After Wang Lequan’s departure from East Turkestan, flawed policies remain

For immediate release
April 27, 2010, 6:50 pm EST
Contact: Uyghur American Association +1 (202) 349 1496

Wang LequanOn April 24, Chinese state media announced that 57-year-old Zhang Chunxian, formerly the Communist Party Secretary of Hunan Province, had been appointed to the post of Party Secretary for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), replacing 65-year-old Wang Lequan, who has been made deputy secretary of the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee of the Communist Party of China\’s Central Committee. The Uyghur American Association (UAA) believes that while Wang\’s removal from East Turkestan may be construed as a positive step toward creating genuine peace and stability in the region, without the corresponding removal of Wang\’s heavy-handed policies, Uyghurs will not benefit from the new development programs planned for East Turkestan, and tensions in the region will continue to worsen.

The change in leadership was announced amid decisions by the Politbureau to accelerate economic and social development in East Turkestan, and followed similar pronouncements made by Party leaders at the March 2010 meeting of the National People\’s Congress. But plans for development were accompanied by plans to spend 2.89 billion yuan on maintaining law and order in East Turkestan, an 87.9% increase from 2009.

Wang, a long time protégé of president Hu Jintao whose 15-year stint in the top XUAR post exceeded the usual ten-year tenure of provincial party secretaries, ruled the region with an iron fist, and presided over a period of extreme repression for Uyghurs. Wang oversaw a violent crackdown on peaceful Uyghur protestors on July 5, 2009 in the regional capital of Urumchi, and a prolonged crackdown on the region that saw an unprecedented deployment of security forces, mass arrests and “enforced disappearances” of Uyghur men, politicized trials and executions of July 5 defendants, and stepped-up ideological campaigns aimed at stamping out the “three evil forces”.

Incoming Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian, who holds degrees in engineering and management, has been popular among Chinese journalists for his willingness to interact with them. According to state media, Zhang was known as the “Internet Secretary” in Hunan, because he valued public opinion online. A more liberal attitude toward the flow of communications could prove crucial to the re-opening of full Internet access in East Turkestan, which has remained partially closed off after being completely shut down in the wake of the July 2009 unrest. UAA urges Zhang to remain consistent in his liberal communications policies after assuming his new leadership role, and to move media openness in East Turkestan beyond rhetoric into reality.

UAA calls upon Zhang Chunxian to account for the many Uyghurs in Urumchi whose whereabouts remain unaccounted for in the aftermath of the July 2009 unrest in Urumchi, and to release those who remain in detention today without evidence or because of their peaceful involvement in the demonstration in Urumchi. Zhang must also cease the politicized trials and executions of Uyghurs arrested for alleged July 5 crimes, which have resulted in death sentences for 26 men and at least nine executions.

Under Wang\’s leadership, heightened campaigns to promote security and battle separatism in East Turkestan corresponded with increased drives to dilute Uyghur culture and assimilate Uyghurs. Known for his policy of “stability above all else”, Wang also presided over a massacre of Uyghur protestors in the city of Ghulja in 1997, and was valued by central government leaders for his ability to quash dissent in a region prized for its abundant resources and strategic location. Many observers therefore believed Wang was untouchable and did not expect he would be removed from his post, particularly since criticism of Wang could be viewed as criticism of the Party\’s policies in East Turkestan that Wang represented.

However, the popular protests by Han residents of Urumchi in September 2009, which at the time resulted in the sacking of the city\’s Party chief and police chief, reflected growing discontent on the part of the Han population of East Turkestan toward Wang Lequan and a perception that he was unable to provide regional security following the July unrest and reports of needle attacks in the city in September. This discontent was magnified by growing Han displeasure over Wang\’s nepotistic business and political practices- Wang was known both for using his leadership post to ensure the business success of his friends in the “Shandong clique”, and also for appointing cadres from his home province of Shandong to top government positions throughout East Turkestan. Central government officials may have felt they were no longer able to retain Wang in his leadership post in the face of such widespread antipathy and his failure to provide the stability upon which his legitimacy rested.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was careful to avoid any public assertion that Wang\’s departure represented a recognition of failed policies in East Turkestan, stating over the weekend “He [Wang] firmly adhered to the idea that stability overrides everything, unswervingly safeguarded national unity and struggled with a clear-cut stand against the forces of ethnic separatism.”

There is no sign that central or regional authorities are undertaking a reflection of the flawed social and cultural policies that have been carried out under Wang\’s reign. Officials have continued to assert publicly that the only factor inhibiting social harmony and economic prosperity in the region is that of “East Turkestan terrorist forces” supported by “hostile foreign forces”. And while central and regional officials campaign to develop East Turkestan\’s economy in the belief that it will quell unrest in the region, inequalities in development and the policy failures that lie at the heart of regional social discontent will continue to impede prosperity and marginalize much of the population. These inequalities include a lack of participation in how development projects are carried out, widespread joblessness, and the state-led erosion of cultural identity.

Uyghurs have had no voice in state-led development in the region or the exploitation of resources that this development entails. Under the Great Western Development Drive, there has been an escalation of the long-standing government policy of extracting the wealth of natural resources in East Turkestan to fuel the demands of a growing economy in eastern China. The benefits of such development to the Uyghurs are at best marginal, and development does not justify the institutionalized, systematic and widespread violations of Uyghur human rights that take place in East Turkestan.

The government mandate to remove the Uyghur language at all levels of instruction in East Turkestan\’s schools, which was carried out and intensified under Wang Lequan\’s leadership, is extremely unpopular among the Uyghur population. Regional officials, including XUAR chairman Nur Bekri, have tied the policy to political stability, and have gone so far as to state that Uyghurs who do not speak Chinese are vulnerable to terrorists. While the Chinese government asserts that “bilingual education” (its term for a monolingual Chinese-language curriculum) will provide ethnic Uyghurs with the Mandarin language skills necessary to succeed in China\’s competitive job market, many Uyghur graduates who are fluent in Mandarin Chinese report facing employment challenges due to rampant ethnic discrimination among employers.

Wang also oversaw the demolition of traditional Uyghur buildings in the Old City of Kashgar, an initiative that has already eradicated much of an ancient, irreplaceable center of Uyghur culture. As Kashgar Old City is one of the few remaining centers of traditional Uyghur culture and religion, many Uyghurs consider protection of Kashgar Old City as vital to maintaining a separate Uyghur identity. Chinese government authorities have stated that the demolition was initiated by the need to protect Old City residents from homes prone to earthquake damage and poor drainage. However, the demolition is consistent with ongoing official moves to restrict and manage Uyghur cultural traditions.

These policies, together with the persecution of Uyghurs for their religious beliefs, the forcible transfer of Uyghur women to eastern areas of China, and state-sponsored mass migration of Han Chinese into East Turkestan, must be addressed by new XUAR Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian. And at a time when ethnic relations between Han Chinese and Uyghurs are at their lowest point in decades, the first step toward creating peace and stability in the region is to acknowledge that serious ethnic tensions exist. The Chinese government must take active steps to address these tensions, by creating space for dialogue, and by putting in place a mechanism through which both Uyghurs and Han Chinese may express their legitimate grievances.

The XUAR government must acknowledge the deep social and developmental inequalities that contributed to the July 2009 unrest in Urumchi, if there is to be any improvement in stability or social progress under Zhang. A continuation of Wang Lequan\’s policies of brute force to stabilize East Turkestan would only worsen conditions for the broader population and further marginalize the Uyghur people.

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