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Chinese leaders tried before to assimilate the Uighurs. This time it might face less resistance.

- October 31, 2018
Chinese military police attend an anti-terrorist oath-taking rally last year in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. (AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Shohrat Zakir, the chairman of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, confirmed the existence of a “vocational education and training program” that is designed to “counter terrorism and extremism” among the more than 10 million Uighurs who live in China’s far northwest. This admission seems to corroborate the suspicion that China is systematically targeting an entire ethnic and religious group, all in the name of national security.

Zakir is politically powerless, but the real force behind these initiatives is Chen Quanguo, the Han secretary of the Communist Party in Xinjiang. As other scholars and I reported in testimony to Congress, since 2016, Chen has overseen the establishment of an intrusive surveillance regime, cultural assimilationist measures and unlawful detention practices throughout the region. Estimates are that anywhere from 300,000 to 1 million Uighurs have been interned in the “reeducation” camps.

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Chinese leaders have tried but failed to assimilate the Uighurs before. Due to a dramatic change in China’s global clout and influence, Beijing may now find its assimilation plan easier to implement.

China has a history of “civilizing” missions

The region today known as Xinjiang (“New Territories”) historically has been loosely and temporarily incorporated into several Chinese states. Its boundaries, however, took shape in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Manchu emperors of the Qing dynasty oversaw successive conquests of the region. Like their predecessors, the Manchus allowed considerable cultural, religious and linguistic autonomy among their new Muslim subjects.

This “loose-rein” (jimi) approach faced a severe test in 1864, when the Central Asian general Yaqub Beg successfully overthrew Qing rule in Xinjiang. The Qing armies returned a decade later, led by a new generation of zealous Han officials determined to “transform” Uighur hearts and minds. By instilling Confucian values and fostering Chinese language abilities among people whom they referred to as “Turban Heads” (chantou), Beijing hoped to undercut the appeal of cultural and religious overtures from Central Asia and the Middle East.

That first Confucian civilizing mission in Xinjiang failed miserably. From 1884 to 1911, the last decades of the Qing dynasty, Beijing lacked the financial resources or political will to assimilate the Uighurs, who instead gravitated toward Russian, Turkish and British spheres of influence.

This failure revealed an enduring strategic logic still in evidence today: A peaceful Xinjiang will be met with the politics of accommodation, but Beijing reacts to violence in Xinjiang with renewed assimilation efforts, couched in terms of a civilizing or modernizing mission. What is missing from these strategic assessments of Xinjiang is an acknowledgment by Chinese leaders of their own role in fostering conditions of gross economic and political inequality that encourage Uighur resistance in the first place.

The Muslim people of Xinjiang saw another attempt to implement a Confucian civilizing mission in 1944, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party gained control of Xinjiang from the Han warlords who had ruled the region for 30 years. In his book “China’s Destiny,” Chiang articulated his vision for China’s minority regions, claiming that any alleged distinctions among the various ethnic groups were due to “regional and religious factors, and not to race or blood,” and that the “various clans actually belong to the same nation, as well as to the same racial stock.”

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Chiang believed China consisted of just the “Chinese race,” or Zhonghua minzu. As I show in my book, “Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State,” it was Chiang’s attempt to realize this vision that led to the appointment in 1944 of his trusted colleague Wu Zhongxin as the first Nationalist governor of Xinjiang. But within a month, Uighur and Kazak insurgents, backed by Soviet arms and advisers, rebelled against Chinese rule. Five years later, the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, leaving Mao Zedong’s Communist Party to launch the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Xi Jinping has a new plan for Xinjiang

Chinese policymakers and scholars are again promoting the ideal of a single Zhonghua minzu, the desirability of “transformation” and the necessity of Chinese language instruction. Beijing is now rolling back the policy of accommodation that has existed, for the most part, for ethnic minorities in Xinjiang in recent decades, in response to the perception of a geopolitical threat.

Here’s what changed: Over the past five years, a small number of suspected Uighur terrorists have managed to organize a suicide car crash in Tiananmen Square and a mass knifing attack in the city of Kunming, among other incidents.

Unlike their Qing and Nationalist predecessors, China’s Communist Party leaders in 2018 face few geopolitical or financial handicaps. Foreign imperialists no longer threaten China’s borders, and China is no longer in debt to Western powers. The specter of domestic political instability is significantly diminished.

This means Beijing can act with relative impunity in Xinjiang, without fear of retribution or intervention. This may be China’s worst human rights crisis since the days of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, but even most Muslim countries have kept their silence.

In fact, the only obstacle still standing in the way of the wholesale assimilation of the Uighur people is the Communist state’s own institutional legacy of ethnic tolerance. In the 1950s, under the influence of the Soviets, Mao and his colleagues in the Communist Party embraced a nationwide system of territorial and linguistic autonomy, preferential family planning policies and favorable university admission quotas for the exclusive benefit of the Uighurs and other designated minority groups. These policies lent some measure of substance to Beijing’s claim that it had “liberated” the Uighurs in 1949.

Beijing seems far less concerned about how the world perceives its actions in Xinjiang today. But by turning their backs on the politics of accommodation, Chinese leaders almost certainly are sowing the seeds of future generations of conflict, no matter how “successful” the current assimilatory efforts may be. As homegrown terrorist attacks throughout the Western world have repeatedly demonstrated, cultural and linguistic assimilation is no guarantee of political integration.

Justin M. Jacobs is an associate professor of history at American University and the author of “Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State” (University of Washington Press, 2016).