The Chinese Communist Party has defended re-education camps and population control in Xinjiang as “security” measures.
Time and time again, Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo and others have declared that they have brought stability and security to a volatile region. There have been no terrorist attacks in Xinjiang for more than three years. Mass sterilization, forced abortion and cultural genocide are all necessary for peace in Xinjiang.
However, the recent history of Xinjiang and of China itself discredits that argument. Time and time again, the brutal population control policies have triggered intense resentment and hatred, sparking violent backlashes. In this article, we will look at some of the best-known episodes to see what the future could hold for Xinjiang.
1990 Baren Insurrection
The 1990 Baren Insurrection sparked a violent low-intensity insurgency in the troubled region. It was launched by Islamist jihadis led by Zeydin Yusup of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement using weapons of the Afghan Mujahideen from the Soviet-Afghan war. (ETIM was later sanctioned by the United Nations as an international terrorist group.) The armed rebellion began after hundreds of Baren Uyghurs protested in front of the local Baren township government building. What were they protesting against?
According to Uyghur accounts, the trigger was forced abortions of 250 Uyghur women in Baren in 1989 and 1990 and Uyghur resentment of the settling of Han Chinese in Xinjiang. According to an Amnesty International Report in 1999 population control policies begun to be implemented in Uyghur areas in the late 1980s – although the rules were still lenient compared to the one-child policy applicable to Han Chinese and some other minorities, as rural Uyghurs could have three children and urban Uyghurs two children.
The forced abortions caused severe resentment amongst the Uyghurs. Birth control officials were violently attacked in Xinjiang throughout the 1980s and 1990s and the Baren Islamists exploited the resentment. Days of violent confrontation between Uyghur militants and the Chinese army ensued, resulting in dozens of casualties and thousands of arrests.
Han Chinese accounts emphasise the Islamist motivation. This was definitely true as the Baren militants invoked jihad and called for elimination of infidels. But the Chinese often failed to mention demographic resentment. Han Chinese dissident writer Wang Lixiong, in his book Your Western China, My East Turkestan, provided an unexpected insight as he made nine trips to Xinjiang before publication in 2007. During one of them he was detained by secret police and shared a cell with a Uyghur prisoner, “Muhtar”, who gave described the Baren incident in great detail.
Muhtar mentioned that the un-Islamic forced abortions helped promote anger and resentment. Imams who promoted population control and family planning were attacked. Some were even assassinated by militants who viewed them as traitors for promoting such a hated policy.
Anti-family planning rhetoric was central to the Islamists’ anti-government message. Islamist militants and jihadists across the world can use what is happening in Xinjiang today to radicalize a generation of young Uyghurs and Muslims — just as the Bosnian War radicalized people a generation ago.
But Uyghurs are not the only Chinese citizens who rioted against the population control policy. Han Chinese did too — as recently as 2007.
2007 Bobai riots
Bobai, in the southwestern region of Guangxi, China, is an impoverished county of 1.8 million people. It has a Hakka speaking majority (60 percent) and a Cantonese-speaking minority (40 percent).
The Hakka people are a subgroup of southern Han Chinese who migrated from northern and central China to the hilly southern regions of Guangdong and Guangxi a thousand years ago. They have a reputation for being tough, traditional and conservative. Most of the rebels in the Taiping Rebellion were Hakka. Many Communist Red Army soldiers and generals in the Chinese civil war era were also Hakka. The Hakka diaspora stretches from Malaysia to Taiwan. Taiwan’s current president Tsai Ing-wen is half-Hakka.
Hakka majority regions in southern China and Taiwan have some of the highest birth rates in the Sinosphere. According to the 2010 Chinese Census, Yulin City in Bobai County had a total fertility rate of between 1.9 and 2.0, which is far higher than the Chinese average of 1.18. Guangxi, the provincial entity under which Bobai is part of, in fact had the highest total fertility rate out of all Chinese provinces, with a TFR of 1.79.
In Taoyuan City, which has Taiwan’s largest Hakka population, 800,000 Hakkas make up nearly half of the population in a country where they are only 13 to 15 percent of the national total. It had the highest fertility rate in all of Taiwan’s six major metropolises, with a TFR of 1.325, 30 percent higher than the national TFR of 1.05.
However, in 2007 a relatively healthy birth rate was not a badge of honour, but an invitation for a massive population control crackdown.
Bobai and surrounding counties, including Rongxian, were given “yellow card” warnings by Guangxi’s party chief Liu Qibao in a provincial population control meeting in early 2007. Previously, Bobai officials went relatively easy on their subjects, and used fines to punish the “illegal births”.
Following that humiliation, Bobai and other Guangxi party officials went on an all-out offensive to curb the birth rate. “Hammer teams” destroyed the homes of peasants with too many children and confiscated virtually all of their belongings, from livestock to DVD players.
Women fled to mountains and caves to escape the fate of thousands who were sterilized or had their children forcefully aborted. Girls who had never been pregnant were sterilized by zealous officials eager to make up the birth control quota.
The Bobai people were enraged. In May 2007 angry villagers surrounded the local government buildings in seven townships, destroyed them, burned them down and attacked the family planning bureau officials. Tens of thousands of locals battled thousands of armed police. Police cars were torched and the villagers painted slogans across walls “Down with Su Jianzhong (the party chief of Bobai County) and “Execute Huang Shaoming by firing squad!” (the Mayor of Bobai County). Nearby counties such as Rongxian took their cue from Bobai.
The Chinese authorities suppressed the riots and jailed dozens of rioters. However, the violence worked. According to a 2015 report by Chinese reporter Zhao Meng, Bobai became the only “population special zone” in China. Local officials were told to basically ignore population control targets and birth limits — something that is still not possible in the rest of China today. As a result, Bobai had one of China’s highest fertility rates on the county level according to the 2010 census.
The violent population control policy in China has also triggered “lone-wolf” attacks. In the province of Guangxi in 2015, a mentally ill man named He Shenguo broke into the local Family Planning Commission of Dongxing City and murdered two family planning officials and injured several more with a machete.
The family planning officials had denied Mr. He’s children hukou (household registration/personal identification), which is absolutely vital in China for everyday life, because he had four children. Enraged, He went on a violent spree and was eventually captured by the police.
He became an unlikely hero for many Chinese netizens, who praised him for his “bravery”. The photo of him bidding farewell to his wife prior to his execution also went viral in China, with many calling him a martyr. This shows how deep the resentment runs against family planning.
The most dramatic lone wolf attack was the Tian Mingjian incident. A People’s Liberation Army first lieutenant snapped. His wife, who was seven months pregnant, was forced to have her child aborted in her home village in Henan Province. Family planning officials believed she had exceeded the birth limit whilst he was stationed in Tongzhou, just outside Beijing.
The aborted fetus turned out to be a son, which Tian Mingjian was desperate to have. His wife also did not survive the forced abortion due to complications.
On September 20, 1994, an enraged Tian Mingjian gunned down tens of his fellow Army officers, including the regiment political commissar (party chief) and soldiers during a routine morning inspection. Then he stole a military jeep and drove to central Beijing, where many diplomats live and embassies are located. He began shooting everyone, from civilians to policemen. He even killed an Iranian diplomat and his son, which turned the mass shooting into an international diplomatic incident.
An elite sharpshooter, Tian battled for hours with police and soldiers in central Beijing. The incident was even briefly broadcast live on Canadian television as it was right outside the Diplomatic Residence Compound. He was eventually killed by a sniper. By the end, Tian had murdered 15 or 17 people (estimates vary).
China’s violent population control policies have caused massive resentment and sparked some of the most violent episodes in recent Chinese history. The current campaign in Xinjiang is no exception. The CCP claims that repression creates stability and harmony. It does not.
Xi’s era, just like the Mao era, will eventually end. The budget for the extremely costly “pacification” of Xinjiang will dry up one day because the CCP’s approach is not sustainable.
And the hatred, resentment and scars created by such policies are baked deep into the psyche of Uyghurs and other peoples of Xinjiang. If one day the CCP loses its grip, massive bloodshed will ensue. Warring Han Chinese and Uyghurs will probably create another bloody Yugoslavia.
Violence begets violence. The CCP cannot expect otherwise if it engages in some of the most egregious human rights abuses in history.