China’s partnership of stability in Xinjiang

Author: Tom Cliff, ANU

Xinjiang has once again faded from global attention after a brief spate of interest in the wake of the Urumqi riots in July 2009, but a recent series of high-level meetings in Beijing convened specifically to lay out strategy in relation to Xinjiang, and top leaders doing inspection tours of the region this year is proof that China’s Central leadership continues to take the situation very seriously.

Long before the ethnic clashes between Uyghur and Han in Urumqi in July last year (the ‘7/5 incident’), the Xinjiang and Central authorities were already far more concerned about dissatisfaction within the Han community than about the possibility of a Uyghur uprising. The 7/5 incident, and the series of events that followed it, has not refocused this anxiety onto the Uyghurs as might be expected from a superficial reading of the situation. Rather, 7/5 has served to emphasise how important it is for both the Central government and the Xinjiang provincial-level government to pay even closer attention to garnering the support of the Han community in Xinjiang.

The relationship, or social contract, between the Han mainstream in Xinjiang and the Party and government is one of ‘partners in stability.’ The Han mainstream do their part simply by occupying the border region and by accepting the Party as the best solution for a multi-ethnic, increasingly stratified China, and the government as the Party’s administrators. In return they expect protection and that what is being built in Xinjiang is being built in the first instance for them, regardless of the official policies that grant special privileges to minorities. This is clearly not the same contract as in ‘Inland China’, primarily because of the lack of a significant ‘other’ like the Uyghurs in Inland China, the extractive nature of Xinjiang’s economy and, related to both of these, the imperative of populating the border with ethnic Han as a way of justifying and guaranteeing Beijing’s territorial claims over Xinjiang.

However, Xinjiang people have been increasingly feeling left behind and out of the economic advances of the eastern seaboard cities for some years now. Many quote the comparative salaries of government workers in each region as proof Xinjiang is being neglected by the Central authorities, and exploited by the corrupt and ineffectual leaders of Xinjiang. ‘They’re an interest group, concerned only with their own ‘stability’ ‘ said one anonymous comment on a web forum in April 2009. They put ‘stability’ in quotation marks as a mocking reference to the most commonly heard political aphorism in relation to Xinjiang: ‘social stability is a prerequisite [for]…Xinjiang’s development.’ The government employee from Xinjiang went on ‘there’s no way they’ll look after [us here at] ground level, only if it affects their own stability will they give us an increase [in wages], and even then that won’t keep up with CPI….’ These online comments are representative of a great many conversations I was involved in or privy to in Xinjiang in the immediate aftermath of 7/5.

Even more widespread is the antipathy towards the First Party Secretary of Xinjiang, Wang Lequan. He has been in the top position for 15 years, and over that time has placed cadres from his own home province of Shandong in the top positions of prefectural-level governments throughout Xinjiang. More offensively to the general population, he has been openly biased towards businesses run by his buddies from Shandong. One example which now has the status of legend among the Han community tells how he forced farmers near Korla to purchase greenhouse construction materials from his brother Wang Leyi’s company rather than obtaining them locally. The materials were shipped out from Shandong and ended up costing twice as much as the local equivalent. He then ordered his cronies in the prefectural government to legislate that each greenhouse must be a minimum acreage which was 6-10 times greater than what the farmers could afford to finance a bank loan for, and for the Bank of China to grant the loans with no questions asked.

Consequently, the farmers all went bust, the bank lost out and the price of winter vegetables in the nearby city of Korla was pushed even higher. For the people of Korla, this was a tangible example of official corruption, greed and incompetence directly affecting their own standard of living, as well as their own inability to do anything about it. The perception is that in the east of China such an incident would be, or would at least have a chance of being, reported in the newspapers and the officials concerned punished, but because Xinjiang is mostly controlled by the ‘Shandong clique’ and more importantly because the authorities (including the Central authorities) do not want to expose anything which could threaten stability, the incident was suppressed in Xinjiang.

The 7/5 incident, and the needlestick attacks that followed in September, provided a handle with which the ‘everyday Han’ of Xinjiang could grasp the government’s own rationale – delivered here by Wang Lequan himself: ‘that stability trumps all … [and it] is the main task and number one responsibility’ – and turn it around to criticise the government. The general feeling of Xinjiang Han is anger that, in the name of stability, they suffer inconveniences and restrictions on freedom more frequent and more severe than people elsewhere in China, yet 7/5 showed that the authorities have failed to guarantee even the ability to walk safely down the street. Added to this is the feeling among many second and third-generation Xinjiang people that they have been neglected by the Centre and even excluded from most of the benefits that have flowed from the rapid growth of Xinjiang’s economy during the tenure of Wang Lequan.

In failing to forestall the Urumqi riots, the Party and government broke the particular social contract that they have with the mainstream of Han society in Xinjiang – the ‘partnership of stability.’ 7/5 also exposed some of the longer-standing fractures in this partnership. What is now going on in the relationship between Xinjiang and the Centre, and between the Party and government and their most important constituency in Xinjiang is a renegotiation of rights, roles and requitals.

Tom Cliff is a doctoral student at the Australian National University’s Contemporary China Centre.