Massive 'go west' program to develop Xinjiang
To eliminate this perceived threat, China has undertaken a massive "go west" program for the better part of a decade, believing that the main spur to ethnic-nationalist and religious unrest is a lack of economic development and opportunity. Thus it has launched massive development projects in energy and transportation infrastructure to more fully tie Xinjiang to China's coastal development and to Central Asian economies.
But behind the objective of overcoming poverty - which, to be fair, is being realized - lies Beijing's unremitting drive to control Xinjiang. This development is also tied to the parallel and ongoing policy of officially sponsored large-scale migration into Xinjiang by Han Chinese that fosters immense local resentment and tension. All these policies aim to prevent anyone from demanding more democracy or genuine autonomy.
The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) -- China's "Wild West"?
Given what some observers consider the intrinsic fragility of the Chinese state, any sign of movement towards real democracy or federalism in Xinjiang, as in the case of Taiwan or Tibet, are excluded a priori. In fact, any call for democracy or even for a devolution of powers is considered by Beijing to be a threat to China's integrity, sovereignty and security. This rejection of democratic reforms is tied to China's deeply held historical view of sovereignty because any derogation of the latter in the name of the former is considered to be an invitation to disorder, chaos, and weakness.
Clearly, this is a classically imperial view of the state but also one that reflects a sense of being perpetually assailed by potential or actual threats. In other words, Xinjiang, like Tibet and Taiwan, is a neuralgic issue that when raised, brings out what some scholars see as Beijing's siege mentality.
Thus the textbook for party and government officials entitled Zhongguo Taiwan Wenti (China's Taiwan issue) rules out either of these alternatives (democracy or federalism) for Taiwan because confederations occur between independent and sovereign states - an admission China will not make. Furthermore, the textbook attacks federalism as unsuitable because "it does not fit the national tradition and is not suitable for the basic national conditions ... The current state structure form [the unitary system] is advantageous for national unification, consolidation among ethnic groups, political stability, and balanced regional development."
Any federalism is out of the question, because it is against Chinese Communist Party dogma.
Federalism is unacceptable, then, on domestic grounds ie, its threat to the unity of state power, not for any other reason. Were the regime forced to move in a federal direction for Taiwan or any other province, it could not then deny that structure to all the other provinces. Thus it would have to generalize a more decentralized and democratic form of rule across China.
Minority peoples live on insecure borders
And since the minority peoples live on China's insecure and troubled borders, in the context of Chinese history and prudent considerations of current political leaders, such devolution of power means both the end of their power and in their view the integrity of the Chinese state. This would particularly be true if ethnic discontent combined with the widespread internal labor unrest, permitting a dual-sided domestic opposition, for then internal and external oppositions would link up, representing precisely what Beijing regards as the gravest possible threat to the regime's security.
And Beijing is probably right on this count -- so there the communists stand, their fingers in holes in the dike.
But as the Xinjiang issue has moved onto the international agenda because of the US-led "war on terrorism", China also has been forced to respond to charges of its repression in the region, by publishing a White Paper on Xinjiang in 2003. This white paper is a comprehensive effort to justify Beijing's governance there and answer its critics. But in fact it only confirms the validity or legitimacy of an internationalization of the problem and - with unconscious irony - overtly spells out the continuing imperial tradition in Chinese statecraft towards Xinjiang. Thus it states:"China has a centuries-old tradition of developing and protecting its border areas by stationing troops to cultivate and guard the frontier areas. According to historical records, all the dynasties in Chinese history adopted the practice of stationing troops to cultivate and guard the frontier areas as an important state policy for developing border areas and consolidating frontier defense. The beginning of this practice by the central authorities on a massive scale in Xinjiang can be traced back to the Western Han Dynasty, to be subsequently carried on from generation to generation. This policy had played an important part in uniting the nation, consolidating frontier defense, and promoting social and economic development in Xinjiang."
It goes beyond "That's the way we've always done it" -- they see the historical dynamic as working against them if they don't colonize and garrison the periphery.
However, the agency responsible for such consolidation, the Bingtuan, or the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), is a major factor, if not the major factor, in what is considered the regional gulag in Xinjiang. Thus the white paper states:"As an important force for stability in Xinjiang and for consolidating frontier defense, the XPCC and the ordinary people attach equal importance to production and militia duties. It has set up in frontier areas a 'four-in-one' system of joint defense that links the PLA, the Armed Police, the XPCC, and the ordinary people, playing an irreplaceable special role in the past five decades in smashing and resisting internal and external separatists' attempts at sabotage and infiltration and in maintaining the stability and safety of the borders of the motherland."
Special corps is quasi-military-business grouping
Another assessment of the XPCC describes it as a quasi-military/business conglomerate. It consists of 2.4 million people, including workers and their families, virtually all of them Han Chinese. It has its own schools, media, hospitals, courts, and prisons. It owns about one-third of the land, and its industrial production equals approximately 25 percent of Xinjiang's total output, yet its primary function is to ensure social stability and conduct extensive political work.
A government "mafia" in a way?
Thus despite all the undoubted achievements of economic development, Xinjiang province remains troubled. Indeed, the Australian Sinologist Greg Austin has even written that China, according to its own official sources in Beijing, has lost control of the borders of Xinjiang with Central Asia, specifically Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and cannot prevent infiltration across those borders. American observers like S Frederick Starr and Graham Fuller, writing for the Central Asia Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University, also maintain that China cannot evade the classic dilemma of minority people's uprisings against colonialist powers within the latter's home territory, the so-called metropole.
In other words, no matter whatever policies China adopts, it is likely to face continuing and long-term unrest, including violent, even possible "terrorist" operations, in Xinjiang and even in Beijing itself. While this problem has not reached the level in other conflicts, such as Kashmir or Palestine, it is real enough and growing. Worse, Chinese experts appear to concede that there is no way out.
But of course, there is a way out.
Thus besides the challenge of sustaining economic development, meeting the calls for domestic reform, and dealing with Taiwan, Tibet and North Korea, one can add Xinjiang to the list of major challenges confronting the Chinese government.
China needs to rethink its dogma, and allow a degree of federalism.
The alternative is that, the more the communists tighten their grip...
... the more will slip through Beijing's fingers.
Stay tuned for Part 6