2 October 2023
Laying Down the Line: Xi Jinping in Xinjiang
In late August, the Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang on his return from the BRICS summit in South Africa. From Chinese media reports of the “stopover”, it is clear that it was a significant visit — an attempt to showcase the achievement of “hard won social stability” in the region to deflect policy failures elsewhere, particularly in the economic realm. Xi stated that “without a stable social environment, economic development is out of the question. This is the premise. This is true in Xinjiang, and so is the whole country.”
Media reports suggested that all leaders who are members of the 15th Central Steering Group for Thematic Education (Zhuti Jiaoyu Zhongyang Di Shiwu Zhidaozu, 主题教育中央第十五指导组), a sub-group handling the ongoing Party-state wide ‘thematic education work’ (zhuti jiaoyu gongzuo, 主题教育工作) in Xinjiang, attended the meeting, signalling that the campaign was on the agenda during Xi’s visit. In his speeches, the General Secretary focused on his signature ideological themes, namely, Chinese modernization, Party-building and uprightness of grassroot cadres, high-quality economic development, ethnic unity, and the intricate relationship between social stability and economic development, which are all being reinforced through the education campaign. The campaign was launched in April 2023, just after the conclusion of the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in March.
Such education campaigns have been at the core of Xi’s strategy to establish ideological control and discipline in the Party from the very beginning of his rule in 2012.
The campaign is being overseen by the Central Leading Small Group for Thematic Education on the Study and Implementation of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for New Era (Zhongyang Xuexi Guanche Xi Jinping Xinshidai Zhongguo Tese Shehuizhuyi Sixiang Zhuti Jiaoyu Lingdao Xiaozu 中央学习贯彻习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想主题教育领导小组). The group is headed by Politburo Standing Committee Member No.5, Cai Qi (蔡奇) with Li Ganjie (李干杰) as his deputy both of whom are considered close to Xi. The former is the Secretary of the CPC’s powerful Secretariat while the latter is the head of the Organization Department. The campaign is being coordinated in different provinces, central ministries, educational institutions, PLA, and other institutions through 58 Steering Groups, which involve several former provincial party secretaries, ministers, and other leaders, many of whom are now serving in People’s Congresses and CPPCCs at central or provincial levels. For instance, the 12th Steering Group headed by Lian Yimin (廉毅敏), the chairperson of Hebei provincial CPPCC and the 15th Steering Group headed by former Party Secretary of Henan Wang Guosheng are handling the education campaign in TAR and Xinjiang respectively.
During the visit, Xi emphasized “long-term stability” rather than immediate dangers, which points towards two things — that the Party-state under his leadership has achieved this stability in Xinjiang and that social stability and development are interconnected. In addition, he spoke about the significance of culture by stating that “Chinese civilization is the root of all ethnic cultures in Xinjiang,” underlining Han nationalism as one of the elements of policy in Xinjiang. These are in line with long-standing Party-state narratives about the region: booming tourism and business, social stability, and development projects. Xi also stated, “Xinjiang now has new opportunities and must do something new” counting a number of projects undertaken in different areas.
Xi’s instructions on Party-building at the grassroots levels is another point worthy of attention. Xinhua reports have highlighted Xi’s previous interactions with grassroots Party cadres and organizations when he visited Xinjiang on various occasions since 2009, when he was still the Vice President. Enrolling greater numbers of local people as Party members and greater focus on work teams of provincial- and prefectural-level propaganda and organization departments has been a focus for the last few years. Overall, when the Party-state wants to appear confident, it uses multiple approaches: social stability through coercive measures and developmental projects, as well as coopting locals. Here, the emphasis on the “Fengqiao experience” (Fengqiao jingyan 枫桥经验), a Mao-era model of using people in social governance and control, reflects the increased role of grassroots Party organizations and cadres in the Party-state’s cultural and ideological agenda. It’s an attempt at consolidation of policy achievements such as, for example, the relative calm and absence of militant violence since 2016, as well as at pushing forward policies in language, religion, and cultural spheres; each of these has been highlighted by the central leadership in their visits.
The Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, Chen Wenqing’s (陈文清) visits to Xinjiang in June as well as media reports of the meetings and activities related to the education campaign in the region similarly have consistently emphasised the “Fengqiao experience.” A model “Fengqiao” police station (Fengqiao shi gong’an paichusuo, 枫桥式公安派出所) was also opened in Saybag District of Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, in May 2020.
Promoting the Xinjiang Model
However, in contrast to Xinjiang, Chen Wenqing’s visits to Ningxia in July, and Gansu from 24 August to 27 August give entirely different signals. While these might be considered routine stocktaking of policies being implemented, his visits to Minning (闽宁) in Ningxia and Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Gannan zangzu zizhizhou 甘南藏族自治州) in Gansu are also significant in light of the recent policy focus identified above.
Chen’s visit to Minning in Ningxia is a well-thought plan. Minning was upgraded to town-level administrative unit in 1997 as part of Fujian province’s assistance to Ningxia for poverty alleviation under the pairing-up program (dui kou bangfu, 对口帮扶), when Xi Jinping was the Deputy Party Secretary of Fujian and the Leader of Fujian-Ningxia Poverty Alleviation Leading Group (Fujian Bangfu Ningxia Lingdao Xiaozu, 福建帮扶宁夏领导小组). It is reported that the town itself was named by Xi. Minning stands for Min 闽 (abbreviation for Fujian) and Ning 宁 (Abbreviation for Ningxia).The ‘success’ of the relocation of farmers and herders to Minning as part of ecological restoration and poverty alleviation programs in Ningxia has been celebrated in media in recent times as a model and a 2021 TV Series highlighting Xi’s central role in these policies in the town widely discussed in official media.
In Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai, resettlement of herders and nomads to specially built villages and towns — has speeded up in last few years with the announcement of the Sanjiangyuan National Park in Qinghai. These policy initiatives have negative implications on nomadic livelihood. Further, the state’s lack of capacity to provide sustainable livelihood options in newly-established towns and migrant villages and the resulting cultural alienation must also be noted. Studies on ecological migration in these areas as well as the TAR have pointed out resistance by the populace and wider discontent.
Further, the authorities have once again begun to control religious events like Kalachakra lectures in Tibetan areas, which if read along with the state-choregraphed tours of the Panchen Lama, suggest greater Chinese efforts to respond to post-Dalai Lama scenarios. Thus, Chen’s visit to these areas is about reinvigorating the local security-legal apparatus as well as communicating central leadership’s policy priorities to local officials. Nevertheless, Chen’s visit brings home a contrast with Xinjiang – while Xi spoke of hard won achievements in Xinjiang, Chen’s visits to Gansu and Ningxia underscored signs of fragile social stability in these areas rather than a confident proclamation of achievements.
Meanwhile, Xi’s visit to Xinjiang emphasizing the achievements of his policies in the province could be read also as a diversionary tactic to deflect attention from economic hardships and governance failures, particularly the mismanagement of flood relief in Beijing, Hebei and Tianjin in August 2023. Xinjiang, and for that matter other territorial sovereignty issues, evoke Han nationalist anger and pride and are exploited by the Party leadership to boost their legitimacy.
From Chen’s and Xi’s visits, it is evident that the Party-state views its policies in Xinjiang as successful and worthy of replication in other ethnic areas, particularly TAR and non-TAR Tibetan areas. In fact, there are already signs of “Xinjiang model” being replicated in Tibetan areas – the “three consciousness campaign”, launched in May 2022, is aimed at controlling monasteries, their activities, and monks and nuns in an effort to dilute their influence as well as use these institutions as a tool for Party-state’s ideological campaigns and control.
About the Author: Devendra Kumar is Associate Fellow, at the Centre of Excellence for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi National Capital Region.