Cai Chongguo: In solving the inter-ethnic conflict in Xinjiang, civil society-based communication is the key

In this blog post, I have translated CLB’s Paris-based commentator Cai Chongguo’s opinion piece about what is needed to improve ethic relations in Xinjiang: civil-society based dialogue and genuine cultural exchange. As an urban Chinese youth in the Cultural Revolution who was “sent down” to the countryside to learn from “peasants”, and as a person who learned how to live in another culture while living in France, Cai brings unique insight into what needs to happen in order to improve ethnic relations.

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After the “7/5” massive rioting in Urumqi that left 197 dead and over 1,600 people injured, it seems that the city’s situation has continued to deteriorate. From August onwards, city residents have been scared into a panic over the so-called “needle gangs” (扎针党), and according to government media, over 600 Urumqi residents have been pricked by the “needle gangs”. In early September, feeling terrorized, angry, and unsatisfied with the ineffectiveness of governmental measures and an information blackout, many city residents took to the streets in protest for several days. On 5 September, protesting Han residents gathered in front of the government buildings and called for Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) Party Secretary Wang Lequan to step down. The crowd attempted to break into the living quarters – resulting in at least five deaths and many injured. Urumqi currently remains in a state of panic.

The Uyghur protests in July and the recent Han protest show that both ethnicities have lost their basic trust in the XUAR and Urumqi governments. They both accuse the government of protecting the “other”, and losing its neutral position in favour of the other ethnicity. Both don’t believe the government will adequately punish criminals from the other side. Some people have even taken up clubs to defend themselves and have resorted to meting out vigilante justice against criminals. This is precisely where the danger lies: for a government that is seen as corrupt and that has already lost the public’s trust, it is nearly impossible to play the role of a neutral arbiter of an ethnic dispute before the government has rebuilt its trust and reputation. Inter-ethnic suspicion and hostility will increase, and more extreme violent incidents could explode at any time.

What is to be done? The central government has dismissed the Urumqi Party Secretary and some other local officials, and has strengthened its attacks against the “needle gangs”. People who understand the problem have recommended that the Central Government adjust its ethnic policies, so as to fix unfair social and economic structures. However, a more pressing, deeply-rooted problem seems to have been left outside of the public opinion and policy debates: how should the ethnic problem be dealt with, especially in light of the fact that there exists such a high degree of suspicion and hatred between the two main ethnicities− Han and Uyghur. How can inter-ethnic dialogue, exchange of ideas, and mutual understanding be rebuilt, in order to ultimately reduce hatred and stop a potential elevation of violence?

In the 1960’s, I was once “sent down” to a small countryside village by the government, in order to receive “re-education” from peasants (农民). When I first arrived at the village, I discovered that peasants hated these city slickers who “eat well but work lazily” (好吃懒做), and who used up all of their grain rations. For quite a long time, they didn’t pay any attention to us whatsoever. Later we had no choice but to force ourselves to work hard side by side with the peasants, to see them as our brothers, to hear their stories, and to hear them confide in us with their sadness and joy. In the end, they understood us, and accepted us as one of them. I’ll never forget the scene two years later, when time came to leave that mountain village, the whole village came out to say goodbye to us and to see us off.

Of course, the inter-ethnic suspicious and confrontation in Xinjiang today and the divide between city people and country people back in the 1960’s is in many ways incomparable, and yet the similarities are apparent: any government action can’t be a substitute for communication and understanding among two culturally and socially distinct ethnic groups. It was true then, and it's true today.  The only way for this to happen is for the Central Government to allow and encourage reasonable and well-respected members of civil society in each ethnic group, according to the PRC Constitution’s principles, to set up their own organizations and get into action engaging in free and transparent discussions, which will open up communication and exchanges among the people. In starting this sort of exchange, of course, it will only begin with a small amount of people, and it could be quite difficult. But, as long as these people genuinely come from civil society, and as long as they are seen as trusted representatives by the residents of their particular ethnicity, and not simply appointed by a government that has already lost its trust with the people, then this sort of dialogue can help bridge the gap of misunderstanding, suspicion, and hatred that plagues ethnic relations right now. It won’t take long before the fermenting atmosphere of violence and opposition can be moderated and eventually diminished. If the government wouldn’t restrict, but would rather publicly allow and encourage this sort of inter-ethnic, spontaneous form of exchange, then instead of using violence, the development of civil society could be used to eliminate the root of hatred and violence. The government could thus rebuild it reputation by blazing this new path.

Thirty years after “Reform and Opening”, Xinjiang, and indeed, the entire Chinese economic structure and social fabric have undergone dramatic changes. The pre-“Reform and Opening” era structure in which individuals relied on the government has changed; the days in which communist ideology was able to control and guide both individual and collective behaviour are long since gone. Individuals, ethnicities, and the government now relate to each other on a new, more independent basis. In light of this new situation, if the government still thinks that it can behave like it did twenty or thirty years ago, by prohibiting citizens from participating in public affairs, and then using coercive measures to unilaterally resolve all social problems and ethnic conflicts, then the government is simply delusional. The fact that Urumqi is filled to the brim with armed security forces and is still suffering from the terror created by the “needle gangs” is case in point. The fact that “mass incidents” and labour disputes continuously erupt across the country is yet another case in point. Of course, the nature of labour disputes and other types of “mass incidents” and the inter-ethnic conflicts that have occurred in Xinjiang is fundamentally different: at the root of labour disputes and mass incidents is the imbalance in strength among different social interest groups, in other words, the relative weakness of labour, and not a misunderstanding.

However, CLB’s many years of experience in case intervention has deeply impressed upon us that, without civil society organizations and independent individuals playing an active role, and under the situation in which the governmental corruption and abuse of power is increasingly common, any social conflict has the potential to intensify.
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