Category Archives: Politics & Society

Settlement And Security In Xinjiang

REPORTS EMERGING FROM Xinjiang about a deadly attack at a coal mine by suspected Uighur separatists in mid-September have got this Bystander thinking of that peculiar state organization, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Also known as the Bingtuan (‘military corps’), the XPCC is a paramilitary economic development agency that has widespread administrative and judicial authority in the semi-autonomous region.

Some 50 people were reportedly knifed to death in the attack on the Sogan colliery in Aksu prefecture. Most of the casualties were Han Chinese, including workers and police. If the casualty numbers and identity of the attackers turn out to be true, it would have been both the most deadly single attack by Uighur militants and the first time they had struck at an industrial site.

Politburo member Yu Zhengsheng, speaking at the 60th anniversary celebrations on October 1 of Xinjiang’s founding as an autonomous region, said that long-term stability and security is the top priority in Xinjiang, with counterterrorism as its focus.

“We must be fully aware of the severe situation we are facing,” he said probably with the attack in mind though authorities have not acknowledged that it has happened. “The three forces (separatism, terrorism, and extremism) are the biggest threats for Xinjiang… We must clench our fists tight and take the initiative to crack down on violence and terror activities.”

Aksu prefecture is one 14 areas in Xinjiang that have cities, settlements, and farms under the control of an XPCC regiment, belying its military roots. The headquarters of the regiment in Aksu is in Aral, a town of more than 200,000 people built by the XPCC on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. The prefectural capital of Aksu is Aksu City, a stop on the ancient Silk Road that is little more than a three-hour drive from Aral in the direction of the border with Kyrgyzstan.

The XPCC dates back to the 1950s. It was a Mao Zedong initiative, rooted in a centuries-old tradition of sending military units to settle and cultivate remote border regions. The aim was to combine the economic development of frontier regions with border defense and the keeping of minorities from being troublesome. Production and Construction Corps, comprised of former soldiers, were dispatched to Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang as well as Xinjiang.

The XPCC fell victim to the Cultural Revolution, being disbanded in 1975. However, Deng Xiaoping revived it in 1981 in response to fears about Soviet encirclement and rising militant Islam in Central Asia. Turkic-speaking, Muslim-majority Xinjiang was seen as a vulnerable frontier.

There was forced migration from the East, particularly of women to provide wives for the soldier-farmers. The region’s remoteness and harshness also made it ideal for political banishment. Ai Qing, the poet father of artist Ai Weiwei, was exiled to a Bingtuan-run penal colony in the late 1950s. Generations of dissidents have followed him to labour-reform farms and prison factories.

To this day, the XPCC has a role with the army and armed police in combating separatism through its militia. Nonetheless, its line of authority is civilian, jointly to central and provincial government, though the Xinjiang authorities leave the Bingtuan to its own devices. The corps has a bureaucratic status equivalent to that of the provincial government.

It is a state within a state, its role a blend of American Peace Corps and West Bank settlers. The analogy with Israel is appropriate in another way. The Bingtuan has made the desert bloom. Over the years, it has built the irrigation and other rural infrastructure that lets its farms, stockbreeding, and commercial enterprises now generate upwards of an estimated $24 billion or one-sixth to one-seventh of Xinjiang’s economic output.

The Bingtuan has also built half a dozen cities. It is a far cry from the early days of hunger and hardship when teams of ex-soldiers would yoke themselves together to pull ploughs by hand to break the desert soil.

As of the end of 2013, the Bingtuan had 176 regiments, 14 divisions, an area of 70,600 square kilometers under its administration. More than a million hectares of farmland and more than 2.7 million people — overwhelmingly Han Chinese and equivalent to one in eight of Xinjiang’s total population — fall under the XPCC’s jurisdiction.

Its 1-million-strong workforce is primarily engaged in growing cotton, fruit and vegetables and in light industry, the XPCC having handed most of its mining interests over to the Xinjiang provincial authorities.

It has more than 4,400 businesses ranging from food processing to paper manufacturing, cement and electricity, with 11 of them publicly listed and trading under the umbrella of the China Xinjian Group. It also runs two universities.

Increasingly it is building cities. It controls ten, four of which have become cities since 2011. Urbanization is a central prop of the XPCC’s counter-terrorism strategy. In April last year, President Xi Jinping visited the Bingtuan and called to strengthen its role due to meet what he called the new conditions. As the Sogan colliery attack shows, the mission of the soldier-settler-farmer-colonists is far from complete.

Footnote: This history of the Bingtuan was produced by the government in 2014 to mark the 60th anniversary of the XPCC’s founding.

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Bangkok Bomb’s Possible Uighur Connection Presages New Crackdown

SUSPICION, IF SCANT hard evidence, is growing that there is a Chinese Uighur connection to the bombing of the Erawan shrine in the Thai capital Bangkok last month.

Thai police say that an alleged accomplice to the still-fugitive bomber had in his possession when captured near the Cambodian border a Chinese passport identifying him as Yusufu Mieraili, born in Xinjiang, home to China’s Turkic Muslim Uighur minority. Unnamed Chinese officials have declared to state media that Mieraili is a member of the Muslim separatist East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

Thai authorities said at the weekend that they had issued a warrant for the arrest of the suspected organiser of the plot, whom they named as Abudusataer Abudureheman, a 27-year-old from Xinjiang. He is reported to have fled Thailand.

Muddying the picture is reports of Malaysian police arresting three people suspected of helping the bombers leave Thailand. They are two Malaysians and a Pakistani.

Authorities in Beijing are known to be watching the case closely. If, as it is being suggested, the bombing was retaliation for Thailand’s repatriation to China in July of 100 Uighurs, then it would provide Beijing with vindication — at last — for its long-standing claim that the ETIM is an international terrorist threat.

The group, which Washington, at Beijing’s urging, also put on its list of foreign terrorist organizations post-9/11 but now seems to have quietly dropped, wants an independent East Turkistan state stretching from Xinjiang somewhat indeterminately westwards. Most of the 8 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, but the diaspora spreads to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and a lesser extent beyond.

East Turkistan has had two brief periods as an independent state. Mao’s revolution put an end to that. In 1955, it was declared to be China’s Xinjiang autonomous region.

Uighur militants have been fighting a low-key war with Beijing for years. More recently, particularly since late 2013, they have been able to extend attacks beyond Xinjiang, despite a hardening security crackdown on Uighurs in the region. The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which may be a splinter cell from ETIM or the ETIM in another incarnation, claimed responsibility for fatal attacks in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and notably Kunming, where 33 people, including four of eight knife-wielding attackers, died at the railway station. In Urumqi, a car bomb killed 42 people including all four attackers, all believed to be Uighurs.

However, the opaque and obscure ETIM, which was first heard of around 1997, has scarcely shown the capacity to operate across international borders with any consistency, if at all. One of its founders, who moved the organization in the late 1990s from Xinjiang to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, was reportedly killed shortly after in a U.S. drone strike against al-Qaeda bases; another languishes in a Chinese jail.

Its current leader is reputedly Abdullah Mansour, although little is known about him or the rest of the leadership. Mansour told the Reuters news agency last year that it was his Islamic duty to fight China. However, it seems more focused on the Middle East than the Middle Kingdom. A ‘Turkistan brigade’ of foreign fighters, including Uzbeks, is reportedly in Syria alongside al-Qaeda aligned forces, supported by militant Uighurs in Turkey.

It is nigh impossible to know the strength of the ETIM though it probably numbers in the low hundreds. Reuters news agency quoted Pakistan intelligence sources as putting the number at 400. More than 20 Uighurs captured by the U.S. in 2001 in Afghanistan fighting with the Taliban were held for several years in Guantanamo Bay. Once released, they were not repatriated to China by the United States. Pakistan, however, has been readier to hand over captured Uighurs to Beijing.

As in other parts of the western Marches, minorities have long complained of the Han colonisation of the regions in which they have traditionally lived, a suppression of their religions and cultures, and a worsening of their economic prospects compared to the newcomers. Shortly after the revolution, in 1953, three-quarters of Xinjiang’s inhabitants were Uighur. In the latest published census (2000) they accounted for barely two-fifths. Beijing says its sole intention is to promote economic development.

If indeed the Bangkok attack is Uighur-related, Beijing is likely grab with both hands the opportunity to jump on any signs of separatism in Xinjiang regardless of whether the ultimate instigators of the Bangkok bombing were the ETIM or sympathizers in Xinjiang or Turkey.

Separatism is a prime fear of Beijing’s and provokes well-armed counterterrorism measures whenever it is perceived. Stability in Xinjiang is a particular concern. The region is not only mineral- and energy-rich, but it is also a critical corridor through which the One Belt (New Silk Road) of the One Belt One Road project passes.

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Tianjin Blasts: Shaking Up Environmental Disaster Denial

THE CITY OF Tianjin is facing an environmental disaster of unknown proportions following the double explosion at the Ruihai International Logistics warehouse on Wednesday. The presence of sodium cyanide, which combines with water to form deadly hydrogen cyanide gas, has been acknowledged along with calcium carbide, potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate — all industrial chemicals whose impact on the population of the northeastern port city may be felt through illness and shortened lives for generations to come.

For the leadership, failure to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy that has cost at least 112 lives with hundreds more injured could be just as toxic. At risk is public trust in the Party to look after the people.

Industrial accidents are commonplace in China, even in large cities. Yet the power of the second blast in particular and the amount of dramatic video footage seen on social media before the inevitable media clampdown puts this one into a class of its own.

By way of comparison, the Jilin chemical plant explosion in 2005, one of China’s worst comparable man-made disasters, killed six and the injuries were in the dozens. However, pollution of the Songhua River was severe. Harbin, 400 kilometers downstream, had to cut off the public water supply to avoid poisoning its residents. Environment agency minister Xie Zhenhua was eventually sacked.

The initial official response to Jilin was to cover it up. That has been the go-to response for authorities to any environmental disaster until the evidence can no longer be ignored. Officials did not admit to the Bohai Bay oil spill in 2011 until a month after it had happened.

A nationwide check ordered on dangerous chemicals and explosives following the Tianjin blasts and a blanket order to officials to enforce safety regulations seems like bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Even worse will be if authorities react in their customary way and pursue a carefully managed information blackout.

Signs are not encouraging. Social media accounts and websites are already being closed down; state media is starting to craft a narrative around the laxness of businesses and workers that officials will address.

Even in these early days a finger is being pointed at Ruihai for keeping inadequate records of what was on site, following inadequate storage procedures or turning a blind eye to what safety regulations there are. Regulations keeping public transport and housing at a specific distance from dangerous industrial sites were ignored or flouted by officials.

The first-responder firefighters were ill-informed, inadequately trained and equipped, or all three. Suggestions that attempts to put out an initial fire with water inadvertently caused the chemical reactions that produced the subsequent blasts seem well founded, though, again, this Bystander cautions against early judgments on limited information. Whatever the circumstances turn out to have been, firefighters have paid a heavy toll in human life.

Assurances by officials that air and water quality levels in Tianjin are safe have been met with incredulity by residents. The 3-kilometre evacuation zone imposed on Friday will have done nothing to diminish concerns, any more than the earlier shutting off sewers to stop discharge into Bohai Bay. Many residents already know the water they drink and the air their breathe are polluted enough.

China has long disregarded environmental and public health whenever untrammelled economic development was at risk. Pockets of populations with abnormally high cancer rates in some of the most polluted areas bear silent testimony to that. The Party has seen the delivery of ever higher living standards to the broad population as the basis of its claim to a monopoly on political power.

For most Chinese, higher living standards increasingly include quality of life, not merely the quantity of material well-being — simple things like clean air and water and neighbourhoods that don’t explode.

This Bystander would like to think that the legacy of the Tianjin disaster would be that it was the one that caused that penny to drop for the authorities. That is likely wishful thinking. Scapegoats will again be found; rescue efforts will be lionized; online critics will be silenced. The policy and institutional reforms needed to ensure there is no repeat will not be carried out with the same vigour.


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Beside The Seaside, Beyond The Grave

Mystery surrounds this year’s annual Beihaide meeting. Mystery surrounds every Beihaide meeting. It is a secretive, closed-door gathering of past and present senior officials who turn up at the salubrious Hebei seaside resort around August 10 each year.

There are unconfirmed reports that this year’s meeting was cancelled or that it was held early, ostensibly to accommodate preparations for President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington next month. Most likely it has been scaled back and downplayed in importance this year.

The traditional significance of the meeting is that it allows the leaders of the factions and interest groups within the Party informally to discuss policy in a way that both ensures collective buy-in and brokers the constraints on the actions of both the top leadership and those not supporting their policies.

Beihaide meetings can bring final consensus to thorny policy questions. The ending of the one-child policy followed a Beihaide meeting and, our man on the seashore assures us, a lot of the questions about the public face of dealing with the disgraced Bo Xilai were fixed there.

This year’s agenda, as far as anyone knows, was meant to include approval of the draft 13th five-year plan. That would already have been agreed in outline by the Politburo but the Beihaide meeting would set the tone for the priorities and pace of implementation that will be contained in the final draft to be presented to the Party Congress plenum in October for rubber-stamping.

Similarly, discussions would likely be held on how to deal with the economic slowdown, reforming state-owned enterprises (and their embedded vested interests), and how far  Xi’s crackdown on corruption should be allowed to run in the current economic circumstances.

However, most critically, Beihaide has provided an effective forum for former leaders to continue exerting power and influence long after they have retired from office. Former President Jiang Zemin would be a prime example, and one who the very pinnacle of official mouthpieces, the People’s Daily, obliquely suggested should stay retired from active politics.

It is an open secret that Xi has found Jiang an obstacle to his extension of control over every aspect of the party, government, and state. Xi is said to be annoyed that the excesses of Jiang’s drive for untrammeled economic growth when he was president are having to be cleaned up on his watch, from corruption and cronyism to environmental degradation. It is no accident that many of the biggest tigers snared by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign have connections to the Jiang faction.

Bringing down a former president would be a reach too far, even for Xi, who may also be betting that time will do the job for him. Jiang is 88, and indeed rumoured on more than one occasion to have died.

Much of the political turmoil that seems to be churning at the top of Chinese politics despite the official narrative of Xi’s consolidated grip on power may best be explained by Jiang trying to secure the legacy of his Shanghai faction come the day when he has to wield his influence not from beside the seaside but from beyond the grave.

The loyal Politburo members Jiang had left in place after he left office in 2002 were certainly an impediment to scaling back of the state-owned-enterprise-led model of infrastructure investment when Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, first tried. Their influence has since waned and Xi has sought to diminish it further. The question is whether it will survive at all once Jiang is gone.

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China’s New National Security Law Emits An Icy Blast

CHINA HAS PASSED a National Security Law that sweeps a broad range of economic, political and social activities within its remit. The new legislation is far more all-encompassing than the counter-espionage law that it replaces. Pretty much anything Beijing wants to consider as a matter of national security it now has the legal footing to do so.

That can include ideology and culture, energy security, economic development, information, financial stability and just about everything in between. Civil rights campaigners have expressed disquiet about China’s growing crackdown on activism and dissent. Those concerns are only likely to be amplified by forthcoming counterterrorism and foreign NGOs legislation.

However, the greatest impact of the new law could be felt by companies. It requires that internet and information systems must be “secure and controllable” by the government. That makes foreign financial firms and IT companies extremely uncomfortable, but all foreign firms should be uneasy.

Much will depend on how discriminating China chooses to be in implementing the new National Security Law. Many ministries and agencies can make use of it to pursue policy objectives, including the promotion of domestic national champions. Some parts of government may use the new law aggressively, others sparingly.

The selectiveness of application can give foreign companies the impression that they risk having the law brought down on them seemingly randomly. That, in itself, will have a chilling effect.

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Zhou Yongkang Gets His Preordained Day In Court, Life Imprisonment

THE TIANJIN MUNICIPAL No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court has sentenced Zhou Yongkang to life imprisonment. The ruling follows the court’s conviction of the former head of the security apparatus on charges of bribery, abuse of power and disclosing state secrets.  The short trial was held behind closed doors on May 22nd, state media report.

Neither the verdict nor the sentence handed down on the most senior figure to be brought low by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign comes as much of a surprise to this Bystander.

Zhou’s protege was the disgraced Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai, who challenged Xi for the leadership. Bo is now in prison following his wife’s murder of British businessman Neil Heywood and a slew of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power convictions. The charges against both men were narrowly economic, not specifically political.

However, for all the new leadership’s embrace of rule by law, both cases look a lot like politics by other means.

Zhou is the highest ranking Party official ever to have been found guilty of corruption. His trial broke the Party’s unofficial rule that the highest level officials don’t get prosecuted whatever their crimes. The public message may be that no official is above the law, but the internal one will be that no official is above Xi’s ever-growing authority.

Recognition of that may well mean than Zhou is the last ‘big tiger’ that will be netted by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Plenty of flies to be swatted yet though, and also some small tigers if they stand in the way of Xi’s reform plans.

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China’s Edifice Complex


IT WAS ONLY this year that the tallest building in the country was topped out. At 632 metres, Shanghai Tower, an office-cum-hotel development, reaches 140 metres — and 27 floors — further in to the sky than China’s existing height record holder, the Shanghai World Financial Center that was completed in 2008. Both can be seen in the photo above.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the world record holder at 828 metres and 163 floors. But the Shanghai Tower’s place in the sun as China’s tallest building will be short lived. The Ping An Finance Center in Shenzhen is due to be completed next year, at 660 metres. The Suzhou Zhongan Center, a hotel, residential and office complex, is scheduled for completion in 2020, at 729 metres. Even that will be in the shadow of the proposed pair of Bionic Towers, in Shanghai and Hong Kong, if that project ever gets off the ground, so to speak. They are envisioned to be 1.3 kilometres tall and contain 300 floors.

For all the well advertised travails of the property market, China is seeing a continuing boom in skyscraper building. Twenty-two of the world’s 38 tallest buildings under construction are in China. There are four in Shenzhen, two each in Kunming, Nanning and Wuhan, and one each in Changsha, Chengdu, Dalian, Foshan, Guangzhou, Jinan, Taiyuan, Tianjin, Wuhu, Xiamen, Zhenjiang and Zhuhai. None of them will be less than 300 metres tall (the definition of a ‘supertall’ building; 600 metres-plus counts as ‘megatall’, 200 metres plus is merely ‘tall’).

Add in completed and topped-out buildings and China will have 67 buildings higher than 300 metres. That compares with 17 in the United States, where the tallest building under construction, in New York, is a mere 273 metres and 47 stories high. Europe has just six — five in Moscow and one in London, but none higher than 374 metres and 95 floors which will be the height of the tallest building now under construction in Moscow.

The number also stands in marked contrast to China of just 25 years ago. In 1990, there were only four tall buildings, with another 45 under construction. By 2000, there were 25 completed and the same number under construction. By 2010, it was 35 and 14 respectively. This year: 353 completed and 150 under construction.

Improved materials and construction technologies — China is a pioneer of tall prefabricated buildings — are behind the vertical building boom everywhere, along with growing pressure on urban land. Also, cities desire iconic towers designed by world-class architects to give physical expression to their rising economic weight.

China’s developers have overwhelmingly been building office and hotel towers. They are only now starting to put up residential tall buildings as has happened elsewhere in Asia, notably India and South Korea. China has, after all, moved more than 300 million people from the countryside to the cities in the past 20 years. The peak of that unprecedented migration may be passed, but the movement of people is not done.

The wildly ambitious and now stalled Sky City in Changsha in Hunan province was meant to include schools, a hospital, apartments, theatres, cinemas, shopping centres, and a ‘vertical farm’ able to feed the tower’s intended 30,000-plus residents. It may never get built and prove to be the poster child for vanity projects that become white elephants, but it may equally prove to be the model for the future.

The Xi-Li leadership is promoting urbanization as an engine that will move the economy towards more consumption and less reliance on investment and exports for growth. Improving city planning by limiting sprawl is a priority for the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s main economic development policymaker. That ambition may be crimped by the slowing economy or, conversely, made more urgent.


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