Last year, the Chinese propaganda apparatus claimed that the northwestern province of Xinjiang had to be saved from becoming “China’s Syria or China’s Libya.” After a succession of violent attacks — in Urumqi in 2009, in Beijing in 2013, and in Kunming and Urumqi in 2014 — the Chinese party-state turned to extreme measures to stabilize and control Xinjiang. The “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism,” launched in 2014, began the securitization of the region. The stabilizing effort went one step further by the end of 2016 with the appointment of Chen Quanguo, previously the Chinese Communist Party secretary of Tibet, as the party head of Xinjiang. Building on measures implemented in Tibet, Chen transformed the Uyghurs’ homeland into a police state. In early 2017, the recruitment of police forces increased exponentially, in line with efforts to establish close to 7,500 “convenience police stations” across the region to stabilize Xinjiang with a “grid-like” security apparatus. These securitization efforts also draw on technological development: a surveillance network using facial recognition, the collection of citizens’ biometric data, GPS tracking of private vehicles, and spyware in Uyghurs’ smartphones.
But the party’s campaign in Xinjiang goes farther than a deepening of security measures. Its most novel aspect is that it incorporates profound “counter-extremism” efforts aiming at changing the heart and minds of the local population. The People’s Republic of China Anti-Terror Law of 2016 defines extremism as “the ideological basis of terrorism” or, more broadly, “inciting hatred, discrimination, or agitating violence through distorting religious doctrines or other means.” While the term has been part of Chinese security policy in Xinjiang for a long time — the party-state refers to separatism, terrorism, and extremism as the “three evil forces” — extremism is now becoming increasingly predominant in the official discourse, much more than separatism in particular. But what exactly does this new emphasis imply? Does it reflect a paradigm change or simply old wine in new bottles?
Drawing on interviews with Chinese sources, central and local official documents, and expert analyses, this article argues that the Chinese Communist Party’s focus on extremism as the main threat in Xinjiang aims to legitimize mobilizing the population for a massive social transformation of the region.