November 02, 2007

Chinese Lessons

Thanks to a recent bulletin at the Small Wars Journal I caught notice of an article in the latest issue of the Joint Force Quarterly, a publication of the National Defense University for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The primary topic of this issue is China. There are a lot of interesting pieces to check out there, but the one that first caught my eye was one by Martin Wayne titled "Five Lessons from China's War on Terror" (pdf).

While I think the simmering conflict in Xinjiang has gotten more press since I first started studying it in the fall of 2004 (probably thanks to the handful of Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo, not my term paper), it is still a fairly obscure region — one which I was lucky enough to travel through recently while taking the long way home from a two-year teaching stint in Japan. I don't speak a word of Uyghur and two and a half weeks was not nearly enough time to really get beneath the surface level so I can't claim any authority as a field researcher — if you want to see my pictures from that trip, though, they are available on Flickr here and here.

Anyhow, the thesis of my old paper was that the Chinese central government has, historically, enacted a number of discriminatory or inflammatory policies which have alienated the Uyghur population in Xinjiang and which, if continued, have the counterproductive potential to actually increase the appeal of militant Islam for some members of the dispossessed minority. Dr. Wayne's article, and to some extent my own travels in Xinjiang, seem to challenge some of those ideas. Xinjiang today appears — and I should stress the "appears", because again I have not spent enough time there nor do I have the fluency to accurately judge for myself —stable. It seemed to me that much of this stability has actually come from a growing Han Chinese population with a vested interest in reaffirming Xinjiang's status as part of China, and in conjunction with this in-migration the co-opting or commodification of several centers of Uyghur life. (Witness for example this classic sign at the Id Khah mosque in Kashgar — China's largest, and a major tourist destination for Han Chinese and Westerners now, like many other places in Kashgar, although there are still large local crowds at Friday prayers — or read the caption I excerpted from the Xinjiang Museum in Urumqi's exhibit on minority cultures.) Since the 1990s, Beijing has devoted a tremendous amount of effort to keeping Xinjiang in its place as a part of China, and thus far it seems they have succeeded. Violence has diminished and development continues apace.

Wayne identifies five aspects of the Chinese government's actions in Xinjiang, which he says hold lessons for understanding "the nature of China today and ... crafting more effective counterinsurgency policies". They are, in brief:

  1. The "targeting of indigenous support" for insurgency and cutting local links to broader jihadist movements
  2. Acting "early, forcefully, and comprehensively", using a graduated mix of security forces
  3. "Crafting meaningful security" through a comprehensive campaign in the areas of education, religion, economics, and governance
  4. "Countering the insurgency from the bottom up", by using "society-centric" warfare — holding groups accountable for the actions of their members
  5. Enabling counterinsurgency for the purpose of stability through "seemingly infinite political will" on the part of the regime
Now, I don't deny that there are lessons to be learned in these points, but after going through a summary of each one Wayne does not offer any sort of conclusion in which he evaluates just how good an example these lessons might be or even what, specifically, the lessons behind these strategies are. (He does have a forthcoming book on this subject, which presumably does expand on this, but it's also $125, so those of us without academic expense accounts will just have to make up our own for the time being.) He never draws any parallels to American counterinsurgencies in Iraq or Afghanistan, and it's possible this is deliberate. While I think he actually does a very good summarizing of Uyghur grievances and Beijing's methods, I am concerned that, with the absence of a concluding analysis that looks to the future, Xinjiang's continued stability, as a result of these policies, seems to be assumed by the writing. While violent Uyghur separatist aspirations do appear pretty minimal right now (and I should note that I think their chances of success, should they re-appear, are probably slim), it seems to me that some of the lessons enumerated above are actually potential de-stabilizers over the mid- to long-term, and (if this is indeed what Dr. Wayne is suggesting) I'm not sure to what degree our military establishment should be emulating them in its own counterinsurgency policies.

The "early, forceful, comprehensive" action in the first point describes, according to Wayne, the PRC's quick build-up of "forces capable of moving down the spectrum of violence — away from military actions in favor of paramilitary and then police forces more capable of moving in society". The "Four-in-One Defense" draws upon the People's Liberation Army; the paramilitary People's Armed Police; the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (a chain of farms, prison camps, and Han immigrant work groups established under Mao to ensure a loyal population); and the Han Chinese residents of Xinjiang, which today compromise a full 50% of Xinjiang's population, making them the largest ethnic group in what is officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The entire third point of Wayne's article, "crafting meaningful security", is the vaguest, but the examples he gives seem to me more like a recipe for rebellion than stability: purging the local military of "not only of those suspected of separatism but also of ideas considered separatist"; pairing throughout government Han Chinese and minority officials where "[t]he key to knowing who holds the power at each level ... is looking at which post is controlled by the Han"; "education primarily in [Mandarin]", the content of which is "controlled by the party-state, and [with] spies and informants ... believed to police classroom compliance"; "mosques and other religious settings [likewise] infiltrated and monitored for political dissent by security forces"; and "pervasive ethnic discrimination" where "the most materially developed towns have the largest percentages of Han". I have to acknowledge that it is possible that overpowering tactics like this might be effective, but Wayne in his very first point says that "[e]ven the most brutal force can achieve ephemeral tactical victories, yet strategic effectiveness is ultimately achieved through political measures that deeply reshape society". Unless he's suggesting that Beijing is reshaping society so totally that the Uyghurs will become permanently marginalized and as a result quiescent, I'm at a loss as to how these tactics are going to bring about long-term political reconciliation and stability. I'm hesitant to make future predictions about where China or the Uyghurs is headed, but should violent instability return to Xinjiang these would seem to me like number one candidates for protest.

As for the notion of "society-centric warfare", this appears to me to be essentially a combination of 1) collective punishment; and 2) state corporatism. Functioning as the former, Wayne explains how
In Xinjiang ... every grouping of society is held accountable for its rank and file. The region's government, as well as prefectures, villages, neighborhoods, and families, are responsible for their members. Employers, especially those directly controlled by the government, must account for their employees. The limited opportunities for moving or for obtaining new employment in Xinjiang throughout the 1990s greatly facilitated this strategy. Consequences for failing to prevent problems or respond appropriately range from stigma and stern warnings from the seemingly ever-present security forces ... to loss of employment (to which the entire family's housing, health care, and income may be tied) and perhaps worse. Some families reportedly have been threatened by security forces if a husband, father, or son failed to turn himself in after an incident of unrest.
China practices the state corporatism function regularly through controls on the establishment and activities of non-governmental organizations, most notably through the "Patriotic Religious Associations" practicing Chinese priests and imams are required to join in order to gain the privilege of preaching to and representing their respective faiths. This divide, coopt, and rule is strategy is potentially effective (the British certainly were fond of it, weren't they?) but also has the consequence of legitimating and entrenching community divisions. I've written previously in my other huge-senior-year-term-paper that this has produced some challenges to integrating Europe's Muslim communities, and more directly related to Xinjiang Dru Gladney has written a lot on how Uyghur identities are being constructed in opposition to mainstream Han Chinese society, the most recent bit of which I've read being Chapter 10 in his book Dislocating China. So again, this "society-centric" policy is something which seems to be working ok now, but I think has the potential to come back and bite Beijing badly in the future — just as it may in Iraq today.

Wayne's final fifth point is a good one, which is that "the prospect of unrest in Xinjiang shook the regime's veneer of stability and catalyzed government action with the full if uninformed backing of the Chinese people ... While the Communist Party's concern is for self-preservation atop the state, the state must produce the perception, and perhaps the reality, of internal stability". But while economic successes and very gradual political reform may buy continued acquiescence to CCP rule in the east for the time being, I don't know the extent to which that will work in Xinjiang (or in the east, for that matter). Wayne says that "like peoples elsewhere in China, the population of Xinjiang increasingly if grudgingly bought into the idea that stability across China leads to a better future. Acceptance of this vision of Xinjiang benefitting from increasing incorporation into China undercut passive support for insurgency and drew Uyghurs and Uyghur society into active stabilizing roles in governance, business, religion, and education." I can't argue with this — it certainly seemed that way when I travelled through Xinjiang over this summer — but I do wonder whether the Uyghurs will continue to buy in for the long term, given the number of intrusive policies they are subject to and the highly uneven distribution of this "better future" in Xinjiang. It also raises the question — which Wayne does raise in his final paragraph — as to what will happen in Xinjiang and throughout China if the country's growth slackens and the promised future benefits remain out of the grasp of the majority.

I really am interested in reading Dr. Wayne's full book, if I can ever manage to get a copy to do so, and would be very curious to see more analysis of Chinese policies from scholars better-versed than I in the intricacies of counterinsurgency strategy. Right now though, I'm not finding myself convinced by Dr. Wayne's article that China's actions in Xinjiang are in fact keys to "crafting more effective counterinsurgency policies", at least not through their emulation. After a period of spiking political violence in the mid-1990s Xinjiang has entered a fairly quiet stage, but I think it is still too early to say whether this will last or whether Chinese policies will actually provoke a more serious challenge to Beijing's authority in the future. We'll see.


by Davesgonechina said...

Hey Chef, good to see you again.

I blogged about Wayne a little while ago when he had an article making the rounds on Asia Times and a few other places. I wonder how similar this paper is to what I read before.

MC Master Chef said...


Yep, still at it...

Thanks for passing along your post, it appears to have taken place during one of my cycles of blogospheric inactivity so I missed it until now. I think you really nailed it here:

[Wayne:] Yet despite this commitment of resources and rhetorical energy, Uyghurs across Xinjiang’s social spectrum explain that violent resistance is no longer a viable path. Many Uyghurs in Xinjiang believe that insurgents worsen Uyghurs’ plight by making the Chinese more fearful, thereby more repressive.[/Wayne]

[Dave:] This is, in my opinion, a fair and accurate statement. I would certainly not, however, characterize it as winning "hearts and minds". This is what people crushed by authoritarian repression and fear say. They respond out of fear of what the PRC would do to them, not out of respect.[/Dave]

That is I think the crux of my problem with the piece here in the JFQ mag — despite acknowledging many of the Uyghurs' grievances, Wayne appears to be saying that all of it doesn't really matter because everyone's just decided to give up in the face of it all. This could end up being right, I suppose, but he comes at it almost entirely from the Chinese side, with the Uyghurs' response very opaque and just kind of assumed to be one of capitulation in the face of the oncoming Han horde. If you do end up reading the article — and I think the "Lessons" really is a misnomer, since it seems to be much more a description of China's policies rather than a study of how to generalize from and then reapply them elsewhere — I'll be interested to know what you think.