonder if China’s – and President Xi Jinping’s — slow turn towards a more assertive stance has not been influenced also by Wang’s personal ideological proclivities conveyed through the mouths of China’s leaders.

In practical terms, Wang Huning is to Xi Jinping what Amit Shah is to Narendra Modi. If Shah’s job is to help Modi do the electoral math and draw up strategies to win elections, it is Wang’s job to help create the narrative that legitimises Xi Jinping in power in an authoritarian system Continue reading “Wang Huning: China’s Amit Shah”

Unlimited Xi Presidency in China: Implications for India

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

What does the removal of term limits for the Xi Jinping presidency in China mean for the developing world and, in particular, for South Asia?

One possibility is there could be a demonstration effect. China’s decades-long rapid economic growth has been a source of envy and inspiration for many countries in the developing world. Some like Vietnam, for instance, have used China as a model in launching its own opening up and reforms process. Other countries, including many in South Asia, have seen Beijing as an alternative to the West for financial resources and capital.

With Xi’s latest move, an ambitious autocrat could try to sell the idea to his people or elites that matter that he – and he alone – holds the solutions to a country’s problems.

And often, as in the case of President Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives, who has imposed a state of emergency in the island nation, they will do so with considerably less finesse than Xi. Continue reading “Unlimited Xi Presidency in China: Implications for India”

Term Limits Off for Xi: Some Reflections for India

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

When China’s National People’s Congress – the rough equivalent of India’s Lok Sabha, but toothless – meets in the coming week it has to deal with a proposal by the ruling Communist Party of China to amend the state constitution to remove term limits for the President of the state. Coming from where it does, this is pretty much a direct order to the NPC to remove the term limits.

Removing term limits for the President, imposed in 1982, is a roundabout way of saying that the norm of two terms for the CPC General Secretary – Xi’s more powerful avatar – too, is not set in stone. Continue reading “Term Limits Off for Xi: Some Reflections for India”

How must India deal with an all-powerful Xi Jinping?

Prof. Alka Acharya, Honorary Fellow, ICS & Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The question that had been the cause of much speculation and discussion since the 19th Communist Party Congress last October — ‘After Xi Jinping, Who?’ — has now seemingly been answered. Xi Jinping himself!

In fact, Xi’s continuation in power beyond two terms was widely anticipated when, as had been the practice since the political and administrative reforms had been introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, no successor was announced at the end of the 19th Chinese Communist Party congress.

Xi now proposes to overturn the practice, which had limited the top leader to two consecutive terms in office — and this will now be enshrined in the state constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Continue reading “How must India deal with an all-powerful Xi Jinping?”

Xi Jinping Has Feet of Clay

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China has suggested removing term limits for the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China. The immediate implication is that President Xi Jinping could conceivably continue for a third term or more in office.

However, the more important one is that this sets a precedent for doing away with the norm of a two-term limit developed over the past couple of decades for the CPC General Secretary – the most powerful position Xi holds.

This development then appears to confirm long-standing speculation that Xi was aiming to carry on in power at the next CPC National Congress in 2022.

Other amendments to the PRC constitution being mooted by the CPC also confirm the possibility. One such is the addition of ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ in the PRC Constitution. In this case, this is a foregone conclusion since Xi Jinping Thought was already included in the CPC constitution at the 19th Party National Congress last October.

To understand what exactly has happened and how, Indians need only remember how their own bureaucrats bend the rules or create new ones at will, if necessary – to push their own aggrandizement while in office or to comfortable post-retirement sinecures.

Like the Indian babu – and CPC cadre are essentially bureaucrat-politicians – Xi and the CPC justify these moves in the name of ‘efficiency’, ‘expertise’, ‘capability’, even ‘merit’ and ‘respect for the Constitution’.

Note, for instance, that the state-run Xinhua News Agency had quoted Xi – only a few hours before news of the proposed changes to the PRC Constitution was announced – as saying that ‘No organization or individual has the power to overstep the Constitution or the law’.

Driving home this point even more sharply is a Global Times editorial that declares brazenly, ‘We are living in a changing and sophisticated era where individuals have limited horizon and capability’. Somehow the point about one individual being empowered at the expense of 1.3 billion others has been missed.

In fact, there is a clear provision in one of the proposed amendments that the director of the national supervisory commission – a new state organ that is coming into being in the PRC – shall serve no more than two consecutive terms. Why are there term limits for one state official and not the Chinese President and Vice-President?

This blindness to irony or hypocrisy and fundamentally paternalist and non-democratic attitude is unsurprising in societies and polities, which are essentially feudal in nature and/or are used to strong-man/centralised rule such as China or India.

Weakness not Strength

Where once, the CPC thought it could learn from the outside world and control the consequences at the same time or at least that the consequences would not threaten fundamentally threaten its own existence, today the measures undertaken by Xi suggest that such confidence no longer exists.

From the heavy-handed anti-corruption campaign to the ever increasing number of directives and instructions to universities, the media and Party cadre about ideological red lines and the constant drumbeat of state-driven propaganda and adulation of Xi to the extreme surveillance measures used against its own citizens, the Party looks less like the ruling party that it is and more like it is trying to stave off some imminent crisis.

Despite the restrictions on their freedom of expression meanwhile, Chinese citizens have found ways and means to work around censorship using technology as well as their own sarcasm and wit and the extraordinary malleability of the Chinese language itself to make their point.

For instance one image that has gone viral on Chinese social media is of Winnie the Pooh hugging a huge pot of honey and saying in Chinese, ‘Find the thing you love and stick with it’. References to Winnie the Pooh were banned on Chinese social media in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress because it was used to refer to Xi obliquely and the implication of the latest image too is clear.

The very fact that the CPC under Xi finds it necessary to declare the infallibility of the Party and to enshrine it in the PRC constitution – another proposed amendment is the inclusion of the statement ‘the leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – suggests a lack of confidence within the Party about both its role and capability in holding both itself and the country together.

This is not to say that China is falling apart as many Indian strategic analysts appear to hope for but that China’s internal political dynamics deserve greater attention in India for more objective assessments of China’s foreign policy goals and intentions.

The proposed amendments to the PRC constitution and the apparent centralization of power in Xi’s hands point to a fundamental weakness of institutions in China. No rising power can afford to hollow out its own institutions and hand over power to one single individual howsoever brilliant or capable.

The more China sees a centralization of power in an individual or even a coterie of individuals, the less likely it will have the required flexibility to deal with either its internal problems or its external challenges.This, by the way, is as true of democracies as it is of authoritarian states. Indeed, India’s own experiences since Independence should be instructive.

 

This article was originally published as ‘The “Emperor” Has Feet of Clay: Decoding the Xi Jinping Era’, News18, 27 February 2018.

Fluffy Ambassadors: China’s Panda Diplomacy

Preethi Amaresh, Research Officer, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S)

The giant panda has proven itself to be an instrument of foreign affairs and its use as a soft power tool has played a part in International relations. Pandas are considered to be a symbol of peace for China. China’s policy of sending pandas as diplomatic gifts was revitalized in 1941 when Beijing sent two pandas to the Bronx Zoo as a “thank you” gift on the eve of the United States entering World War II. This stimulated the relationship between countries, which in turn increased China’s soft power in the panda-receiving country. Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, often engaged in panda diplomacy in the 1950s, sending the bears as gifts to North Korea and the Soviet Union.

According to one theory, the movement of pandas from China to another country means that the other country accepts the extension of “China” on its territory. It all began in 1941 where Soong Mei-Ling (First lady of the People’s Republic of China) sent the first batch of pandas as gifts to the U.S. In 1949, after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, more giant pandas were shipped abroad. One well-known example is when the Chinese government presented two pandas to U.S President Richard Nixon during his visit to China in 1982, which turned out to be an enormous diplomatic success with respect to China’s establishment of relations with the U.S. Continue reading “Fluffy Ambassadors: China’s Panda Diplomacy”