Commentary / World

China's Uighur crackdown shows fear and insecurity

by Hal Brands

Bloomberg

There is plenty of horrifying detail in the so-called Xinjiang Papers, a collection of leaked documents outlining the motives and modalities of China’s repression of its Uighur minority. Yet the most striking thing about the documents is what they reveal about the Janus-faced nature of Chinese power.

Beijing is simultaneously a brash, rising power and a brittle, insecure regime besieged by enemies. President Xi Jinping may talk about realizing the “Chinese Dream” of great wealth and international influence. But the autocratic Chinese government has an abiding fear of subversion and upheaval. These seemingly opposing influences are in fact two sides of the same coin: It is the regime’s eternal vulnerability that impels so much of its external ambition.

It is not news, of course, that the Chinese government is conducting industrial-scale repression in Xinjiang. The proximate cause of that campaign was a spate of violence perpetrated by Uighur extremists between 2009 and 2014, including an attack at a train station in which more than 150 people were stabbed. Yet what has gradually become clear — and what is shown with great clarity by the Xinjiang Papers — is that Beijing has taken an extremely broad approach to dealing with that threat.

In the name of combating “radical Islam,” the authorities have interned between 1 million and 3 million Uighurs in modern-day concentration camps, where they are subjected to severe human rights abuses. Meanwhile, Beijing seeks to eradicate the influence of Islam in western China by bulldozing mosques, harassing worshippers and otherwise suppressing the faith. It has made a parallel effort to extinguish key aspects of Uighur culture, including diluting the Uighur population by encouraging Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang. Beijing has also used Xinjiang as a proving ground for the all-knowing surveillance state the regime aims to construct. As Xi himself directed in 2014, the Communist Party must put the “organs of dictatorship” to work and show “absolutely no mercy” in dealing with its enemies. What Beijing calls counterterrorism looks a lot like the totalitarianism of the future.

In one sense, this campaign fits the image of a strong, ascending China that Xi is so keen to portray — a regime that deals firmly with challenges to its authority while acting boldly to reclaim China’s past glory and global influence.

Yet look more closely, and you see an insecure government that is preoccupied with the dangers of separatism, ethnic tensions and political unrest from Xinjiang in the northwest to Hong Kong in the southeast. It therefore feels it must not simply maintain order but also police the minds of its citizens, lest they be contaminated by dissent. The goal of the Uighur internments, party documents explain, is to quarantine those whose “thinking has been infected by unhealthy thoughts.”

The Chinese government must also grapple with the prospect that the scope and severity of its crackdown will provoke further problems, whether by eliciting more violence in Xinjiang or — as one official document warns — by leading concerned families to spread news of what is happening “across the entire country.”

And it is not a sign of confidence that Beijing often sees the “black hand” of foreign influence behind its internal difficulties, and uses that fiction to avoid reckoning with the blowback created by its own repression. One imagines the government must view the future with some foreboding, given that slowing economic growth, a looming demographic and social crisis, and other challenges, will only make it harder to ensure order over time.

Xi’s regime presents a formidable exterior, but like so many dictatorships, it lives in fear of what its own population might do. These two faces of Chinese power are intimately related: The Chinese leadership acts so decisively in dealing with dissent precisely because it is so afraid of dissent.

This is also one of the key drivers of Chinese geopolitical behavior. Foreign policy is the way countries seek to make the world conducive to the survival and flourishing of their domestic institutions. And Chinese foreign policy is focused intensely on neutralizing foreign threats to the dominance of the Communist Party.

When Beijing freezes relations with Norway over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident, when it lashes out over tweets by employees of U.S. corporations, or when it uses economic or diplomatic sanctions to punish countries that condemn its human rights abuses, it is reacting to the possibility that external criticism may incite internal instability.

When China seeks to undermine the sovereignty and security of Taiwan, it is combating a profound ideological threat in the form of a country that is culturally Chinese and has thrived under democratic politics. When Beijing tries to weaken and displace American influence and create a more Sino-centric international order, it is aiming to create a global environment that supports one-party rule. Authoritarianism and revisionism go hand in hand.

For U.S. officials, this is both good news and bad news. The good is that it reminds us that China is not 10 feet tall. That Chinese officials cannot take the stability of their political system for granted, and that they must devote enormous amounts of money and time to protecting their power, creates a significant drag on the country’s geopolitical potential. It also creates opportunities for the United States. By highlighting and penalizing human rights violations in Xinjiang and elsewhere, providing moral support to Chinese citizens seeking greater freedoms and simply living up to its own best traditions in conducting foreign policy, America can impose a competitive tax on Beijing.

The bad news is that the nature of the Chinese system is likely to make competition between Washington and Beijing more dangerous and intractable.

A country that perpetually worries about order at home will be tempted to use foreign policy to stir up nationalism and channel popular resentments outward. A government that is so preoccupied with thwarting foreign criticism of its own repression will find it difficult to achieve any lasting detente with a powerful democracy that has rarely been able to banish concern for the rights of others from its diplomacy for any extended period of time.

The Xinjiang Papers show just how fragile an autocratic China really is. And in doing so, they remind us just how vast the gulf between the U.S. and its chief competitor is likely to remain.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.