Written by Tom Cliff.

The foremost aim of Chinese authorities’ “Uyghur terror-threat” mobilisation outside Xinjiang is stability among the Han majority. 

Initially confined to Xinjiang, China has significantly expanded “anti-terror” mobilisation across the country. Urban police forces are rapidly being augmented with paramilitary units, and equipment including armoured cars and semi-automatic weapons. The Chinese authorities employ a discourse of “anti-terror” to justify the militarisation of the streets in Han-majority regions. Taking such assertions at face value is, I believe, problematic. There are, in my view, much better explanations for such mobilisation at this time.

At the very least, such displays of force are used to back up state claims that they are “striking hard at terror” in defence of the Chinese civilian population, and to make that same population feel at once grateful and uneasy. The discourse of Uyghur instability has spread beyond Xinjiang not least because the need for a discourse of Uyghur instability has spread beyond Xinjiang.

That is, this is not simply about preventing terror attacks on Han civilians—it is primarily about rapidly or even pre-emptively “harmonising” potentially unstable elements of the Han population itself. People feel less uncomfortable when they are told that the police on the streets are there to protect them from dangerous “others,” rather than to protect the state from them or other Han. All forms of traditional and non-traditional media pound home this message within China.

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IMAGE: CCTV frame of black-hooded Uyghurs

The chilling image of black-hooded Uyghurs being repatriated to China from Thailand in July 2015 is a case in point. The image was first broadcast China-wide on prime-time television, and quickly went global. Unverified reports of imprisonment and torture followed just days afterwards. China’s official media responded immediately with a flurry of stories apparently showing that the repatriated Uyghurs were remorseful about being led astray (by outside separatist forces and Islamic extremists), but otherwise living happy lives back in Xinjiang. This was in turn met by predictable international scepticism. From the perspective of the Chinese government, however, what outside observers like the Western world and media think about what happened to these Uyghurs after they were repatriated is, at best, of only secondary importance.

In terms of political aesthetics, “illegal emigrants” returning home in black hoods is a sinister form of shanzhai (copycat product, like a fake Prada bag) through its very clear association with Guantanamo Bay and the US war on terror. These aesthetics help to deliver a clear statement to people inside China that their own domestic war on terror has not only spread beyond Xinjiang, it has spread beyond the borders of the nation-state.

This nationwide threat alert began with the Urumqi riots of 2009, but it has really taken hold since the middle of 2014. By that time, violent incidents in Xinjiang were becoming commonplace, and there had been two high-profile violent protests by Uyghurs outside of Xinjiang. Moreover, increasing numbers of Uyghurs were attempting to flee China through the South, or simply find work outside of Xinjiang, raising their visibility in Han-majority regions.

Uyghur “terrorism” provides a ready-made frame for securitisation. In Xinjiang this has long been the case, but the nationwide expansion of this frame now justifies displays of state power that are also, even primarily, intended to warn off Han people. Among the most protest-active Han groups are rural migrant labourers, pensioners, and laid-off workers who have been underpaid what they feel they are owed.

Guangdong hosts the most migrant workers of any province in China, and these workers have taken their calls for social justice to the streets more often, and more successfully, than workers anywhere else in China. The economy of Dongguan city, in Guangdong, shrank by 10% in 2014, so officials stopped taking statistics altogether in 2015. A colleague’s extensive interviews with migrant workers in the province revealed that they are only working four days per week and are permitted to take leave (without pay) whenever they want. Alongside—and conceptually connected to—this piece of economic news, the workers proffered the information that they try to avoid contact with Uyghur people. Uyghurs are “very dangerous,” they asserted.

Heilongjiang province has a high proportion of pensioners and laid-off workers, and has been a site of continual social unrest since the early 2000s. Most ordinary people’s economic situation has become significantly worse since the beginning of 2013. The plunge in demand and the price of coal, in particular, has driven one of the north-eastern region’s major industries to the wall, and their workers home “to rest” – or onto the streets. Popular discontent is on the rise, and that has already begun to manifest in actual protest. Under these conditions, I do not think it is coincidental that the “Uyghur terror threat” is being given such prominence in the media and official statements.

The media barrage has had a marked effect on public discourse in Heilongjiang. A foreign visitor to the region in mid-2015 was warned: “There are lots of police around. Security is tight.” The taxi driver told the foreign visitor to be careful and to carry their passport at all times so as not to be mistaken for one of the Uyghurs that the newspaper had reported were “on their way here.” A few days later, a local businessman explained the heightened tension in society by saying, “Uyghurs…are not happy with the central government and they want to make trouble. Be very careful.” Driving around, the visitor encountered checkpoints in the most remote locations. But that visitor did not see, or even hear confirmation of, a single Uyghur in the region.

In the last days before Beijing was closed for the military parade in early September 2015, inbound flights were packed with officials who were headed to the capital specifically to do “stability preservation” work. Each prefectural-level city in the Northeast dispatched their mayor or vice-mayor, high-level internal security personnel, and the leaders of key state enterprises—a significant proportion of the region’s governing elite. But it was not Uyghurs who were threatening to be unstable, despite the rumours flying around the Northeast. Asked why so many officials had to personally go to Beijing for the period of the military review, one official confided that “each has to look after their own children.” Those potentially disruptive “children” were Han people from the enterprises and administrative areas that those officials were responsible for.

With armoured police patrols becoming normalised across urban China, Han people who are considering “making a fuss” to draw attention to their own cause will think again, and are likely to think better of it. If facing down “stability preservation” is difficult and dangerous, encountering an “anti-terror” response is often fatal.

Dr Tom Cliff is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. Tom’s book, Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang, will be published by The University of Chicago Press in early 2016. Image credit: CC by Dennis Jarvis/Flickr.