Xi Jinping “The Dream Seller”
Xi started 2018 by dream-selling that all rural Chinese living below the poverty line would no more be poor by 2020. Internationally he projected himself as the crusader for world peace and climate change, insurer of international order (Despite ignoring the ruling of PCA and violating UNCLOS), with a resolve to push through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to fulfill Chinese dream. It indirectly amounts to declaring himself as tallest leader on the planet, in the manner he got himself re-elected for second term and did everything possible to make himself great under the banner of ‘Making China Great’. He seems to start 2018, assuming that the world accept him as tallest autocratic leader, as China has accepted him without worthwhile checks and balances.
Post 19th Congress of CPC1, Xi Jumping’s election, enshrinement of his thoughts and ideas like BRI in the Chinese constitution, resulted into his self achievement of a parallel status to Mao Zedong in China. He has been on a title grabbing spree holding over 12 top class appointments in China. It includes becoming the Commander in Chief of Joint Battle Command of PLA, and now reorganizing CMC as its Chairman, with his loyalists holding top hierarchy, to rein PLA for him. He was able to sell the dream of prosperous life and freedom from poverty. He also demonstrated that mainland China is the safest place in the world with no terrorist attack so far1, in an era when no country feels safe from terror attacks of varying variety (Even if amounted to overlooking some Pakistan based militant groups support to ETIM, active in Xinjiang, isolation in support to Masood Azhar).
His anti-corruption drive was most popular amongst masses seeing powerful people in jail, notwithstanding the accusation of systematically eliminating the entire dissenting elements and all his possible competitors through every possible means including this drive. Many critiques in China and abroad feel that his real achievements do not match his elevation to the status of Mao, which would have definitely created some disgruntled elements in his system, and powerful lobbies who may be quiet now, because disagreeing with Xi ‘The Core’ is anti national and may lead to jail.
Internal risks ahead for Xi Jinping: creation of a boiling pot?
2018 sees ‘Financial Battle’ as the greatest challenge for Xi Jinping. Despite global slowdown his record of financial growth has not been good. He took over in 2012 with 7.9 percent GDP growth and his economist does not see him going beyond 6.5 in 2018. It is quite clear to the dream seller Xi Jinping, that so long he delivers economically, the people will tolerate his autocracy, and his opponents will be quite. So long CPC ensures economic progress and the people of China get a decent life, they will tolerate the forced praises of Xi Jinping. When his regime stops delivering economically, the democratic winds will start flowing from Hongkong and Taiwan, and the educated youth may not tolerate the autocratic system of Xi Jinping, having no worthwhile grievance redresser mechanism. After all China is third most popular educational hub, with largest number of PhD’s in the world, where population understands the entire power play. Xi’s loyalists assuming every key appointment in China including chiefs of State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s), which are surviving on bank loans. They cannot be assumed to be quiet forever. Hongkong continues to protest for more autonomy (the last one in the beginning of 2018, in City Square). Xi realizes the need for economic delivery and he continues to repeatedly emphasise on success of BRI. He did deliberate on economy in a mega economic conference, but his catchy slogans like “Xi Jinping’s Economic Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese charecteristics in New Era” have to deliver.
Riding the Tiger: PLA
Suppressing/sidelining PLA is like riding a tiger, because historically PLA had a major role in creation of PRC and has been having a stronghold in the CPC. In successive reorganizations of PLA, anyone who thought differently than Xi Jinping has been sidelined, with his puppets propped up including manning CMC. This has created a powerful lobby which has suffered in such reorganisation, with hidden potential to explode. Xi is also planning another watchdog body ‘National Supervisory Commission’ likely to be above law indicates that dissent has no place in “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” and adequate ‘Revolutionary Tampering’ will be resorted to quell dissent. It will also make PLA commanders extra cautious in exercising command, causing further disgruntlement. In fact Xi is pushing his country to a state where there is only one leader and everyone else is a worker. It is also fair to assume that whenever anyone gets more than his dues, everyone else becomes jealous of him and disgruntled, hesitant of cooperating willingly with him thus creating a boiling pot.
China can boast of speeding up its ammunition manufacture by utilizing robots, but with over centralization of power, the PLA hierarchy also has no choice but to behave like robots and no scope for dissent which is not a very happy state of affairs for any military force. It is learnt that PLA sidelined more Generals in anti corruption campaign than poor performers in any war, with suspicion of falling out of Xi’s thinking, besides genuine corrupt cases.
Amongst many firsts post !9th Congress, China places its internal security force PAPF being placed under CMC, which is being managed by loyalists of President Xi Jinping. Message which comes out is that the internal security will also have much better grip of CMC and the role of NPC under which it has been traditionally, will have a limited role. The speculation can also be that with total autocratic style of hierarchy, China may be expecting much greater dissent than earlier.
No dissent with “The Core” XI Jinping, or be declared anti-national: A new normal
The biggest threat to China comes from within. The viability of “Implosion theory” is worth analysation with a totalitarian regime. Besides taking control of powerful PLA, with dissenters sidelined, some powerful civil members who held important positions in CPC, and booked under anti-corruption drive also add on to this lobby of disgruntled elements. The resolution of 19th Congress includes that adequate ‘Revolutionary Tampering’ will be resorted to quell dissent even in the society. The legal system stands hostage to party leadership justifies the boiling pot theory. The people’s belief that Xi will make China great and his popularity amongst the masses is his greatest strength, a dent on which is a great risk. Some of his actions like forcing Christians to replace Jesus Christ photos by Xi Jinping’s photo to avail government benefits, laying restrictions on religious practices on Uyghurs’ in Xinjiang, use of force in trying to prevent democratic thoughts and autonomy in Hongkong may be too risky, as it may break the internal cohesion of China. Xi’s efforts like forcing students to read Xi’s thoughts (Equivalent of Mao Redbook) can be seen as an effort to change societal fabric may not go very well in China of New era having educated population. The strict censorship of media and internet, and electronic isolation of thoughts indicates attempt to bring societal changes in a manner that chances of student unrests/disagreements are minimized.
With Xi Jinping holding all key appointments with no room for dissent, the over-centralisation of power with him will lead to decision paralysis, with everyone in governance looking up to him for every decision, which might affect effective execution and growth of the country.
External Risks for Xi Jinping: Has he pushed others together?
The second major risk comes from reactions of the external environment to the autocratic, over ambitious Xi Jinping challenging the entire global system. Xi has left no ambiguity in conveying that he wants to ‘Restore’ China’s position as the ‘Global Superpower’ replacing US, and have a world class military by 2050.He has forced other countries not in tune with him, and some neutral countries to come closer to US against his aggressive designs. His direct threats to Taiwan and indirect ones to potential adversaries in his speech in 19th Congress, and the Resolution thereafter, indicate unprecedented arrogance. The threat to Taiwan, is being demonstrated with increased number military drills and air exercises around Taiwan, notwithstanding the Tsai call for mainland trying to destablise the region.
China’s aggressive posture is visible in incremental encroachment of features and converting them into islands in South China Sea, stretching its sovereignty claim as per its perception based on impractical historical logic, over-riding UNCLOS and ruling of Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of Philippines. Having done that his claim to be “Insurer of world order and peace” in his New Year message of 2018 does not make sense to the world outside China. China also continued to convert features to islands to military base (Announcing completion of infrastructure development in Ferry Cross Reef), without any physical opposition by taking advantage of window of opportunity due to US engagement with North Korea, Afghanistan, and controversies regarding Iran and Israel, besides certain internal controversies. China may have projected North Korea as a concern and supported UN sanctions, but the alleged leakage of oil despite, more so with impounding of Hongkong ships by South Korea, keeps China under scanner for not being serious about UN sanctions.
His direct messaging for PLA to be ready to realise China’s reunification at any cost (Implying use of force), take expeditionary roles to ensure world peace, leaves no doubts about his hegemonic design and uncontrolled autocratic stance. He challenges the law based global system but wants to impose it inside China. This has pushed all other powers which are immediately affected by it, to get closer. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) may be at official level talks on sidelines of Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia Summits, to discuss regional and global cooperation in Manila may be an old idea with limited scope today, but it signals thinking and talking about balancing China’s growing assertiveness. The signal seems to have reached China as its foreign office shows concern that it should neither be politicised nor exclusionary. It is seen that China is trying to deal with each country bilaterally, thereafter. Malabar exercise in Bay of Bengal and global use of word ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of ‘Asia-Pacific’ (cutting out China from it), Asia- Africa Growth Corridor are some examples of it. Quad may not be a relevant balancer today, but it may become formal, relevant and powerful in future, in case Chinese stance continues to be aggressive.
Notwithstanding larger than life image of Xi Jinping inside China, Post 19th Congress most reactions from other countries do not indicate any global swing in Xi’s favor. Pakistan, the closest ally of China refused to accept Yuan as global currency in Gwadar SEZ in favor of Dollar initially, till US announced cuts in financial aid. It pulled out from Diamer-Bhasha dam deal over China’s ‘too strict’ conditions. CPEC is being criticized in Pakistan to be against their interest, raising questions on viability of CPEC. In fact China itself has apprehensions on CPEC, concerning security and corruption of officials, and has recently stopped its fund flow to Pakistan to revisit terms and conditions, leaving some other energy projects in jeopardy. Nepal has already scrapped the deal of $ 2.5 Billion Budhi Gandaki hydropower project. Its BRI programs seem to be slowing down after symbolic progress initially, starving for funds.
While Xi may claim to have reached in US neighborhood for investments in South America, as a counter to US influence in South and East China Sea, but his idea of replacing US as global peace provider is still not acknowledged by anyone and does not indicate the practicality of its dream of being leading superpower. If China’s Defense budget for 2017 was $ 215.7 Billion and US had allocated $ 611.2 Billion for defense (SIPRI Factsheet), there is no way that it can replace it as global security provider. The largest military need not be the best in the world, despite such aspirations. In my opinion his ambitions, aggressiveness and arrogance is moving faster than its capacity building. Xi’s idea of proving to the world that the authoritarian, socialist model of governance with Chinese characteristics in new era is better than liberal democratic model of West has no takers. China’s next door neighbours like Nepal going for complete democracy and Vietnam moving towards more liberalism post 19th Congress justify the point.
The global strategists have reason to expect a more confident, assertive, foreign policy from China in light of Xi Jinping’s announcement that China would continue to seek a greater role in world affairs in a new era, as it strides towards the global centre-stage. He is following it up with military build-up in expeditionary design in places like the South China Sea, and soft power play through economic schemes like the BRI.
History is full of examples where a totalitarian regime whenever started making threatening postures with no internal checks and balances, it led the country to disaster, like the way Hitler led Germany to a disaster when his ambition grew beyond his capability. It also need to be noted that in future the idea of having one or two superpowers is getting outdated, because all countries work as per their national interest and do not follow the dictate of any one country. North Korea standing up to US, Vietnam standing up to US and China, India and Bhutan standing up to China in Doklam stand-off, are some examples to prove that a well determined country cannot be forced to adopt a particular course by any power.
Strategic Encroachment in India’s Neighborhood, post 19th Congress
Post 19th Congress of CPC, China continues to encroach in Indian neighbourhood without talking about the core issues and points of divergences as earlier. To that extent I do not think 19th Congress of CPC has made any major difference to India China relations. While China has talked of better relations with India in 2018, but the visits of its Foreign Minister alongwith Russian Foreign Minister did not yield anything worthwhile, with each side quite firm on its stance on issues of divergences like BRI. On the controversial border issue there is a crying need of delimitation, definition and demarcation of LAC, and the demarcation be known to the troops manning it, if both sides want to avoid stand-offs. The Chinese however seem to be singing the old tune of better border management and confidence building measures to prevent it, which to my mind is a quick fix solution; with China again postponing the core issue even after 20th round of talks.
The only difference which affects India indirectly is that some of our common neighbors may give in to more aggressive ‘Chequebook diplomacy’ and ‘Infrastructure diplomacy’ of China or may get coerced/influenced by it. China’s decision for extension of CPEC into Afghanistan may affect Indian influence in that country. It indicates the clear strategic intent of getting Afghanistan into its strategic orbit, attempt to play as a mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan by ‘Infrastructure diplomacy’, take Afghanistan away from US strategic space and Indian influence, mitigate Indian Chahbahar connectivity, besides using Afghanistan mineral resources. China has achieved rail connectivity with Iran, which does generate fresh concerns for Washington. Maldives signing FTA with China, land grabbing efforts of China in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan are few such examples affecting Indian security adversely for which India needs to find an answer.
China is also trying to play the role of mediator in Rakhine state of Myanmar, emphatically increasing its influence over Myanmar, advertising its capability for humanitarian development, checkmating Indian stance towards Rohingyas to show India in poor light. China is not concerned about the terror potential of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army duly supported by ISI/Pakistan. China with little investment of money power expects to get a pat from UN, as a responsible state .
On diplomatic side India needs to not only ‘Act east’ but ‘Act west’ also. India is better located to be the hub of global sea lanes with lesser choke points either side, and is working towards this capability to provide an alternate model of global connectivity like Asia- Africa Growth Corridor connecting further West.2 Domination of Indian Ocean is going to be another strategic competition, which will become unavoidable in due course. China can keep increasing bases in Indian Ocean, but whether they will be its strength or vulnerability will be a question mark due to distance involved, choke points and growing strength and operability of Indian Navy with other global Navies.
The National Security Strategy of United States calls China and Russia as competitors3. Although rubbished by China as ‘Cold War Mentality’, still brings the inclusion of China into a new arena of cold war with many more regional players getting in, looking for check and balance to aggressive China, even if they do not say so openly. A beginning of new cold war which may lead to a trade war is evident and reality. While China may be confident to ensure that the ‘Implosion theory’ will not work by its super strict checks, but will this narrative sell outside, I have my doubts. It remains to be seen that a country having an autocratic system, with only one decision maker and rest executers, with educated population will continue in this form for decades. Any slowdown in economy might result in democratic winds flowing inside to an extent that it may be difficult to control. The exact evaluation of Yuan is a suspect hence China may claim to stand tall on economic front, but is there a bubble inside only time will tell.
The views expressed are of Major General S B Asthana (veteran) and do not represent views of any organization. The General is reachable on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, also on website http://www.asthanawrites.org
- Resolution of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on the Report of the 18th Central Committee, October 24, 2017, Xinhuanet.
- Asthana S B, Opinion: What does Xi’s autocratic position mean for India?WION News, December 07, 2018. URL http://www.wionews.com/world/opinion-what-does-xis-autocratic-position-means-for-india-26100
- National Security Strategy of United States of America, December18,2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/…/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf
China’s soft power and its Lunar New Year’s Culture
Authors: Liu Hui & Humprey A. Russell*
As a common practice, China has celebrated its annual Lunar new year since 1984 when the leaders of the day decided to open mysterious country in a more confident and transparent way. So far, the lunar new year gala has become a part of Chinese cultural life and beyond. The question then arises why China or its people have been so thrilled to exhibit themselves to the world, as its economy has already impressed the world by its rapid pace and tremendous capacity.
As it is well-known, in international relations, peoples from different cultural and ethnical backgrounds need to enhance their understanding which eventually leads to mutual respect and tolerance as the key to the world peace and stability. China is well-aware of this norm. As a rising power with 1.3 billion people, it is necessary for China to introduce its culture and notion of the peaceful rise to the audiences globally. Joseph Nye, Jr., the founder of the concept of the soft power, has argued: “The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies. During the information age, credibility is the scarcest resource.”In light of this, China has been steadily involved in cultural promotions abroad.
China is an ancient civilization but diplomatically it is a new global player in terms of its modern involvement into the world affairs, particularly in terms of reform and openness. Yet, since China has aspired to rejuvenate itself as one of the leading powers globally, it is natural for the world en bloc to assume Beijing’s intention and approach to the power transition between the rising power like itself and the ruling powers such as the United States and the G-7 club. Consider this, China has exerted all efforts to project but not propagate its image to the world. Here culture is bound to play the vital role in convincing the countries concerned that “culturally China has no the gene of being a threat to other peoples,” as Chinese President Xi has assured. The annual lunar gala is evidently a useful instrument to demonstrate Chinese people, culture and policies as well.
Culturally speaking, the Chinese New Year celebrations can be seen as follows. In a general sense, similar themes run through all the galas with the local cultural and ethnical ingredients, for instance, Chinese opera, crosstalk and acrobatics, as well as the lion-dancing or the dragon-dancing from time to time. Yes, the galas play the role of promoting the Chinese communities over the world to identify themselves with the Chinese culture which surely strengthen the cultural bonds among the Chinese, in particular the younger generations. Moreover, the dimension of the Chinese culture can be found beyond the country since its neighbors like Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Malaysia, as well as Chinese communities in many other areas also perform those arts at the holiday seasons. The message here is clear that China, although it is a rising great power, has never abandoned its cultural tradition which has emphasized the harmony among the different races and ethnics.
Recently, the lunar new year celebrations across China have invited professional and amateur artists from all over the world. Those foreign guest artists and many overseas students studying in China have been able to offer their talents in either Chinese or their mother tongues. No doubt, this is a two-way to learn from each other because Chinese performers are benefited from the contacts with their counterparts globally. In terms of public diplomacy, Beijing aims to send a powerful and sincere message to the world: China can’t be in isolation from the world because it has aspired to be a great and inclusive country as well. To that end, the rise of China is not going to challenge the status quo, but will act as one of the stakeholders.
As usual, realists have difficulties and even cultural bias to accept the rhetoric from a country like China since it has been regarded by the ruling powers of the world as an ambitious, assertive and communist-ruled country with its unique culture. To that challenge, the Chinese government and the people have done a great deal of works to successfully illustrate Chinese practice of harmony at the societal level idealized by Confucius’ doctrines. This social harmony is made possible only by the realization of the Taoist ideal of harmony with nature – in this case, harmony between humans and nature. This explains why panda and many other rare animals are now viewed as new national symbol of China. Although they are unnecessarily an indispensable part of the lunar new year gala, the viewpoint is that the rise of China would not be completed at the cost of the ecological environment like many other countries did in history.
Practically speaking, the lunar new year celebrations are being conducted in a rich variety of ways such as concerts, cuisines, folk entertainments and even forums and receptions around the world. Major global commercial centers have also served to create a Chinese holiday atmosphere, adapt to the needs of Chinese tourists, attract active participation from local residents, and provide such diversities of cultural and social events. What is worth mentioning is that some Chinese-North American non-profit, non-partisan organizations are beginning to celebrate Chinese lunar gala in partnership with other local counterparts. For instance, the Chinese Inter-cultural Association based in California, recently hosted a Chinese New Year party in a Persian restaurant in partnership with a local non-profit, non-partisan organization called the Orange County Toastmaster Club, part of Toastmaster International. Also, in another Chinese New Year celebration that was open to people of all races in Pasadena, two Americans played the guitar and sang songs in fluent Chinese! Both galas were attended by people of all racial backgrounds around the world. Given this, it is fair to say that China’s soft power supported by its annual lunar new year festival is on the rise globally with a view to promoting mutual respect and friendship among the peoples of various cultural, ethnical and racial origins.
Yet, though the impressive feats are achieved, it has noted that China still has a long way to go in terms of its twin-centennial dreams. First, as a developing country with its unique culture, it is necessary for China to promote its great ancient culture abroad, but it is also imperative to avoid “introducing” China rashly into the globe. Essentially, soft power is more the ability to attract and co-opt than to use force or give money as a means of persuasion. Thereby, it is the very ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. As cross-cultural communication is a long process, Nye admitted a few years ago, in public affairs, “the best propaganda is not propaganda.”
This is the key to all the countries. In 2014,President Xi formally stated, “China should increase its soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate its messages to the world.” In light of this, Chinese lunar new year gala surely acts as soft power to project the image of China internationally.
* Humprey A. Russell (Indonesia), PhD candidate in international affairs, SIPA, Jilin University.
China’s step into the maelstrom of the Middle East
The Middle East has a knack for sucking external powers into its conflicts. China’s ventures into the region have shown how difficult it is to maintain its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.
China’s abandonment of non-interference is manifested by its (largely ineffective) efforts to mediate conflicts in South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan as well as between Israel and Palestine and even between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is even more evident in China’s trashing of its vow not to establish foreign military bases, which became apparent when it established a naval base in Djibouti and when reports surfaced that it intends to use Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar as a military facility.
This contradiction between China’s policy on the ground and its long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy principles means that Beijing often struggles to meet the expectations of Middle Eastern states. It also means that China risks tying itself up in political knots in countries such as Pakistan, which is home to the crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative — the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Middle Eastern autocrats have tried to embrace the Chinese model of economic liberalism coupled with tight political control. They see China’s declared principle of non-interference in the affairs of others for what it is: support for authoritarian rule. The principle of this policy is in effect the same as the decades-old US policy of opting for stability over democracy in the Middle East.
It is now a risky policy for the United States and China to engage in given the region’s post-Arab Spring history with brutal and often violent transitions. If anything, instead of having been ‘stabilised’ by US and Chinese policies, the region is still at the beginning of a transition process that could take up to a quarter of a century to resolve. There is no guarantee that autocrats will emerge as the winners.
China currently appears to have the upper hand against the United States for influence across the greater Middle East, but Chinese policies threaten to make that advantage short-term at best.
Belt and Road Initiative-related projects funded by China have proven to be a double-edged sword. Concerns are mounting in countries like Pakistan that massive Chinese investment could prove to be a debt trap similar to Sri Lanka’s experience.
Chinese back-peddling on several Pakistani infrastructure projects suggests that China is tweaking its approach to the US$50 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese rethink was sparked by political volatility caused by Pakistan’s self-serving politics and continued political violence — particularly in the Balochistan province, which is at the heart of CPEC.
China decided to redevelop its criteria for the funding of CPEC’s infrastructure projects in November 2017. This move seemingly amounted to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time when they were flexing their muscles in response to political volatility. The decision suggests that China is not averse to shaping the political environment of key countries in its own authoritarian mould.
Similarly, China has been willing to manipulate Pakistan against its adversaries for its own gain. China continues to shield Masoud Azhar (who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence agencies and military forces) from UN designation as a global terrorist. China does so while Pakistan cracks down on militants in response to a US suspension of aid and a UN Security Council monitoring visit.
Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves China’s interest in keeping India off balance — a goal which Beijing sees as worthy despite the fact that Chinese personnel and assets have been the targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan. Saudi Arabia is also considering the use of Balochistan as a launching pad to destabilise Iran. By stirring ethnic unrest in Iran, Saudi Arabia will inevitably suck China into the Saudi–Iranian rivalry and sharpen its competition with the United States. Washington backs the Indian-supported port of Chabahar in Iran — a mere 70 kilometres from Gwadar.
China is discovering that it will prove impossible to avoid the pitfalls of the greater Middle East. This is despite the fact that US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seem singularly focussed on countering Iran and Islamic militants.
As it navigates the region’s numerous landmines, China is likely to find itself at odds with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. It will at least have a common interest in pursuing political stability at the expense of political change — however much this may violate its stated commitment to non-interference.
Chinese extradition request puts crackdown on Uyghurs in the spotlight
A Chinese demand for the extradition of 11 Uyghurs from Malaysia puts the spotlight on China’s roll-out of one of the world’s most intrusive surveillance systems, military moves to prevent Uyghur foreign fighters from returning to Xinjiang, and initial steps to export its security approach to countries like Pakistan.
The 11 were among 25 Uyghurs who escaped from a Thai detention centre in November through a hole in the wall, using blankets to climb to the ground.
The extradition request follows similar deportations of Uyghurs from Thailand and Egypt often with no due process and no immediate evidence that they were militants.
The escapees were among more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014. The Uyghurs claimed they were Turkish nationals and demanded that they be returned to Turkey. Thailand, despite international condemnation, forcibly extradited to China some 100 of the group in July 2015.
Tens of Uyghurs, who were unable to flee to Turkey in time, were detained in Egypt in July and are believed to have also been returned to China. Many of the Uyghurs were students at Al Azhar, one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning.
China, increasingly concerned that Uyghurs fighters in Syria and Iraq will seek to return to Xinjiang or establish bases across the border in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the wake of the territorial demise of the Islamic State, has brutally cracked down on the ethnic minority in its strategic north-western province, extended its long arm to the Uyghur Diaspora, and is mulling the establishment of its first land rather than naval foreign military base.
The crackdown appears, at least for now, to put a lid on intermittent attacks in Xinjiang itself. Chinese nationals have instead been targeted in Pakistan, the $50 billion plus crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through infrastructure.
The attacks are believed to have been carried out by either Baloch nationalists or militants of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State.
Various other groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have threatened to attack Chinese nationals in response to the alleged repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
ETIM militants were believed to have been responsible for the bombing in August 2015 of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine that killed 20 people as retaliation for the forced repatriation of Uighurs a month earlier.
The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan
China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged ETIM assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets
China has refused to recognize ethnic aspirations of Uyghurs, a Turkic group, and approached it as a problem of Islamic militancy. Thousands of Uyghurs are believed to have joined militants in Syria, while hundreds or thousands more have sought to make their way through Southeast Asia to Turkey.
To counter ethnic and religious aspirations, China has introduced what must be the world’s most intrusive surveillance system using algorithms. Streets in Xinjiang’s cities and villages are pockmarked by cameras; police stations every 500 metres dot roads in major cities; public buildings resemble fortresses; and authorities use facial recognition and body scanners at highway checkpoints.
The government, in what has the makings of a re-education program, has opened boarding schools “for local children to spend their entire week in a Chinese-speaking environment, and then only going home to parents on the weekends,” according to China scholar David Brophy. Adult Uyghurs, who have stuck to their Turkic language, have been ordered to study Chinese at night schools.
Nightly television programs feature oath-swearing ceremonies,” in which participants pledge to root out “two-faced people,” the term used for Uyghur Communist Party members who are believed to be not fully devoted to Chinese policy.
The measures in Xinjiang go beyond an Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced that scores a person’s political trustworthiness. The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.
Elements of the system are poised for export. A long-term Chinese plan for China’s investment in Pakistan, dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisioned creating a system of monitoring and surveillance in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order.
The system envisions deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”
A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media. Pakistani media would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.”
The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”
The measures were designed to address the risks to CPEC that the plan identified as “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.
At the same time, China, despite official denials, is building, according to Afghan security officials, a military base for the Afghan military that would give the People’s Republic a presence in Badakhshan, the remote panhandle of Afghanistan that borders China and Tajikistan.
Chinese military personnel have reportedly been in the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in north-eastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan since March last year.
The importance China attributes to protecting itself against Uyghur militancy and extending its protective shield beyond its borders was reflected in the recent appointment as its ambassador to Afghanistan, Liu Jinsong, who was raised in Xinjiang and served as a director of the Belt and Road initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund.
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