Tea Leaf Nation

Mild, Mild West

Mild, Mild West

Xinjiang, a vast region in western China covering a surface area roughly as large as that of Iran, is known to be ethnically fraught, economically underdeveloped, and opaque to outsiders. But a new Chinese policy is giving outside observers a rare — albeit entirely one-sided — glimpse into what Chinese Communist Party policy looks like at the village level there.

In what authorities announced on Feb. 15 as a "Down to the Grassroots" campaign, over the next three years the government of the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi plans to rotate a total of 200,000 Xinjiang party officials in year-long stints across the region, so that it may "completely cover" even the remotest villages, "leaving no blank space." Decades of Han Chinese migration to the region and repressive government ethnic and religious policies have inflamed tensions between the Muslim Uighurs — who number around 10 million, composing a bit over 40 percent of Xinjiang’s total population — and the majority Han, leading to periodic violence that the government often labels as terrorist attacks. In a March 17 address to Xinjiang party officials, Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang party boss and member of China’s ultra-powerful Politburo whom Foreign Affairs describes as a media-savvy hard-liner with a "reputation for transparency," called the new campaign a "radical measure" to protect stability and promote religious and ethnic harmony in Xinjiang.

That might mark a strategic shift from pure economic development to a refocus on social stability in the turbulent region. But there’s no need to simply take Zhang’s word for it — members of the first round of the approximately 70,000 party officials who arrived at their village destinations on March 5 have been submitting stories and photos of their work in Uighur villages to the campaign’s own official account on WeChat, a mobile social network with over 271 million active users. The brief stories the account shares, numbering around five per day, portray the campaign as something akin to charm offensive-cum-ethnographic fieldwork, in which (mostly Han) party officials from more populated areas within Xinjiang trek to the furthest reaches of the autonomous region to live amongst villagers, share their daily routines, help solve local problems, and, hopefully, "garner the people’s support."

Stories from different sites around Xinjiang depict party officials learning how to cook over the small coal-burning stoves common in the region, adopting Uighur names for themselves when locals evince difficulty remembering Chinese names, chatting with village elders, helping villagers open their own village WeChat account, and even rescuing local residents suffering from smoke inhalation.

Though party control over most information relating to the "Down to the Grassroots" campaign makes it hard to assess the actual goals and practices of the campaign, the effort may indeed be a genuine attempt to show the party’s softer, more conciliatory side. According to Alim Seytoff, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, a Uighur exile group, the Chinese government utilizes both "carrots" and "sticks"  in the region. In the face of a looming government crackdown in Xinjiang, especially after the brutal March 1 knifing attack in Kunming which authorities say were perpetrated by Xinjiang terrorists, the "Down to the Grassroots" campaign is, Seytoff said, an example of a carrot.

One of these carrots may be the campaign’s emphasis on language. A common criticism among Xinjiang’s Uighurs is that top-ranking Chinese officials in Xinjiang are almost always Han Chinese who make no attempt to learn Uighur, thus placing the burden of communication completely upon Uighurs, who often don’t speak Mandarin. The "Down to the Grassroots" campaign seems to be making a good-faith effort to change that. Tianshan Net, a state-controlled Xinjiang news outlet, reported on March 6 that teach-yourself-Uighur books have become hot sellers at bookstores throughout Urumqi as a result of the campaign, and photos from the WeChat account show party officials proudly hoisting bilingual Chinese-Uighur study materials. The WeChat account also regularly provides lists of key Uighur phrases, though the heavily Sinified pronunciation guide sometimes garbles the Turkic language; for example, the phrase "how are you" — yahshimusiz — is rendered "ya he xi mo."

Despite attempts to convey a conciliatory attitude, the Communist Party’s heavy-handed policies in Xinjiang may have accompanied party officials down to the villages. According to a March 8 post on the campaign’s WeChat account, one official organized an activity for village women called "Let Beautiful Hair Float Freely; Let Beautiful Faces Be Exposed; Promote Fresh Values" to celebrate International Women’s Day in her new village home. While the post did not report the villagers’ reactions to this effort, the government’s recent anti-veiling campaign in Xinjiang has sparked anger among Muslims there and fanned fears of increasing religious repression. Although official media reports emphasize that Uighur and other ethnic minority cadres are among those sent down to the grassroots, its portrayal of ethnic relations in Xinjiang as "all one family" smacks of patronizing propaganda. And according to Seytoff, it doesn’t matter how helpful or sensitive the party officials are — the Chinese government "cannot buy people’s loyalty," regardless of whether it sends "200,000 or 2 million officials." Nothing will change, Seytoff said, "until the government changes its ethnic policies, and allows the Uighurs real autonomy." (A person who answered the phone at the Xinjiang government’s foreign affairs office declined to comment on the campaign, instead referring me to the material available online.)

Since that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, Xinjiang’s Uighurs will have to continue to make due with carrots and sticks. Meanwhile, outside observers must continue to read between the lines to learn what is really happening out in China’s far west.