April 5, 2021

nATIONALISM IS ALWAYS A FUNCTION OF FEAR:

Surviving the Crackdown in Xinjiang: As mass detentions and surveillance dominate the lives of China's Uyghurs and Kazakhs, a woman struggles to free herself. (Raffi Khatchadourian, April 5, 2021, The New Yorker)

As Sabit was deciding to move to Canada, in 2014, a dark future was being mapped out for Xinjiang in secret meetings in Beijing. Xi Jinping had become President the year before, and he was consolidating power. As he cleared away the obstacles to lifelong rule, he eventually subjected more than a million government officials to punishments that ranged from censure to execution. With China's ethnic minorities, he was no less fixated on control.

Xinjiang's turbulent history made it a particular object of concern. The region had never seemed fully within the Party's grasp: it was a target for external meddling--the Russian tsar had once seized part of it--and a locus of nationalist sentiment, held over from its short-lived independence. Communist theoreticians long debated the role that nationalities should play in the march toward utopia--especially in peripheral societies that were not fully industrialized. The early Soviets took an accommodating approach and worked to build autonomous republics for ethnic groups. The Chinese pursued a more assimilationist policy.

In the fifties, Mao, recognizing that the Party's hold on Xinjiang was weak, mobilized the bingtuan to set up its farms in the region's north--a buffer against potential Soviet incursions. Revolutionaries flooded in, and within decades the population was forty per cent Han. Party officials, hoping to assimilate the indigenous residents, sought to strip away their traditions--their Muslim faith, their schools, even their native languages. The authorities came to regard Uyghur identity as "mistaken": Uyghurs were Chinese.

In the late seventies, Deng Xiaoping took power, and rolled back the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. In Xinjiang, mosques were reopened and local languages were permitted, giving way to a cultural flourishing. But amid the new openness people began to express discontent with what remained a colonial relationship. Adhering to regional traditions, or even maintaining "Xinjiang time"--two hours behind Beijing--became a subtle act of dissent. Some locals staged protests, bearing placards that read "Chinese Out of Xinjiang." A few radicals discussed an insurgency.

In April, 1990, near the city of Kashgar, a conflagration broke out between locals and the authorities--apparently started by an amateurish group of militants and then joined by demonstrators who did not fully grasp what was happening. Police and members of the bingtuan quickly quashed the violence. It had been only a year since the Tiananmen Square protests, and the country's ruling élite had little tolerance for disunity. A year later, when the Soviet Union fell, the Chinese Communist Party--convinced that ethnic nationalism had helped tear the former superpower to pieces--became even more alarmed.

With near-paranoid intensity, the government pursued any perceived sign of "splitism." The Party secretary of Kashgar, Zhu Hailun, was among the most aggressive. Abduweli Ayup, who worked for Zhu as a translator and an aide, recalled that, in March, 1998, cotton farmers protested a ruling that barred them from planting vegetable patches. Zhu railed at them for being separatists, adding, "You're using your mosques as forts!" On another occasion, he derided the Quran, telling an Uyghur audience, "Your God is shit." Zhu ordered Ayup to lead a door-to-door hunt for families harboring nationalist or religious books--telling him that he was not to go home until he succeeded. Ayup worked until dawn, rousing people. But, he said, "I couldn't find any books at all."

Xinjiang's insurgents had proved unable to gather many adherents; locals favored the Sufi tradition of Islam, which emphasizes mysticism, not politics. At the time of the September 11th attacks, there was no terrorist violence to speak of in the region. But Osama bin Laden's operation, planned across the border in Afghanistan, put a new and urgent frame around the old anxieties. Chinese authorities drew up a long list of incidents that they claimed were examples of jihad, and made their case to the U.S. State Department. Many of the incidents were impossible to verify, or to distinguish from nonpolitical violence. In China, mass attacks--with knives, axes, or even improvised explosives--are startlingly common, and often have nothing to do with ethnic unrest. Not long ago, a man walked into a school in Yunnan Province and sprayed fifty-four people with sodium hydroxide, to enact "revenge on society," officials said. Similarly, a paraplegic assailant from eastern China detonated a bomb at one of Beijing's international airports--apparently an act of retaliation for a police beating. The bombing was treated as a one-off incident. An Uyghur, frustrated that this would never be the case in Xinjiang, asked on Twitter, "Why is everything we do terrorism?"

As the 2008 Olympics approached, Chinese authorities became obsessed with the concept of weiwen, or "stability maintenance"--intensifying repression with a ferocity that the Chinese sociologist Sun Liping compared to North Korea's. Sun, who had served on a committee that reviewed Xi Jinping's doctoral dissertation, noted that the Party was a captive of its own delusions: by overestimating the chance of an imminent societal rupture, it had become blind to the root causes of discontent. Reflexive crackdowns designed to eliminate a "phantom of instability," Sun warned, would lead to a downward spiral of repression and unrest, which could bring about the very collapse that had been feared all along.

Nowhere did this seem more apt than in Xinjiang, where China's leaders continually appeared to mistake popular discontent for a growing insurgency. The 2009 protests in Ürümqi--following similar ones in Tibet--caused Party theorists to call for engineering a monocultural society, a single "state-race," to help pave the way for "a new type of superpower." One influential domestic-security official noted, "Stability is about liberating man, standardizing man, developing man."

A new Party secretary in Ürümqi began to pursue such a policy: women were told not to wear veils, Uyghur books and Web sites were banned, historic buildings were demolished. Within a few years, the downward spiral that Sun Liping had warned of began to occur. In the autumn of 2013, an Uyghur man, accompanied by two family members, plowed an S.U.V. into a crowd of tourists in Tiananmen Square--possibly because his local mosque had been damaged during a raid. The S.U.V., filled with homemade incendiary devices, caught fire. The man and his family died, but not before killing two pedestrians and injuring thirty-eight others.

Several months later, in Yunnan Province, a small group of assailants dressed in black stormed a train station and, wielding knives, brutally killed twenty-nine bystanders and injured more than a hundred and forty others. Although no organization claimed responsibility for the incident, an insurgent group based overseas celebrated the attack. The authorities declared that the assailants were Uyghur separatists, and in Beijing the incident was called "China's 9/11." Xi was enraged. "We should unite the people to build a copper and iron wall against terrorism," he told the Politburo. "Make terrorists like rats scurrying across the street, with everybody shouting, 'Beat them!' "

In April, 2014, Xi travelled to Xinjiang. At a police station in Kashgar, he examined weapons on a wall. "The methods that our comrades have at hand are too primitive," he said during the trip. "None of these weapons is any answer for their big machete blades, axe heads, and cold steel weapons." He added, "We must be as harsh as them, and show absolutely no mercy."

On the final day of his visit, two suicide bombers attacked a railway station in Ürümqi, injuring dozens of people and killing one. At a high-level meeting in Beijing, Xi railed against religious extremism. "It's like taking a drug," he said. "You lose your sense, go crazy, and will do anything."

Soon afterward, the Party leadership in Xinjiang announced a "People's War." The focus was on separatism, terrorism, and extremism--the "Three Evil Forces." The region's top official took up the campaign, but Xi grew dissatisfied with him, and two years later appointed a replacement: Chen Quanguo, then the Party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region--a tough-minded apparatchik whose loyalty was beyond question.

Ambitious and regimented, Chen had served in the military and then risen quickly through the political ranks. When he arrived in Tibet, in 2011, monks were immolating themselves--an urgent response to a long-running crackdown, which the Dalai Lama called a "cultural genocide." The crisis was generating international headlines.

In a place where oppression had become the norm, Chen did not stand out for his use of physical violence. Instead, he distinguished himself as a systematizer of authoritarian tactics, ready to target entire groups of people with methods that pervaded daily life.

The vast majority of self-immolations were occurring to the east of the autonomous region, so Chen tightened the borders of his jurisdiction, restricting entry for Tibetans from outside it. In Lhasa, he made it impossible to buy gas without an I.D. He built hundreds of urban police depots, called "convenience stations," which were arranged in close formation--an overwhelming display of force. He dispatched more than twenty thousand Communist Party cadres into villages and rural monasteries, to propagandize and to surveil. Some locals reported that members of volunteer groups called the Red Armband Patrols upended homes to confiscate photos of the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese authorities blamed for the unrest. Detentions appeared to rise. In 2012, when a large number of Tibetans travelled to India to receive a blessing from the Dalai Lama, Chen had them consigned to makeshift reëducation facilities.

The self-immolations continued in neighboring territories, but Chen's jurisdiction recorded only one in the next four years. "We have followed the law in striking out, and relentlessly pounding at illegal organizations and key figures," he declared. He had a flair for cultivating his superiors. In March, 2016, just before his appointment to Xinjiang, delegates from his region arrived at the National People's Congress, in Beijing, wearing pins with Xi's image on them--"a spontaneous act to show gratitude," state media noted. The Party deemed Chen's tactics a success.

In Xinjiang, Chen wore his thin, jet-black hair in a precise coiffure, and travelled with a security detail brought with him from Tibet. Rather than move into the Party secretary's residence, he set himself up in a hotel that was controlled by the government and secured by the People's Liberation Army. The building was in close proximity to facilities that housed police organizations, and Chen had a high-speed data line run from his residence into the region's digital-security infrastructure.

Xi had once compared reform to a meal, noting that after the meat is eaten what's left is hard to chew. Chen made it clear that he came to "gnaw bones." He titled one of his speeches "To Unswervingly Implement the Xinjiang Strategy of the Party Central Committee, with Comrade Xi Jinping at the Core."

His predecessor had borrowed from his Tibet strategy, deploying two hundred thousand Party cadres in Xinjiang. Chen increased their numbers to a million, and urged them to go from house to house, and grow "close to the masses, emotionally." Under a program called Becoming a Family, local Party officials introduced them to indigenous households, declaring, "These are your new relatives." Cadres imposed themselves, stopping by for meals; sometimes they were required to stay overnight. Terrified residents forced smiles, politely served them, engaged their questions, and even offered them their beds.

Assisted by Zhu Hailun, who by then had become the deputy Party leader of Xinjiang, Chen recruited tens of thousands of "assistant police officers," for a force that could implement mass arrests and also quell any unrest that they provoked. He began constructing thousands of "convenience stations," seeking to impose an "iron grid" on urban life. He set out to divide the population into three categories--trusted, average, untrustworthy--and to detain anyone who could not be proved sufficiently loyal.

In early 2017, half a year after Chen arrived, he prepared his leadership for a long, complex, and "very fierce" campaign. "Take this crackdown as the top project," he instructed them, noting that it was necessary "to preëmpt the enemy, to strike at the outset." The mission, he said, was to rip out the separatist problem by its roots. He expressed zero tolerance for any "two-faced" officials who were unwilling to zealously carry out his plan.

Posted by at April 5, 2021 6:54 PM

  

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