China’s Xinjiang autonomous region has attracted international attention for all the wrong reasons – police crackdowns and reports that local ethnic Uygur people are being held in internment camps. What hasn’t gained much attention is the difficulty Beijing has drafting in staff to execute its policies in the far northwest area.
The measures targeting Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have triggered “widespread discontent among Han Chinese officials and citizens”, a source close to the central government told the South China Morning Post. The source said Chinese President Xi Jinping was aware of the problem because he had been briefed by the country’s chief Xinjiang policy coordinator, Wang Yang.
And as the United Nations wants to send in officials to inspect the internment camps, which some estimates say have held as many as 1 million Uygurs, members of the Han Chinese ethnicity – which dominates both China as a whole and the Chinese Communist Party – are leaving the region in increasing numbers.
“[Wang has] said in his briefings that even the Han people are deeply dissatisfied,” the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Life is harsh [in Xinjiang] even for cadres. Officials are exhausted as nobody is allowed days off [even after working for weeks].”
These reports come as China faces increasing pressure to allow international monitors into the internment camps. That’s especially since news outlets in November published reports based on the so-called China cables, or a leak of classified documents that indicate the camps were set up as forced indoctrination centres.
The UN Human Rights Council in July released a statement calling for an end to what it called “arbitrary detention” of Uygurs and other Muslim groups in the region.
Beijing has said criticism of its policies in Xinjiang ignore that from 2009 it faced a separatist and terrorist insurgency in the region that killed hundreds of Han Chinese and wounded many more.
China has said the internment centres are for vocational education and training to combat the spread of extremist views and terrorism. In November, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Xinjiang had not suffered a terrorist attack in three years, which he argued showed its methods were working.
And on Tuesday, China Youth Daily published an article by Shohrat Zakir, the autonomous region’s chairman, making the same argument and urging Western politicians and media to give up their “double standards” in criticising the vocational centres in Xinjiang.
Still, for the officials on the ground in charge of carrying out Beijing’s Xinjiang policies, life is increasingly unpleasant, according to the source. China has set up what is called a “sent-down system” in the region that requires cadres to live in the homes of Uygurs as part of surveillance programmes.
“The cadres sent down must bring gifts and pay out of their own pocket and anyone refusing to go is sacked right on the spot. Measures like these have triggered widespread resentment,” the source said.
Xinjiang authorities regularly advertise jobs with lucrative packages, but it is hard to retain people; over the past year there has been an increase in the number of requests for early retirement, which have in turn been rejected.
“The children of Han Chinese officials in Xinjiang are sent away to live and study, so this adds to the drain of people leaving the region,” the source said.
Wang, Xinjiang’s policy chief, has made three public inspection trips to the region: once in April 2018 and twice this year in March and July. He ranks fourth in the ruling Communist Party’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee and is the head of the Central Committee’s Xinjiang Work Coordination Small Group, a body deciding Xinjiang policies.
During his April visit, Wang said the region needed to “perfect” its stability maintenance measures. While calling for a crackdown on ethnic separatist forces and religious extremism, Wang said traditional ethnic culture should be protected and the normal religious customs of believers should be ensured.
The United States was not persuaded and the US House of Representatives voted through the Uygur Intervention and Global Humanitarian Unified Response Act this week, a bill that would allow the US administration to sanction officials it deems involved in the mass internment of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.
The number of Han Chinese in Xinjiang stood at 8.83 million, or about 40 per cent of the region’s population, in 2010. The figure fell to 8.6 million in 2015, or about 36 per cent, according to the latest population census, indicating that Beijing’s policy of encouraging more Han Chinese to move to the region is not working.
A Chinese academic studying Xinjiang confirmed that Han Chinese are leaving the region’s capital of Urumqi.
Urumqi had 3.5 million permanent residents in 2018, a decline from the 3.52 million reported in 2016, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. While the bureau did not give a breakdown by ethnic background, it’s Han Chinese that are leaving.
“The [Han] people can’t voice their discontent, but they vote with their feet. Xinjiang is facing a severe problem of Han population outflow,” the academic said, declining to be named in order to discuss the issue.
Peking University sociology professor Li Jianxin has released research showing that a low birth rate among Han Chinese is another factor in their declining population in Xinjiang over the past five years. Ethnic Muslims in the region have a significantly higher birth rate, according to the research.
Besides the network of “vocational training centres” built and operated since early 2017, Beijing has strict restrictions on the movement of the Muslim population in Xinjiang.
“Since last summer, the Urumqi public security authorities have suspended all applications to move household registration away from the city in a bid to curb migration out of the region,” one of the sources said.
These measures were not publicly announced, but Urumqi authorities posted a reply to a citizen inquiry on People.com.cn, the official website of party mouthpiece People’s Daily, that offered some indications of the policy.
“Due to an ongoing population census, applications to relocate household registration have been suspended until further notice,” the Urumqi public security bureau said in the post.
Experts studying the region say the root of Xinjiang’s ethnic tensions lies within a basket of unresolved structural development problems, including dominance of state enterprises, Uygur job discrimination, corruption and barriers to ethnic integration.
The monopoly of state conglomerates in the economy and the difficulty Uygurs have finding work remain the thorniest issues, according to another of the sources.
The three pillars of Xinjiang’s economy are energy, transport and cultural industries. All of them are dominated by state enterprises, especially in oil, chemicals, railways and aviation. Into this mix is the collusion of some of the nation’s most powerful state enterprises and Uygur political and business elites.
This structure has led to a decline in Xinjiang-based corporations and an increase in Uygur unemployment rates.
“We must figure out the components that make up the soil breeding extremism in Xinjiang before we can solve it, otherwise it will only be a mess on top of another mess,” the source said.
“Even as more Chinese factories are built, Uygurs are still jobless. One can’t help but feel that they are being robbed of their land and resources even as the local economy expands. They don’t get a piece of the pie.”
Illustration: Brian Wang
More from South China Morning Post:
- From Xinjiang to Ningxia, China’s ethnic groups face end to affirmative action in education, taxes, policing
- China detaining Uygurs in nearly 500 camps and prisons, researchers say
- China slams US ‘lies’ about treatment of Uygurs in Xinjiang region
This article Wanted: Chinese cadres to hold Beijing’s line in Xinjiang as Han Chinese head for the exits first appeared on South China Morning Post