30 September 2023

Social Stability through Cultural Flattening: Xi’s Message in Xinjiang

After attending the 15th BRICS Summit in South Africa, Xi Jinping had a day-long stopover in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region on 26 August 2023, before the onward journey to Beijing. This was Xi’s second trip in a year to the region – having undertaken a four-day trip last year – and third overall since he took the helm of the Communist Party of China (CPC) as General Secretary in 2012. During the trip, he listened to the work reports of the provincial party committee and government as well as of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) – a quasi-military Party-state organization that is a vital institution for governance of the region, through its extensive involvement in economic, political and military affairs. 

Unlike last year’s trip, which was an elaborate inspection tour, this short trip is of interest for, among other reasons, the fact that it comes a year after the report by the Office of the High Commissioner of United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR) indicted China for its persecution of the ethnic Uyghur population. Xi’s speech in Urumqi while underlining the achievements of CPC’s iron-hand rule and the tasks still ahead for the Party, can also be viewed as a response to the OHCHR – no matter the international reactions, China will simply not backtrack or deviate from its chosen path. The Chinese Party-state has vehemently denied human rights violations and justified its policies in the name of promoting people’s welfare that can be achieved only by quelling religious extremism. It has chosen to burnish its credentials by organizing well-choreographed trips for international delegations to the province. These trips – Potemkin facades, really – are particularly targeted at Arab countries, to ensure their support for the Chinese narrative.

These visits are not an entirely new phenomenon. The present strategies have evolved from the propaganda tours perfected by the Party-state in the 1950s to impress foreign visitors, especially those from Arab countries. From selection of sites to visit, creating itineraries, and choosing the guides, hospitality measures have been carefully curated to drive positive messaging in the Arab world towards China. Furthermore, local governments have spent large sums to create new infrastructure and upgrade existing heritage structures to dazzle Arab visitors. Regional development has also been combined with public diplomacy, as reflected in the promotion of Ningxia and showcasing of ethnic Hui as Chinese Muslims, rather than the Uyghur. This underscores how China (selectively) uses its own Muslim population as a promotional tool in its public diplomacy. 

Social Stability through Cultural Repression

Such cultural showcasing apart, Xi’s speech prioritizes social stability – an umbrella concept that covers both socio-political control and ideological cohesion – which is seen as requiring of cultural cohesion and uniformity as well. It is worth noting that the highly securitized ecosystem in the region – including surveillance, detentions, religious restrictions, ‘re-education’, and forced transfer of Uyghur labour to other parts of the country – intensified after Xi’s first inspection tour in the region as CPC General Secretary in 2014. These measures are aimed at rooting out ‘extremism’ and achieving de-radicalization. Xi has underscored the Sinicization of Islam as a key component of social stability in Xinjiang, and in this pursuit, curbing practically all religious activities. The Party-state’s conception of the illegal in religion is an amorphous formulation, determined arbitrarily and covering a wide range of activities. In practice, it has led to demolitions of mosques and heritage sites – under the pretext of substandard construction lacking safety norms – curbs on the availability of halal food, and restrictions on fasting during the month of Ramadan. Restrictions have now been extended to the Haj pilgrimage, also impacting the Hui.

Xi’s call for the strict adherence to the ‘rule of law’, to enforce social stability, undermines the customs and practices of the Uyghur. This only leads to their further alienation. Constant reiteration of law without combining it with the aspect of justice makes the former, merely a mechanical device. It is in this context that Xi’s calls for ‘focus on addressing both symptoms and root causes, employing a comprehensive strategy, and strengthening problem-solving at source’, is ironical, when juxtaposed with the reality on the ground. Further, his invocation of the ‘commonality of the Chinese nation and enhancing the sense of community for the Chinese nation’ underlines uniformity and standardization – “one size fits all” – while undermining difference and diversity. This is evident in his assertion to resolutely teach standard spoken and written Chinese in the region. The ensuing peripheralization of minority languages has already been at play in other regions of China with minority populations, creating anxieties and tensions. Xi’s nationalist rejuvenation and invocation of ethnic unity, has been furthered by moves to scale back affirmative action policies for minorities. Notwithstanding the Han majority’s prejudices on preferential treatment and ‘reverse discrimination’, these policies have greatly helped ethnic minority students to access higher education and so their rollback adversely affects the progress and upward mobility of youth from these marginalized sections.

On the whole, Xi’s speech suggests that the pursuit of ethnic unity – the eradication of cultural differences and prioritizing of uniformity over diversity – is essential to the Party-state’s conception of social stability.


About the Author: Anand Krishnan is a Fellow, at the Centre of Excellence for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi National Capital Region.