The Trouble with Technocrats: China’s Xinjiang region

Lest we forget, we’re not the only ones doing a bit of political spring cleaning: China’s restive Xinjiang region has a new boss. A couple of days after the initial rioting in July 2009, ex-head honcho Wang Lequan’s face appeared on giant screens around Urumqi, Xinjiang’s largest city, telling people to calm down and return to their houses.  He was ignored by the Han Chinese who armed themselves with improvised clubs and iron bars and patrolled the streets.  When, several months later, rumours spread of syringe attacks on Han Chinese, angry protestors called for Wang’s removal from his post as Secretary of the Communist Party in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

China’s autonomous regions have a sort of dual power structure: the Chairman of the regional government comes from the largest local ethnic group (the Turkic Uyghur in the case of Xinjiang), while the Party Secretary, in fact the more powerful position, comes from the Han Chinese majority. So it was Wang Lequan, rather than the Uyghur Chairman Nur Bakri, with whom the buck stopped when things went wrong. Now he has finally been demoted and replaced by Zhang Chunxian, formerly Party Secretary in Hunan (a long long way from Xinjiang.)

So what did Wang do wrong? That depends who you ask. He was certainly no friend to the Uyghurs, instigating ‘Strike Hard’ campaigns against perceived separatist threats. He also made bizarre comments on the ‘backwardness’ of the Uyghur language (related to Turkish), suggesting that economic development would always elude the Uyghurs if they continued to use their mother tongue. To remedy this he encouraged Mandarin-medium education at the expense of the Uyghur language. A recent, much-satirized propaganda video has brought one Uyghur word (‘Yaxsi’ – ‘good’) to the attention of many Chinese, but this is about as far as the government goes in promoting the Uyghur language.  With the recent large-scale migration of Han Chinese to the resource-rich Xinjiang province, many Uyghurs feel that their culture and language are under threat.

If the Uyghurs resented Wang’s cultural chauvinism, many Han Chinese felt he wasn’t firm enough. The riots in which many Han Chinese died happened on his watch, and there was a strong feeling that the government was not doing enough to protect its people from ‘terrorists’. (It is interesting to note the effect that the War on Terror has had on the way people in China conceptualize ethnic conflict. ‘Terrorism’ is also an extremely useful term for the Chinese government, since it denies any possibility of legitimate grievance). The demonstrations against Wang Lequan after the syringe attacks showed the depth of feeling amongst Han Chinese.

Xinjiang’s new leader, Zhang Chunxian, was of course appointed by Beijing, not elected by the people. He appears to be a classic, post-Reform Era technocrat; just as it’s odds-on that the members of a Tory cabinet all went to top public schools, so is it highly likely that if you played Chat Roulette with the upper echelons of the Chinese government, you would end up face to face with an engineering graduate. At the risk of offending those more capable of building hydroelectric dams than I am, I want to suggest this ‘rule by engineers’ lies behind some of Xinjiang, and China’s, problems.

In the late 1990s a railway was built linking the city of Kashgar with the rest of China. A journey by train from the regional capital Urumqi still takes over 20 hours, but this new line has hastened the Sinification of this most Uyghur of cities: it is Han Chinese, for the most part, who use the train. The huge infrastructure projects that can be seen all over Xinjiang employ mainly migrant workers from China proper. Many Uyghurs resent this ever-increasing Chinese presence in what they see as their homeland. But according to the particularly one-dimensional idea of modernization which is fostered by the Chinese technocracy, roads and railways, runways and dams can only ever be a Good Thing. ‘Uyghur culture’ under this kind of technocracy becomes little more than colourful exotics doing appreciative dances on a newly-built motorway (see the video above).

It is of course difficult to argue that infrastructure projects are necessarily a Bad Thing. My point is rather that when a ruling class is made up almost entirely of technocrats, there is a danger that such projects are seen as an end in themselves and are divorced from their cultural implications. When this is combined with a blatant disregard for local languages and cultural practices, such as those of the Uyghur, there is clearly the potential for unrest.

Zhang Chunxian is apparently fond of using the internet to communicate with the masses. It is fitting, then, that he has been posted to Xinjiang, where the internet was shut down for months following the riots. One suspects that he is going to need more than New Media skills and an engineering degree to ensure the quiescence of the local population as China seeks to maintain its firm grip on this strategically important region.

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