BRI: Neutralizing Xinjiang and Legitimizing Stability-Security Paradigm

BRI intends to utilize Xinjiang’s crucial geographical position facilitating the institutionalization of the region as a connectivity corridor. The Xinjiang government has issued a new transportation development plan (2016-2030) to become vital transportation, trade, logistics, culture, science, and education center and a core area on the Silk Road Economic Belt. This complex trade interconnectivity eventually underplays the significance of Xinjiang, while overtly projecting it as the gateway or connectivity corridor. 

Xinjiang in the ancient civilization, as well as in the contemporary context, represents the pivotal theatre of a non-inclusive Uyghur ethnicity with its Islamic orientations that constitute an existential challenge to the Han civilizational empire. The Uyghurs at the borderland in the past, if not also in the contemporary era, has raised the issue of loyalty and control for the Central State. In contemporary times, China being a Postcolonial Imperial Empire has a problematic relationship between the majoritarian nationalism and ethnic nationalist collective at the borderlands. However, as Anand (2012) argues, most of the discussions in academia on Empire and imperialism ignore the non-Western states except as collaborators/victims. Hence the victimhood status often camouflages strong integrationist measures leading to human rights abuses, religious repression, civilian surveillance, police/military brutality, and economic inequality. There is limited tolerance of dissent from this picture of centuries of glory upset by decades of humiliation that are over now and will soon be followed by a regaining of rightful place as a great power in the scheme of things. 

Restrictions on the practice of Islam are not new in Xinjiang. Though the early 1990s witnessed relatively lesser restrictions, the September 11 terror attacks on the United States stimulated the Chinese authorities to use “religious extremism” and “separatism” for justifying widespread and systematic violations against the religious rights of Uyghurs. The ‘War on Terror’ initiative in the post-Urumqi riot scenario has adopted the stability-security paradigm to engage with the Uyghurs reiterating the need to reform ethnic and religious management imparting patriotism in an institutional manner. Highlighting the significance of stability, the BRI has accelerated the economic and cultural neutralization of Xinjiang, leading to the de-ethnicization of Muslims both inside and outside the region. 

The state-sponsored cultural neutralization has reached its zenith with the social re-engineering strategies and the securitization of stability discourse in the post-Urumqi period. Currently, the de-extremification camps indicate the Chinese state’s attempts to legitimize this stability-security paradigm in Xinjiang as an ethnic management model. Considering Xinjiang as a significant element in the SREB, the strategic attempts to neutralize the ‘splittist’ elements in Xinjiang have been rampant since the BRI initiative. The ‘inevitable interconnect’ between the ‘Harmonized Xinjiang,’ and BRI enables to categorize the challenges and opportunities of the global order with Chinese characteristics. 

Internally, the Chinese state strategy of ‘harmonizing’ the Uyghurs is an attempt of redefining the role and demarcating the space of ethnoreligious identity. By choosing the stability-security paradigm as a means to consolidate and discipline the Islam in Xinjiang, the Chinese state implies a double-layered approach concerning with State defined norms of ethnic diversity and loyalty. That includes; 1) creating the narratives that eventually led to the rampancy and legitimization of internment (de-extremification) camps and 2) openly reasserting religious identities as subversive and a severe threat to stability throwing the loyalty question to the ethnoreligious discourse. 

The patriotism and loyalty question in China’s ethnic politics represent the political conception that the Uyghurs are incorrect both in their spiritual and political spheres. It was thereby natural that the “Strike Hard” campaign is replaced by People’s War on Terror, with the addition of de-extremification camps. With that, the Chinese state engages in the cultivation and preservation of moderate Islam by re-negotiating the space of ethnicity and religion. This impacts the current negotiations between the Chinese state and Islam in general as this leads to restrictions on the religious freedom of the other Muslim ethnicities like the Hui, who have been enjoying the state’s patronage almost until recently. Currently, this shift reasserts the ethnoreligious complexity of Muslims adding to Islamophobia and thereby, the representation of Islam as a monolith neglects the long history, legacy and diversity of Chinese Muslims. 

Written by: Veena Ramachandran (Sri Ramaswamy Memorial Institute of Science and Technology)

Cover photo credits: Kashgar, Xijiang-Uighur autonomous region, China. Photo by Maria Danilovich

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