Why the Communist Party has created a new bureau for Xinjiang

South China Morning Post, 5 May 2017

By Jun Mai — The ruling Communist Party of China has created a new bureau to improve intelligence and policy coordination in Xinjiang, the vast western region that has been placed under what many see as increasing police surveillance and intrusive social control.

The new bureau for Xinjiang, an area larger than France, Spain and Germany combined in northwest China, has been placed under the Central United Front Work Department, a party organ whose main duty is to court elites outside the party to ensure of their political loyalty.

A key function of the bureau is to provide Xinjiang-related advice and policy proposals to China’s top leaders.

The creation of a new office for Xinjiang reflects Beijing’s growing concerns about stability in the region, which borders eight countries from Russia all the way round to India. The office also elevates Xinjiang-related issues on the work agenda of the ruling party to the same rank as non-Communist political parties, ethnic and religious issues, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan affairs, and Tibet affairs.

The southern part of Xinjiang is predominantly populated by the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uygurs.

Members of this ethnic group have been blamed for a string of violent incidents against Han Chinese and government institutions in recent years, which Beijing has labelled terrorist attacks. In one such incident in 2014 in the ancient city of Kashgar, at least 37 civilians and 59 “terrorists” were killed; and in July, 2009, riots in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, left 197 dead with more than 1,700 injured. The violence in the city was sparked by an incident between Uygur and Han workers at a factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province that left two Uygurs dead.

While Beijing blames separatists and Islamists extremist for the violence, critics argue that China’s repressive rule in Xinjiang is the main trigger for the violenc. The government banned men growing long beards and women wearing face veils in many places in Xinjiang. In the latest development,

China earlier this year banned dozens of Muslim baby names with religious overtones, including Jihad, Imam, Medina and Mohammed.

The new bureau’s creation comes at a time when the party is tightening its control in Xinjiang after hardliner Chen Quanguo, the former party secretary of Tibet, was transferred to the region in August last year.

A sprawling web of “convenience police stations” has sprung up in cities and rural areas across the region since Chen came to office, covering the region with war-zone style security checks. The stations are equipped with surveillance cameras and guards on 24-hour seamless patrols and can be quickly turned into checkpoints when needed. In the city of Urumqi alone, which covers 340 sq km, is expected to have 949 such stations, according to a website affiliated with the city government.

Jiang Zhaoyong, an independent Beijing-based Xinjiang specialist, is sceptical whether the new bureau will be effective in soothing the conflicts in the region.

“Implementation of the policies is still largely dependent on the regional chief,” he said. “We should pay closer attention to their moves, as the [United Front Work] department was seldom involved in Xinjiang affairs.”

Since President Xi Jinping came to power 41/2 years ago, he has been giving the party a more prominent role in managing key political, economic and social affairs, and the creation of a new bureau in the party’s united front work office fits the broad shift of decision-making power away from government towards the party.

The department, with a mission of “uniting all groups that can be united” to help Communist Party rule in China, created a new bureau last year to reach out to what the party referred to as the “new social class”of private business executives and professionals.