The Long Arm of the Law in Xinjiang: Fresh Violence Erupts in China's Muslim Far West

Two outbreaks of deadly violence in Xinjiang this week highlight China's failure to bring stability to its troubled far west Muslim frontier. A closer examination of the attacks reveals that Xinjiang's model of 'stability maintenance' continues to spark Uyghur unrest.

According to Chinese media reports, on 23 April a group of fifteen police and community workers were murdered by ethnic Uyghur 'terrorists' while investigating a property in Selibuya - a town outside Kashgar. The episode suffers from ambiguity characteristic to all events of this kind in Xinjiang, where political sensitivities make independent journalism difficult. Yet a BBC investigation has unearthed evidence that the violence was driven by a long running dispute between the authorities and a local family - who had reportedly been pressured to abandon outward signs of their Islamic faith.

A few days later, as the authorities tightened security across the region, a group of policemen were killed and vehicles set on fire in the southern Hotan Prefecture. While the details are also unclear, it is claimed that violence over this second incident was driven by anger over physical searches by police of local Uyghur women suspected of 'separatism'.

The pattern of both events is sadly familiar. Most major incidents of violence in Xinjiang over the past thirty years, including the 2009 riots in the regional capital of Urumqi, have stemmed from harsh police reactions to relatively innocuous circumstances. To use an old Maoist adage, in Xinjiang, 'a single spark can light a prairie fire.'

Reform in Xinjiang? 

A consequence of the bloody Urumqi riots of 2009, in which around 200 mainly Han Chinese died, was Beijing's tacit acknowledgement that poverty and a deeply unequal economic development model were partly to blame. The Xinjiang Work Forum, a planning commission formed in 2010, resulted in a series of major state-led investment projects designed to bring prosperity to a backward region. Yet absent from the 2010 discussion was any mention of the region's notoriously hardline law enforcement apparatus.

For almost fifteen years prior to 2009, Xinjiang was ruled as a fiefdom by the local Communist Party Secretary, Wang Lequan. It was under Wang's tenure that the Party developed its current policy of uncompromising control over Uyghur society, particularly their practice of Islam, which Beijing sees as synonymous with separatist sympathies.

Known among locals in Xinjiang as the 'Secretary of Stability', Wang revived a number of Mao-era methods of social control, such as the annual 'Strike Hard' campaign - a style of politicised law enforcement that places emphasis on swift sentencing and severity of punishment. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 1990s also saw a significant escalation in violent incidents from the decade before, with ethnic disturbances, including a major riot in the city of Ghulja in 1997, erupting with some regularity.

When Wang was removed from his post a year after the 2009 riots, some observers read signs of a security policy rethink in Beijing. His replacement, Zhang Chunxian, is known for his popular touch and an impressive record on economic growth when Party boss of Hunan Province. When Zhang arrived in Urumqi, the public was intrigued by a visit he made to a local bazaar, where the new Party boss was photographed eating shish kebab and sipping beer with local Uyghur shopkeepers. This came in sharp contrast to his predecessor, whose perfunctory party rhetoric and limited public interaction were hated by Han Chinese and Uyghur alike.

Yet a closer a look at events following Wang's removal points to an alternative interpretation of his performance by senior leaders in Beijing. Rather than being demoted, Wang was in fact moved to Beijing and appointed deputy chair of the Party's supreme security organ, the Central Politics and Law Committee. This shadowy Party body has long been rumoured to control government policy in Xinjiang, a fact that would partially explain the dominance of security concerns in the region over other government portfolios. Some analysts therefore see Wang's relocation as a political manoeuver to appease Xinjiang's Han Chinese constituents, many of whom were furious over his failure to prevent the 2009 rioting, and who believed that Wang was insufficiently hardline.

Although Wang's role in Xinjiang is no longer decisive, he continues to make his voice heard in Xinjiang policy, a fact evident in his participation in Xinjiang policy meetings in Beijing.  

Xinjiang Today

Despite the arrival of new Party cadres in Xinjiang, there is no sign of a serious public security rethink. Government rhetoric continues to blame 'East Turkistan terrorism' for all violence in the region, including both attacks earlier this week. The persecution of Uyghur dissidents, both in China and abroad - have recently intensified. Zhang Chunxian, promoted to the Politburo after the last Party Congress in November 2012, is seen as a rising star, and is clearly being rewarded for towing the existing line.

The security model spearheaded by Wang Lequan, therefore, has outlasted the man himself. Indeed, house-to-house inspections in Uyghur neighbourhoods, including the one that reportedly sparked last week's violence in Selibuya, are a core function of Wang's other major innovation - the system of 'comprehensive security management.' These heavy handed policing techniques are despised by the Uyghur community, and have been repeatedly cited by Western human rights organisations as a major driver of unrest.

Unfortunately, the government's reaction to this latest outburst of violence demonstrates that Beijing continues to respond to all expressions of Uyghur discontent with greater oppression. After the Sebuliya incident, both Xi Jinping and Zhang Chunxian called for tougher measures to 'maintain stability'. Fragmented reports emerging from Hotan suggest that the massive security response to the first attacks may have provoked the second.

Prospects for Change

Despite some bold economic initiatives pioneered in the 2010 Work Forum, and the recent downsizing of the bloated security empire in Beijing, security policy in Xinjiang continues to exist in a parallel universe of its own rules and internal logic. It is difficult to see any peaceful future for Xinjiang as long as the current system of 'stability maintenance' prevails. Expect more violence in the years to come.


Edward Schwarck

Research Fellow, Asia Studies

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