The Government Puts a Positive Spin on East Turkestan at the China-Eurasia Expo

The fifth annual China-Eurasia Expo takes place this week in Urumqi from September 20th to 25th, giving the Chinese government a platform to present its economic vision for the region to an international audience of political and business leaders. This will be the first of these Expos to take place since Xinjiang was “positioned as the core area of the Silk Road Economic Belt,” in the words of the promotional video posted on the event’s official website. The promotional materials describe the event as “an important window for Xinjiang to show itself to the outside world”, but it serves mostly as a trade fair, touting deals signed and promising further “opportunities for industrial capacity cooperation” with nations from the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.

Organized by the Ministries of Commerce and Foreign Affairs together with the XUAR government and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the China-Eurasia Expo tends to downplay the Turkic cultural and religious ties that connect the region to the nations on its borders and beyond, in contrast to the biennial China- Arab States Expo held in Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The Chinese government deliberately presents the Hui as their preferred “bridge” to the Islamic world, while repression of Uyghurs makes such messaging difficult. Despite the fact that for decades most of XUAR’s international trade has flowed westward, the Chinese government’s repressive policies make it difficult for them to capitalize on the Uyghur’s cultural and linguistic ties to their neighbors.

If the government’s One Belt One Road plans do in fact meet with success it will likely raise XUAR’s profile, and with it the attention paid to the government’s repressive policies. Beijing hopes that OBOR will placate Uyghur grievances by creating economic opportunity, but it is likely to lead to further marginalization as well as exacerbation of other problems such as environmental degradation. The Han are better positioned to take advantage of the opportunities OBOR presents thanks to their existing networks and easier access to capital, exclusion from which make it difficult for Uyghurs to be able to participate in the local economy. OBOR investment projects may encourage increased Han in-migration to the region as well as give Beijing a tool to influence the policy of nations in Central and South East Asia regarding whether to hand back Chinese nationals or generally buy into Beijing’s counter-terrorism narrative.

Billboard Advertising Xinjiang in Toronto (

Billboard Advertising Xinjiang in Toronto (

Nevertheless we can expect the government to try to put a positive spin on the situation. The region is almost always described as one of ethnic harmony in official propaganda; consider for instance a billboard that appeared earlier this month in Toronto’s Dundas Square “showcasing multiple ethnic groups living together in the region, in peace and harmony.” This can be fit into the pattern of Chinese government publicity efforts in North America including the South China Sea propaganda video played in Times Square.

Indeed, it may be that the Chinese government is beginning to try to more actively direct international perceptions of XUAR as part of the OBOR initiative. Such efforts tend to present the region as one “where different ethnic groups such as Uygur, Kazak, Kirgiz, Tajik and Mongolians have over time created the splendid music of harmonic life together in peace” in the words of a Xinhua report on the “2016 Experience China in Iran” cultural festival held in Tehran last month, organized by the XUAR government and the State Council Information Office. The festival also touted the economic opportunities OBOR presents to nations like Iran, promoting the textile industry with an exhibit of traditional dresses described as “ethnic beauties.”

“Manchu Dress” exhibited at the 2016 Experience China in Iran cultural festival (Xinhua)

“Manchu Dress” exhibited at the 2016 Experience China in Iran cultural festival (Xinhua)

This is part of a series of “Experience China” cultural festivals SCIO has held overseas, sometimes focusing on regions like Tibet, “Western China” or on Chinese minorities; this is the first to focus on XUAR, and the decision to hold it in Tehran was no doubt calculated as part China’s efforts to shape the Xinjiang narrative as the OBOR project moves forward. How successful it will be remains to be seen.

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Chen Quanguo Appointed New Xinjiang Party Secretary

Among the decisions announced after the central government’s annual closed door meetings at Beidahe are appointments of the top leaders of various provinces. An official statement released on Monday announced that Zhang Chunxian is being replaced by Chen Quanguo as secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). This is something of a promotion given that Xinjiang Party Secretaries usually serve in the Politburo, though we will have to wait until the 19th Party Congress late next year to find out if he will be raised to the position.

Chen Quanguo offers security forces Khatag before the period of heightened security around Tibetan New Year, 2015. (Image from Tibet Daily)

Chen Quanguo offers security forces Khatag before the period of heightened security around Tibetan New Year, 2015. (Image from Tibet Daily)

This appointment will make Chen Quanguo the first party member to have served as Party Secretary of both Xinjiang and Tibet. It is worth considering the possible significance of this and taking a look at the record of Chen’s five years in Tibet to gain insight into what his appointment might mean for East Turkestan. Chen is replacing Zhang Chunxian, who has occupied the post since 2010 and who takes credit for a decline in “violent terrorism” under his watch despite the considerable amount of violence perpetrated during the “Strike Hard” campaign. The announcement stated that Zhang will have “another appointment, rumored to be a transfer to Beijing to be Deputy Secretary of the Leading Small Group for Party Building (中央党建领导小组). Some observers interpret this as a type of demotion caused by his possible ties to Zhou Yongkang or even possibly even dissatisfaction with his performance as Party Secretary in XUAR; others speculate that it may be a significant position given the importance the Xi administration places on Party discipline.

James Liebold describes the appointment as a setback for Xi given that fact that Chen is from the tuanpai faction, but the opacity of the Chinese government makes such things difficult to ascertain. What does seem certain is that his transfer from Tibet to Xinjiang reflects some level of official satisfaction with the performance of his duties there and the possibility that official policies in the two majority-minority regions are converging. Like East Turkestan, the CCP’s rule in Tibet focuses heavily on repression of religious institutions and expression, and Chen’s tenure saw no moderation of this policy. His policies in Tibet can be illustrated with the article he penned for Qiushi in 2013, vowing to build an “impenetrable defense” against separatism and blaming unrest in the region on the “reactionary propaganda of the splittists” entering Tibet” (for an unofficial English translation, see here). There followed a campaign of seizing satellite dishes, increased radio blocking and internet monitoring. Chen struck a similar note in a 2015 Qiushi article calling for increased government propaganda presence in temples, followed by orders that all monasteries fly the Chinese national flag.

Under Chen’s watch self-immolations peaked and the authorities responded to the protests by increasing security measures, including detaining protestors’ family members and indiscriminately cracking down on their communities. The government rather absurdly defines self-immolations as terrorist attacks, and in 2015 began offering rewards for any information on “violent terror attacks” and the spread of “religious extremism.” As in the case of East Turkestan, the government blames unrest on foreign forces and has increased scrutiny of Tibetans and Uyghurs attempting to leave the country- the local government boasted that no Tibetans managed to go to India for religious reasons in 2015. Nor does being an official spare Tibetans or Uyghurs from falling under the general cloud of suspicion- they are subject to even stricter rules about their religious conduct than the general population. In 2014 15 officials in Tibet were severely punished for allegedly being part of an “illegal underground Tibetan independence organization,” while the head of the Xinjiang Commission for Discipline Inspection has suggested that some Party members in the province are uncommitted to ethnic and national unity and even support committing “violent terrorist acts”.

Tibetans and Uyghurs share many of the same complaints about their treatment by Chinese authorities- suppression of religion and language, environmental degradation, Han in-migration, and an oppressive security apparatus. Chen’s appointment suggests there will be no policy discontinuity, and that the central government is increasingly grouping Tibet and East Turkestan together as regions that pose a threat to China’s national security and therefore are in need of particularly repressive policies. Although Zhang Chunxian struck a warmer tone than his predecessor Wang Lequan, government policies remained as harsh as ever under his watch. There is every reason to believe that the same will be true of Chen Quanguo given his track record in Tibet.

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Without land, there is no life

UHRP’s new report on environmental activism among Uyghurs demonstrates the lack of a Uyghur voice in addressing harmful state policies

Uyghur Human Rights Project Commentary

Toghrak Trees

Toghrak Trees courtesy of Sean Gallagher

For a number of years the political, economic and social condition of the Uyghurs was often labeled as an “underreported” issue and measured against the well-known human rights concerns of Tibetans. However, since 9/11 this relative anonymity in the global discourse has changed with politicians, journalists and security experts pondering direction of Uyghur political resistance. This new interest while garnering much attention frequently ignores the decreasing space allowed for peaceful opposition to Chinese state policies.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project’s (UHRP) new report Without land, there is no life documents the suppression of Uyghur environmental activism in the context of increased migration and center-led economic campaigns in East Turkestan. The report reveals how the Chinese government does not separate legitimate expressions of concern over the environment among Uyghurs from threats to the Chinese state. One interviewee remarked to UHRP, for Uyghurs to exercise the right of association and assembly over an environmental concern was “impossible, unimaginable…It’s not even allowed for three Uyghurs to gather without raising suspicion.”

In such a statement the mechanisms of Chinese state suppression are laid bare. China uses heightened security to limit Uyghur civil society and quell peaceful opposition to its policies. The absence of a Uyghur voice in environmental decision-making is matched elsewhere. In the areas of education, economic planning, religious governance and cultural identity the genuine and meaningful participation of Uyghur civil society does not meet internationally recognized standards. The import of experts unfamiliar with the region to facilitate rapid economic growth ignores the vital contribution of indigenous Uyghur knowledge to sustainable development–a key finding of UHRP’s new research.

Economic development is often cited by the Chinese government as the key to resolving ethnic tensions in the region. Officials often remark on how cities in eastern China should be studied as a model for opening economic opportunities in East Turkestan. In addition, the early template of poor enforcement of environmental regulation in the east has also been transferred to the west. Reports indicate that while the state tightens up adherence over industrial emissions on coastal China, high polluting factories have moved to the Uyghur region where monitoring and standards are more relaxed. The increasing attractiveness of the region to industry and developers has propelled Uyghur displacement from traditional lands as rapacious local officials terminate leases offering inadequate compensation to sell the land for high prices.

Urbanization, economic growth and agricultural subsidies are contributing pull factors for migrants to the region and UHRP’s report discusses the detrimental effects this demographic shift, particularly in the south, has placed on water resources resulting in desertification. Continued state investment in the oil and gas extraction industries and active promotion of the region as a conduit for Xi Jinping’s transcontinental One Belt One Road economic campaign without publicly available research on the ecological impact does not bode well for the future. It should be kept in mind that East Turkestan’s eco-system is fragile and the balance between the needs of a growing population, an expanding manufacturing sector and available resources such as water is not sustainable under the current rate of demand.

While Without land, there is no life focuses on the ecological degradation stemming from poor economic planning and induced migration since the 1990s, it also asserts the origin of the environmental ills besetting the region stretch further back in time. China conducted 45 atmospheric and underground nuclear weapons tests at the Lop Nur testing site between 1964 and 1996. While tests were ongoing, Uyghurs publicly protested the negative health impacts and contamination of the land the detonation of nuclear weapons would cause in an area predominately inhabited by Uyghurs. The demonstrations were suppressed and testing proceeded unchecked by civilians.

Uyghur environmental activism is severely hampered by the lack of access to state information on ecological conditions. The freedom to scrutinize government surveys and research is a fundamental building block to successful monitoring of state policies affecting the environment. Scholars who had worked on environmental research in the region that spoke to UHRP said they were unable to investigate the role of policy on environmental degradation.

The absence of detailed state information on the environment is not a surprise given the Chinese authorities’ opaqueness on many other matters concerning East Turkestan. Such unwillingness to hold itself to account and the active suppression of peaceful Uyghur activism under the security narrative added to the Chinese state’s sensitivity on questions over migration and balanced economic development mean the voice of the titular holders of autonomy in the region are once more marginalized and unheard.

In concluding Without land, there is no life, UHRP put forward the following recommendations:

  • Guarantee the fundamental right of the Uyghur people to participation and consultation in the decision making process regarding environmental impacts of development and agricultural planning as outlined in international and domestic legal instruments.
  • Open public forums for genuine and meaningful debate on environmental issues. This includes the freedoms to seek, receive and impart information online. Uyghurs should be free to conduct research into the causes of environment degradation in East Turkestan and to access government information on the environment.
  • Respect the fundamental rights to freedom of assembly and association. International human rights standards assert the right for individuals to form non-governmental organizations to monitor the state’s compliance with environmental benchmarks.
  • Mainstream Uyghur knowledge of the environment into decision-making on development and agricultural planning. The government should pursue a balanced approach to development planning that considers the interests of small-scale Uyghur farmers.


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