The Sino-US trade war, Xinjiang leak, Hong Kong turmoil, Hong Kong election results, and on top of that both Houses of the US passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act complete China’s, and Xi’s, annus horribilis.
It has been China’s annus horribilis. Besides the Sino-US trade war that shows no signs of respite, on the domestic front it’s been a year of the case of the two tails, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, that have come to bite its head. Both are neither overnight problems nor particularly created by President Xi Jinping. They have been festering for long, sadly though not so much on our collective imagination. China’s annus horribilis is de facto Xi’s annus horribilis, the only chink so far in Xi’s otherwise invincible political and economic armour.
Xinjiang, a far out autonomous region in the Northwest where Turkic Muslims (Uyghurs)—Central Asians by cultural and geographical destiny—are Chinese (citizens) by political destiny. The other is Hong Kong, Chinese by cultural and geographical destiny but Hongkongers by political destiny. While Xinjiang is subsumed under ‘One Country, One System’, Hong Kong is under ‘One Country, Two Systems’.
The recent expose by the New York Times (NYT) has drawn attention to the scale and depth of human rights violations in Xinjiang. Since 2017, a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims have been incarcerated in camps under the banner of “rounding up all those that need to be rounded up.” In 2017, China spent $2.89 billion on building the camps—almost the same amount as US magazine Time was sold to the Meredith Corp in the same year.
Recently, the NYT secured access to 24 documents including 200 pages of internal speeches and 150 pages of directives to local officials. NYT released a classified directive from Turfan (a prefecture-level city in Xinjiang) of guidelines given to local officials on how to answer the fraught children/relatives whose parents/family have suddenly gone missing. American state officials have likened these mass incarceration camps to ‘concentration camps’.
But the Communist Party of China (CPC) thinks of them as benign ‘vocational’ education camps, where a patriarchal state redeems errant adults with ‘concentrated education and training’. Instead of the Uyghurs playing victim, the CPC plays the victim—of having to teach errant Muslim minorities the Chinese way of life, including language. The official narrative for the domestic audience also sounds wounded: How can incarcerated adults complain when they not only have access to free air, but also free food, boarding and lodging? A Chinese national based in Singapore told this author, “Instead of three dishes and one soup, which is the norm in a Chinese meal, they (Uyghurs) are being treated to four dishes and one soup. And in times of spiralling prices, the (Uyghurs) are complaining.” But the CPC benevolence is often hard to understand, much less digest.
When this author visited Kashgar, Southern Xinjiang (where 90% of the population are Uyghurs), a few years ago, not only were large tracts of the city under curfew at night, but also the old historical city in Kashgar (the oldest in Central Asia) was being demolished to make way for modern apartments. To this author, Northern Xinjiang presented the opposite picture, a picture of Chinese efficiency with impressive gleaming infrastructure, but notably a ‘ghettoised’ Uyghur area.
Over the decades, Northern Xinjiang has witnessed a Han Chinese demographic flood, one that is borne out by empirical evidence of several social scientists and demographers such as Frederick Starr and Stanley Topps (both banned in China). Northern Xinjiang is considered assimilated, but Southern Xinjiang, where the demographic map is 90% Uyghurs, has remained impervious to a demographic deluge.
In 2014, Xi’s visit to Xinjiang was marked by violence, before and after. Xi noted that economic growth and the sizeable subsidies had failed to quell the problem; his solution was technology. Party officials used technology to increase surveillance, gather intelligence that “foreshadowed the Party’s deployment of facial recognition, genetic testing and big data.” Party secretary Chen Quanguo, a hardliner, was moved from Tibet to manage Xinjiang.
A ban on the beard, veil and the crescent followed. Everyday expressions of Islam—owning a Quran, praying, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, fasting during Ramadan—were targeted. Xinjiang became a fortress, besieged.
Thousands of kilometres east from Xinjiang and across the sea, Hong Kong has been in quiet turmoil since its reversal back to China in 1997. If Xinjiang witnessed a spate of violence in 2014, Hong Kong saw the tide of the student-led Umbrella Movement. The movement petered out, but as the last six months attest, it has come back with a bang.
On June 9, protests started due to an extradition Bill whereby Hongkongers could be sent to the mainland for trial. Hongkongers take pride in the rule of law in Hong Kong, but consider the same suspect in China. Protesters took to streets, whilst Beijing-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam kept mum. The Hong Kong police clamped down on the protesters. The spark became a prairie fire.
Although Ms Lam withdrew the Bill, it was considered ‘too little, too late’. Other demands came up during the course of the protests, such as the demand for an independent enquiry into police action, release of arrested protesters, repeal classification of protesters as ‘rioters’ and universal suffrage.
On October 4, Ms Lam invoked emergency provisions under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO, the first time in 52 years) to ban protesters from wearing masks. On November 18, Hong Kong’s High Court ruled that the emergency law invoked to ban masks was unconstitutional, “incompatible with the Basic Law” (the mini Constitution of Hong Kong). China slammed the High Court’s decision, in effect nullifying ‘Two Systems’ and slamming Hong Kong’s rule of law.
Students, some younger than 18 years of age, became the front line of the protests, and holed up at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. On November 17, the police began moving against them. A thousand or more protesters were arrested.
“This is the new political normal,” said a matter-of-fact Hongkonger to this author. Hong Kong police has begun using live ammunition, with at least one video of a police officer firing at point blank range at a protester having gone viral. In another incident, an elderly cleaner was killed when a brick fell on him. A student accidentally fell to death. Protesters have set a man on fire. In the past few weeks, schools and universities have stalled.
Since protests started, 4,000 protesters or more have been arrested, but only one police officer suspended. According to a October survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 83% of the population blamed the government and 74% blamed the police.
The only lull came on November 24 when elections were held for the local district council. The pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory, winning in 17 out of 18 districts, 347 seats out of the total 452 seats—a democratic damnation of Ms Lam’s government and Beijing.
Of course, there are significant differences between Xinjiang and Hong Kong, but in both the places the personal, political and economic lines have blurred. While Xinjiang stands isolated, the situation in Hong Kong is playing out under global watch. In both the cases, China is in no mood to take retribution for its actions. In Hong Kong, Ms Lam is seen more as Beijing’s point man, as is Xinjiang’s Chen. In both the places, the protests are diffused and disorganised, sporadic, sans leader and organisation. Needless to say, in both the places, it is a case of David taking on Goliath.
The Sino-US trade war, Xinjiang leak, Hong Kong turmoil, Hong Kong election results, and on top of that both the Houses of the US passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act—with US President Donald Trump signing the Bill—complete Xi’s annus horribilis.