Dangerous Games: China’s Ethnic Policies in Xinjiang

Dangerous Games: China’s Ethnic Policies in Xinjiang
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

What you need to know

New naming regulations are designed to curtail 'religious fervor.' But the ruling also targets Uyghur nationalism, which is often conflated with Islamic extremism in China.

In the latest tightening of the screws on China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, authorities have banned the use of several baby names, including Muhammad, Haji, Islam, and Imam.

According to authorities, the naming regulations are designed to curtail "religious fervor". But the ruling also targets Uyghur nationalism, which is often conflated with Islamic extremism in China. Names with the stem "Turk" — such as Turkizat and Turkinaz — are also banned. But curiously Mehmet — the Turkic (and Uyghur) version of Muhammad and a very common male name in Xinjiang — has not been banned, suggesting that senior Communist Party officials might be unaware of its meaning. If so, this is a reminder of the cultural illiteracy and insensitivity that frequently underlies policymaking in the region.

The ruling on baby names follows an earlier ban on "abnormal" beards and full-face and body coverings. The new legislation also prevents people from rejecting "radio, television or other public facilities and services", marrying in accordance with religious rather than legal procedures, and using the halal principle to interfere with the "secular life of others".

The legislation codifies security policies that have been applied patchily throughout the region in recent years as part of government efforts to combat religious extremism. It also forms part of a response to a series of deadly attacks in Xinjiang and in other parts of China.

The tough new rulings follow the appointment of strongman Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang’s Party Chief in August 2016. Chen, the former party secretary of Tibet, earned a reputation for quelling protests against government policies and dramatically reducing the number of self-immolations through the introduction of hardline security measures.

The measures, many of which are now being rolled out in Xinjiang, include neighborhood "grid" reporting systems, widespread checkpoints and searches, extensive electronic surveillance, the confiscation of passports and compulsory political education courses for returnees from abroad. To implement the measures, large numbers of auxiliary police have been recruited.

Since 2011, China has spent more per annum on domestic security than on external defense. The cost of China’s domestic security policies — once euphemistically known as "stability maintenance" but increasingly described as "national security" — is likely to escalate in the future. Many of these costs will be difficult to measure in monetary terms.

The increasingly draconian security policies adopted in Tibet and Xinjiang target entire populations and have become sources of deep resentment. They create the perception that Uyghurs and Tibetans are second-class citizens in China, and that the Chinese Communist Party does not value or respect local cultures despite the existence of formal laws that purport to safeguard minority rights.

While Beijing highlights preferential policies for minority ethnicities and its large investments in the region, which have led to improvements in material livelihoods, scholars working in Xinjiang and Tibet are acutely aware of ethnic insecurity among the populations. This insecurity stems from the fear that people are increasingly unable to express their ethnic and regional identity in everyday life and it appears to be growing in response to China’s security-first approach to the region.

These fears are further exacerbated by development policies that are rapidly transforming and homogenizing cultural landscapes, and assimilationist policies that are said to promote inter-ethnic "mingling", but amount to little more than incentives for adopting secular Han Chinese ways.

Another problem on the horizon for Beijing is a potential fallout with Muslim-majority neighbors across Eurasia. China’s policies toward Uyghurs and other members of its 20 million strong Muslim community are likely to arouse the ire of neighbors in the region and create frictions at a time when China is seeking to expand trade and cultural ties under the auspices of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Beijing is already concerned that Uyghur extremists are coordinating with global terror networks, boosting their resources and capabilities for hitting Chinese targets outside China. Uyghurs were allegedly involved in an attack against the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan in 2016 and Thai police accuse Uyghurs of masterminding a 2015 bombing in Bangkok that killed 20 people, mostly Chinese tourists. There are reports that Uyghurs are training with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) in preparation for launching future attacks.

But if China is perceived as anti-Islam, its home-grown Uyghur extremists might not be the only threat. Chinese citizens and assets could become targets for terror outfits in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. Chinese-funded ports, railways, canals, dams, and pipelines could become vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Many of the first-phase Belt and Road projects are in politically unstable majority Muslim countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. Kazakhstan — a lynchpin in the Silk Road Economic Belt — is also under increasing social, economic and political strain.

Leaders in Beijing and Urumqi might be satisfied with the short-term results of their hardline domestic security policies, but they would be foolish to ignore the long-term risks of alienating Uyghurs and other Muslim citizens. China has every right to defend itself against terrorism, but any policies that target the general Muslim population, or curtail practices that lie at the heart of people’s cultural identities will only risk fanning the flames of resentment that energize extremism.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White