China’s Minority Policy Signals a “More Normal Autocracy,” Batten Professor Says

By Lindsay Hill

The country’s repressive response to political violence reflects a surge in Chinese nationalism, Batten professor Philip Potter told an online audience earlier this month.

Over the past few years, the Chinese government has become increasingly repressive, especially toward ethnic minorities. The country has detained more than a million people in internment camps in Xinjiang, a region of the country that is home to a Muslim minority known as the Uyghurs.

Chinese officials say they created the camps to protect the country against terrorism. But in the latest edition of Batten Expert Chats, Philip Potter described political violence in Xinjiang as a series of small, isolated incidents—not a coordinated terrorist effort.

“What we’re seeing is an outsized reaction from the Chinese to a very low level of unrest and political violence,” he said.

Potter is a professor of foreign policy and international relations at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He also directs Batten’s National Security Policy Center. At work on a book about political violence and repression in China, he shared insights from his research and took questions from the audience.

Three central inquiries drive Potter’s investigation of the situation in Xinjiang, he said: “What is happening? Why is it happening? And are there policy responses that might lead to better outcomes for human rights?”

Xinjiang, which is China’s gateway into Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, is a “contested space,” Potter said. Throughout history, Uyghur narratives about the region’s independence have clashed with the Han Chinese belief that the region has been defined by dynastic rule.

Despite the contention, Xinjiang remained “an afterthought” for China until the late 1980s and early 1990s, Potter continued. Both the Tiananmen Square massacre and the fall of the Soviet Union, which led to the independence of many states in that area of the world, prompted a new rise in Uyghur nationalism.

The Chinese state responded with “major crackdowns,” Potter said, making every effort to “stamp out those nascent independence movements.”

The country’s repressive approach began to intensify after President Xi Jinping rose to power in 2013. Around that time, two attacks occurred that the Chinese government attributed to Uyghur people. A car drove into a crowd in Tiananmen Square and burst into flames. Another attack occurred at a railroad station in Kunming, killing 31 people and injuring more than one hundred—Chinese officials referred to it as “the Chinese 911,” Potter said.

“That really marked a substantial escalation and the first time that violence coming out of the region could be labeled as terrorism,” he said. “But what was really changing wasn’t just the nature of the political violence, it was also the nature of the Chinese state.”

Soon after the attacks, China began jailing large numbers of Uyghur people in a sweeping security campaign. Before Xi Jinping’s rise, the Chinese government had built its legitimacy—in the eyes of its people and on the international stage—on economic growth. But under Xi, Potter argued, the government has begun to claim legitimacy through the strength of the state instead.

“That push toward nationalism, I think, is something that is very much under-appreciated as the underpinning of minority policy in western China,” he said. He added that he frequently describes the shift under Xi as a move toward a “more normal autocracy.”

When dealing with China, Potter advised, the U.S. should strike a balance. If we want the Chinese government to “be a status quo power,” he said, we need to give it “equal and even preferential access to the status quo.” That means making greater room for China in global organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

At the same time, Potter argued, the U.S. should develop its own individual response to China’s human rights violations. Boycotting the Olympics, which are slated to be held in China in 2022, could act as a starting point, but we should not overestimate the impact that it is likely to have, given how important these issues are to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.

“We’ve got to stand up for our values here,” Potter said. “We can’t allow a cultural genocide to occur in this country and just turn a blind eye to it.”

The U.S. also needs to realize that China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang could force political violence to spread to other nearby countries, “where assets are much more vulnerable and security is much harder to assure,” Potter said. This could push China to venture into those countries in hopes of maintaining and extending its control, something the U.S. would do well to consider as it prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, he added.

“China may find itself in places like Afghanistan for very much the same reasons we did,” Potter said. “As we vacate the Central Asian region, we have to anticipate situations that could pull China in.”