Unlocked: Colonies, Borderlands, and Barriers: Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the Future of the People’s Republic of China


Hi I’m Peter Lee. Welcome to this December 10th 2019 edition of Peter Lee’s China Threat Report:  Colonies, Borderlands, and Barriers: Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the Future of the People’s Republic of China.

This episode looks at Hong Kong and Xinjiang: two roadbumps in the People’s Republic of China’s transition from empire to nation-state. Question is: will the PRC careen off these obstacles and into a ditch; or are the roadbumps going to get…flattened.

The PRC—and residents of the two regions themselves—have regarded Hong Kong and Xinjiang as doppelgangers—travelers along the same road. 

On one level, Xinjiang and Hong Kong are both experiencing decolonization struggles. But the difference—and problem—for anti-PRC activists is that the PRC no longer regards Xinjiang and Hong Kong as colonial outposts to be exploited at low cost with loose governance and self-sufficient economics. 

Colonies have a finite shelf life because the combination of lax controls and lively economic activity encourage the rise of local elites with a taste for free thinking. They are ripe to transition to autonomy and independence…unless they are also borderlands.

For the PRC, the shared essential characteristic of Xinjiang and Hong Kong today are as national borderlands targeted for full incorporation, not colonies ripe for drift and detachment.

That means that resistance and insurrection are not likely to produce PRC surrender and retreat; instead they will elicit escalations of expenditure…and of violence. 

If you want an imperial metaphor, consider Xinjiang and Hong Kong not as the Chinese equivalent of England’s India and, well, Hong Kong; distant colonies that had been profitably milked and could be tossed aside when the locals got restive and organized and the cost of defending and retaining the colonies became too expensive. 

Think of Xinjiang and Hong Kong as the PRC’s Scotland and Northern Ireland: strategic national territory acquired with considerable cost and violence whose abandonment is regarded as inconceivable despite local dissent and defiance.

In other words, as long as the PRC can cling to Hong Kong and Xinjiang, it will cling to Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Which is why the independence/autonomy endgames rely on hopes of PRC regime collapse and imperial dissolution—with Hong Kong and Xinjiang somehow emerging from the rubble as viable free statelets.

Mandarin speakers can listen to Benny Tai, the godfather of the Hong Kong democracy movement, spin this scenario in an interview with Voice of America. The link to the audio is in the transcript.

The potentially catastrophic costs, to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, China, and the world of the Apocalypse PRC scenario are usually glossed over with plenty of freedom or death rhetoric. But an understanding of the borderland character of Xinjiang and Hong Kong—and the PRC’s capacity and will to absorb them—give an idea of what’s involved.

Borderlands are porous, regions of weak government control that are characterized by a relatively free flow of goods and ideas. It is the ambition of central governments to convert borderlands into barriers—boundaries within which the government writ runs unchallenged and organized competitors to state power don’t exist.

De jure—by law—Hong Kong is beyond the unchallenged control of the government in Beijing. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region allowed a certain measure of local autonomy and international relations under the Basic Law. De facto—as a matter of fact—so is Xinjiang, whose relatively weak integration into the central system is indicated by its status as an autonomous region.

Hong Kong is an obvious borderland, not least of all because the people of Hong Kong with support from the United States and its allies have actively resisted the extension of PRC rule into the territory. The Beijing government, far from achieving its goal of securing unchallenged sway in the Hong Kong SAR, is on the defensive, struggling to stem a popular tide favoring fuller autonomy if not independence in the territory, and trying to prevent unwelcome ideas from seeping into the mainland from Hong Kong.

Xinjiang is another story. And its history and experiences give an idea of what happens when the PRC brings its full might to bear on a borderland.

Xinjiang and the other major western non-Han enclave, Tibet, once enjoyed both a high degree of autonomy and privileged status as borderland transition zones for goods, armies, and ideas.

The essential identity of autonomous Tibet was as a Himalayan crossroads for art, religion, people, goods, and ideas. And in the modern era it even had crossroads aspirations in communications infrastructure. I wrote a piece on Tibet’s desperate attempt during World War II to win greater autonomy—and US backing--by leveraging its position between China and India as a strategic land route for military supplies to support Chiang Kaishek’s government; it’s called The Road to Shangri-La: How Tibet Lost Its Way. Look for the link in the shownotes.

Instead, the PRC invaded and occupied Tibet. By 1959 it extinguished the last vestiges of local rule and positioned the region as a barrier—not a borderland—securing China’s southern flank from India. 

As for Xinjiang, during the Qing dynasty, the dominant power in Xinjiang was at first the Zhunghar Mongols: a nomadic people but with a sophisticated political and cultural apparatus who worked the politics and economics of the borderland transition zone to play off Tibet, Russia, and the Qing.

That era—and Mongol power in Central Asia—ended with a series of military campaigns that extended Qing rule to the current borders of Xinjiang and resulted in the genocidal extinction of the Zhungar people in the eighteenth century. The story is told in great detail in Peter Perdue’s book China Marches West.

Ironically, the disappearance of the Zhungars allowed the Uyghurs of the oasis towns in the south to fill the void and become a major demographic presence in the north as well as in the south of Xinjiang. 

Chinese control waxed and waned and independent Uyghur statelets appeared for brief periods in the 19th and 20th centuries. Xinjiang’s status as a borderland persisted after conquest by the People’s Republic of China in 1949, with imperfect central control through military occupation and occasional movement of populations and goods over the borders to Kazakhstan. During the Sino-Soviet split, the Soviet Union made things difficult for the PRC by opening the border of the Kazakhstan SSR to provide a haven to disgruntled residents of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. 

In the 1980s Hu Yaobang—the genial communist party reformer whose death ignited the 1989 demonstrations across the PRC—became disillusioned with the colonial character of PRC rule over Tibet and Xinjiang and he championed more liberal social and economic policies that resulted in heightened business exchanges between Uyghurs in Xinjiang and business people in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. 

Hu Yaobang was apparently not aware of the erosive character of economic development on the colonial project and his liberal reforms, instead of exciting Uyghyur loyalties to Beijing, actually strengthened the decolonial and autonomous trends in Uyghur thought and action . 

Rebiya Khadeer, the head of the World Uyghur Congress and Ilham Tothi, an intellectual currently serving a life sentence in prison in Xinjiang and 2019 recipient of both the Vaclav Havel and Sakharov prizes are the two high profile symbols of Uyghur resistance. They were also at one time two of the richest people in Xinjiang, their fortunes built on the liberal policies initiated in the Hu Yaobang era.

In addition to inadvertently advancing Uyghur identity and strivings for decolonization, Hu Yaobang also gutted the Communist Party in Xinjiang by greenlighting the membership of large numbers of Uyghur cadres whose devotion to extending the reach and authority of the CCP were at best suspect. As a result, the party apparatus in Xinjiang was recognized as unreliable and problematic.

Even as Han immigration into Xinjiang increased and diluted Uyghur demographic predominance, a clear split between local Uyghur and local Han society emerged, most famously illustrated by the Han use of Beijing time—the supposedly universal time setting for the entire People’s Republic of China—and Uyghurs using their self-declared local time: two hours later.

Beyond these horological conflicts there were social conflicts as well, with outbreaks both of local violence, and of assaults by radicalized Uyghurs leaving the country for military training and havens and returning to stage attacks on PRC interests inside China.

Uyghur violence is one of those contested issues, with the PRC shouting “terrorism” and the pro-Uyghur side claiming it was just sporadic, disorganized outbursts of hatcheting provoked by Chinese oppression.

Well, on this issue, I think the PRC is going to win the argument. Local violence evolved beyond frantic chopper rampages and symbolic suicidal outrages to include carefully planned operations such as the slaughter of 50 miners, security staff, and cops in a two stage attack at a coal mine in 2014. 

In addition to explosions of unfocused rage was widespread resentment of Han settlers and I think there was an idea that Han in-migration could be slowed if the region became unpleasant and dangerous enough. This was a dynamic that worked in India-Occupied Kashmir, another doppelganger for Xinjiang, where anti-Hindu violence by the Muslim activists sparked the departure of 70% of the Hindu Pandit population from the Kashmir Valley in the 1990s.

And thanks to Turkey and its ambitious president Recip Erdogan, Uyghur militants received a major upgrade in training, networking, and logistical support. Erdogan wished to position himself as the champion and leader of the Turkic people of Central Asia, up to and including the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs of Xinjiang.

One of the most important development in Uyghur affairs—and one that has been virtually ignored in the Western press—was Turkish security services’ creation of a rat line to exfiltrate Uyghurs via Malaysia and other countries to travel to Turkey under flawless Turkish passports…and travel onward to fight in Syria. I wrote about it, Seymour Hersh reported the story, but pretty much nobody else picked it up.

Hersh, Gauthier, and the Coming of Terror to Xinjiang

One group of Uyghurs traveling under this program apparently committed the notorious attack at the Kunming railroad station in March 2014 when they were frustrated in their efforts to cross the border into Vietnam. In order to press its case on the seriousness of the terrorist threat in Xinjiang, the PRC recently released security camera footage showing the attackers clad in hooded floor length black robes like death-dealing nazgul walking deliberately through the train station and slashing people with three-foot machetes. 31 died and 141 were injured in the attack.

Video Compilation of Attacks

Some members of the band allegedly made it to Indonesia and hooked up with a local Islamist militant before capture. During their trial they asserted their Turkish citizenship by virtue of their impeccable Turkish passports, even though they could not speak Turkish or for that matter remember their birthdates as recorded in the passports. The Turkish consulate did not venture to contradict them.

Deeper and Darker in the Uyghur-Turkish Passport Mystery

The PRC went public with its concerns, summoned Turkey’s police chief to Beijing for a jawboning session, and Erdogan apparently shut down the passport scheme. But from exfiltrated militants and from recruits in the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey, the Turkish government was able to work up a highly effective force of several thousand Uyghur fighters fighting and living in Syria, thereby stoking Erdogan’s fantasies of a phalanx of loyal Turkic-speaking fighters reliably promoting Turkish or Erdogan’s interests amid the welter of Arab militant groups in Syria and also throughout Eurasia.

Uyghurs Edge Closer to the Center of Turkish Diplomacy, Politics, and Geopolitical Strategy

After ignoring the Uyghur ratline, Uyghur fighters, and whole villages of Uyghur militants and their families settled in Syria for five years, the first significant acknowledgment of the Uyghur formations in Syria by the Western media was a recent report by AP informing the world that, the Syrian war is winding down, the Uyghurs fighters were leaving, and they were upgrading their status from “mercenaries” and “terrorists” to “freedom fighters” with plans to turn their weapons against the PRC, inside Xinjiang if possible and if that wasn’t possible, by attacking so-called “soft targets” outside the country.

Uighurs Fighting in Syria Take Aim at China 

That puts an obvious bullseye on Afghanistan and Pakistan, two rickety states that have long provided havens for Uyghur militants. One of the more bizarre elements of the US War on Terror was the incarceration at Guantanamo of 17 Uyghurs swept up in the Afghanistan anti-terrorist dragnet; in an eerie and perhaps not coincidental echo of the AP story angle on Uyghur fighters in Syria, the US government determined the 17 were not “terrorists”; they were “non-enemy combatants” targeting China and could not be returned to the PRC. So they were held in limbo until the US was able to persuade other jurisdictions—like Palau—to accept them as exiles.

Slow-Motion Atrocity at Guantanamo

Keeping a lid on expatriate Uyghur militants has been a joint priority of the PRC and Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan for decades. The bloody storming of the Lal Masjid Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan in 2007, which created a national crisis and sparked the creation of the Pakistan Taliban, was actually triggered by PRC anxieties that Uyghur militants were sheltering in the mosque and directing attacks on Chinese interests.

In the Shadow of Lal Masjid

So and it’s easy to understand the PRC’s strong interest in power projection in Afghanistan as the US presence winds down, and in beefing up security operations to protect the massive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor stretching from the Himalayas—and Xinjiang—to the Indian Ocean.

It’s worth noting—and I think the PRC does note--that a few thousand professional militants with foreign financial backing and havens for training and recuperation were able to ignite the Chechnya insurrection in the 1990s.

Six Degrees of Xinjiang/Chechnya Correlation

Now the PRC is preparing for a flood of hardened, effective Uyghur fighters decamping from Syria and finding refuge in the failed state of Afghanistan and the loosely governed Pashtun regions of Western Pakistan, perhaps with a little help from the United States and its JSOC unconventional warfare units.

So, the threat of terrorism may be a pretext to justify harsh and radical measures to close the porous borderlands and fully incorporate Xinjiang into the PRC, but it’s a pretext with ample justification.

Central government policies toward Xinjiang have been harsh for decades, but went to a new level when Xi Jinping became party and state headman and decided to make the transformation of Xinjiang from borderland into barrier—and gateway for his Belt and Road outreach to Eurasia--a primary objective of his administration.

The result has been the notorious network of so-called vocational training camps that have detained perhaps over a million Uyghurs. The camps operate under a veneer of socialist legality: under the Chinese anti-terrorism law, people judged to have terrorist tendencies can be placed into a sort of involuntary wardship of the state for correction. Some detainees are deemed reformed and are released after a year or two; others are retained for further treatment or sent on for incarceration in other specialized units.

Camps are only one part of the story. The plan to assimilate the Uyghurs into the PRC’s social and economic structure involves releasing so-called reformed and indoctrinated detainees from the camps into specified work environments, often in newly constructed communities; in other words establishing new social and economic relationships in state-sponsored matrix. 

Keeping tabs on the people released and working—and continually intimidating and monitoring the rest of the population-- requires massive investment in intrusive digital and human surveillance infrastructure. 

There’s also the channeling of Uyghur children into a secular, Mandarin-based school system. And encouragement of Han-Uyghur intermarriage.

At the same time and also, perhaps less noted, Xi Jinping’s determination to convert the Xinjiang branch of the Chinese Communist Party into a responsive and reliable instrument that will serve as an effective asset during normal operations—and a vital bulwark if the whole effort starts to crack under the strain. 

All in all, Xi Jinping’s Xinjiang is an enormous and enormously expensive exercise in coercive social engineering designed to suppress decolonization agitation and transform the region from vulnerable borderland to impregnable barrier. Because of the resources, legal impunity, and commitment available to the PRC in Xinjiang, his efforts there stand a good chance of success.

And if they do succeed, the Xinjiang project will serve as a template for governments throughout Eurasia trying to convert restive borderlands into secure and obedient provinces. Governments like India, which has extinguished special privileges for Kashmir but is now struggling to pacify the region with a limited repertoire of sticks and carrots, will take notice.

The story is quite different in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, the PRC is bereft of the social, legal, and coercive levers needed to subdue a population that has never known CCP rule. Inside the CCP, Hong Kong is viewed as a headache—not only autonomy-minded but also bloody-minded—filled with fervid anti-Communists who fled the mainland after 1949, after the famine of the Great Leap Forward, and during the Cultural Revolution.

The PRC originally took a page from the old Xinjiang playbook, hoping that liberal economic policies and an opportunity to make big bucks under the Communist aegis would endear the PRC to Hong Kong after the British surrendered the colony in 1997. Hong Kong oligarchs, led by Li Ka-shing, journeyed to Beijing and lined up to get their sweetheart deals from Deng Xiaoping.

Well, as a recent article in Reuters revealed, that policy of economic carrots seems to have worked as well in Hong Kong as it did in Xinjiang. According to the article, Xi Jinping recently flayed Li Ka-shing for his lack of enthusiasm for promoting the Beijing line against the recent protests in Hong Kong—and Li went back to Hong Kong and did, basically, nothing, except perhaps leaking news of his predicament to Reuters. The story also revealed that Li had already transferred his Hong Kong assets to the Cayman Islands, perhaps as protection against getting embroiled in Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive.

How Hong Kong’s greatest tycoon went from friend of China to punching bag

There is little hope that the PRC can impose a Xinjiang-style solution to compensate for the alienation of Hong Kong’s moneyed classes.

It is no coincidence that the first act in Hong Kong’s current political awakening was the mass movement kicked off by Joshua Wong in 2012 to cripple the introduction of a “National Education”--that is to say PRC-friendly patriotic education--curriculum in Hong Kong schools that was designed to convert Hong Kong youngsters into more docile citizens than their parents. The exact opposite, of course, has occurred.  

The Hong Kong political scene is also characterized by non-stop resistance, obstruction, and legal arguments meant to prevent the integration of Hong Kong into Beijing’s network of control and coercion. This state of affairs was symbolized not only by the ill-fated extradition bill, but also by the non-stop arguing over whether the local judiciary and legislature can have the final say in restricting the Hong Kong chief executive’s exercise of emergency powers.

And of course, there’s Western support, which has become a matter of public record with the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and incessant calls by US politicians for the demonstrators to “step on the gas”. 

Beyond the Western government and media cheerleading, activists and politicians get support from the National Endowment for Democracy and a clutch of anti-PRC NGOs like the Oslo Freedom Foundation for training, polling, administration and, I guess, walking around money.  And whether it’s money from local anti-PRC oligarchs or US backers keeping Jimmy Lai—media ringmaster and paymaster for the democracy movement—afloat is one of those interesting questions that maybe will get answered some day. 

Meanwhile, emboldened by popular support and shielded from the PRC security apparatus, anti-PRC activists escalated their protests from wide-spread civil disobedience to extensive vandalism, occasional violence, and one or two murderous assaults that highlighted the local government’s impotence and shaky legitimacy. 

Confrontation and escalation have worked for local activists and the local population has shown a growing tolerance for violence. Conciliation and engagement are unlikely to make it on the menu, and the medium term outlook is for an ongoing governance crisis that is heading sooner or later toward some kind of insurrection activity.

I expect the PRC’s response to its Hong Kong borderland conundrum will be to marginalize the region and limit its expenditure of resources and attention to the minimum needed to keep the lid on while choking off the economic oxygen that fuels Hong Kong’s decolonizing assertiveness. 

Already, the PRC is promoting rival cities Shenzhen and Macau as more attractive alternatives for investment and financial and logistics operations that are currently headquartered in Hong Kong. Ironically, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which mandates sanctions for government officials deemed to be eroding Hong Kong autonomy, may simply accelerate China’s turn away from Hong Kong.

In the end, when Hong Kong is sufficiently weakened, demoralized, and divided the PRC government may abrogate the local constitution, that’s the Basic Law, and move toward full incorporation of Hong Kong into the PRC system.

Xinjiang may be an open-air prison but Hong Kong is a mess. 

And in both regions, the outlook for independence and autonomy activists over the long term is relatively unpromising. The PRC has been intent on securing these borderlands for decades and is determined to do what it takes to blunt the drive towards decolonization and eventually integrate Hong Kong and Xinjiang firmly into the Chinese state system no matter what the cost.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening and for reading. Please recommend Peter Lee’s China Threat Report to your friends and encourage them to drop a few dollars into the Patreon begging box. This is pretty much the only place left for objective and informed discussion of China issues and I can’t stick around without your continued support.

Until next time I am Peter Lee for Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.

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