Xi Jinping’s trip to Xinjiang this week was the latest stop in a campaign-style tour that demonstrates the Chinese president’s willingness to defy foreign pressure before he secures a precedent-breaking third term.
Xi spent Tuesday through Friday visiting sites in the far western region that highlight policies the US and other Western nations say amount to genocide against the region’s Muslim minority. He called Beijing’s policy on minorities “good and effective,” state radio reported Friday. It follows similar trips to Hong Kong, where he praised a crackdown on the pro-democratic opposition, and the central city of Wuhan, where he reaffirmed China’s controversial zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19.
The victory lap comes in the final run-up to a twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle, in which Xi is expected to gain Communist Party approval to stay in power for at least another five years. Xi’s effort to show that China is strong enough to overcome its own internal challenges without bowing to external criticism has helped propel him to the pivotal moment.
“This is a very important year for him,” said Dylan Loh, a professor in global affairs at Nanyang Technological University. Xi needs to show “that only he has ability and the political will and capital to get all of these problems resolved. And it’s important to demonstrate this visibly, as well, especially when you consider the internal and external environment has taken a turn for the worst.”
Details of Xi’s trip to Xinjiang were released on the same day that China revealed its economy grew in the second quarter at the slowest pace since the virus first emerged. The slowdown means the country will likely miss its goal of about 5.5% growth this year by a wide margin.
Home prices fell for a 10th month in June, when the nation’s jobless rate for those aged 16-24 climbed to 19.3%, the highest on record. Such economic pressures have forced Xi to pause plans to decrease the country’s debt, earmarking an unprecedented 1.5 trillion yuan ($222 billion) of special bonds to fund infrastructure spending.
While economic problems are unlikely to weaken the ruling party’s commitment to Xi, they could influence decisions on key appointments such who succeeds Li Keqiang as premier. Thus, Xi has sought to cast himself as a historic figure, alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who has helped China recover from era of foreign interference and return to a position of global power.
The last time Xi visited Xinjiang in 2014, the remote, Alaska-sized region was a symbol of internal unrest. Members of its local Turkic-speaking Uyghur minority had been implicated in several high-profile terrorist attacks around the country, including an incident in the regional capital Urumqi that killed three on the day that Xi departed. The president ordered local officials to “strike hard” against the terrorists.
Now, such attacks are unheard of. That’s due in part to widespread digital surveillance and the detention of an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities for offenses as trivial as having a beard or downloading banned mobile phone apps.
Last month, President Joe Biden’s administration enacted the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which blocks imports from Xinjiang unless companies can prove they weren’t made by coerced workers. Beijing denies US claims all that amounts to a genocide, calling it an anti-terrorism drive using vocational training camps.
During his trip, Xi visited Shihezi, a city northwest of Urumqi, developed by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps -- a state-affiliated organization sanctioned by Washington for alleged human rights abuses including mass detention. He called for making the XPCC “stronger and more prosperous,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
“The visit is very significant. Xi himself visiting signals that Beijing has things under control,” said Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, who has campaigned against Xi’s strategy. “It sends an important message to the domestic audience that the central government’s policies in the region have been successful and effective in turning a restive region into a peaceful one.”
To the West, it shows Beijing’s “confidence,” Zenz added.
While in Urumqi, Xi said the region should offer more services “to benefit residents of all ethnic groups,” visited a museum where he urged the “better preservation” of minority groups’ cultural heritage and watched a show by Kyrgyz performers. For decades, Beijing has officially encouraged China’s dominant Han group to move to Xinjiang to tip the region’s ethnic balance in favor of the Communist Party.
James Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, said Xi’s public embrace of the region’s ethnic diversity amounted to an “erasure by inclusion.”
Xi’s comments were “clearly attempts to respond to the international criticism and voluminous evidence of his regime’s assimilationist policies,” Millward said. “Meanwhile, the bulldozers have razed shrines and mosques, religious faith is criminalized, and children are prevented from speaking their native language, unless it’s Mandarin.”