The Xinjiang Conflict, Western Response, & Lessons for Academics and Policy Makers – Part II

Broader Lessons to Be Learned

A recent Foreign Policy op-ed by Whitney Kassel on the Xinjiang conflict represents an excellent example of the conceptual divide between the academic and policy-security communities.

Kassel, director at a private US intelligence firm, argues that the PRC could benefit from COIN in Xinjiang where NATO has failed in Afghanistan. She points to the following COIN prerequisites: “a credible and capable host-nation force; a lack of substantial outside support or safe haven for the insurgency; a robust intelligence network; control of the physical and human terrain; and control of the flow of information”. China possesses all of these, she writes, while Afghanistan had almost none. 

Kassel suggests a series of ‘carrots’ to precede the ‘stick’. Relaxation of religious restrictions, redistribution of income and labor opportunities gleaned from natural resource and industrialization projects, and increased socioeconomic opportunities for Uighurs are her main recommendations. The essay, though well written, reveals the dangers of universally applying traditional Western, policy-oriented definitions to foreign conflicts. 

The major problem with Kassel’s reasoning is in her tendency to categorize: she assumes that there are two blocs in Xinjiang, the Uighur bloc and the Han bloc, the latter including both Han civilians and the government, which being a one-party authoritarian state does not have to worry about problems like legitimacy or public opinion. The reality on the ground is much different. 

If policy makers looked at the relevant academic literature and consulted regional experts, they would quickly find that labels like ‘host nation force’ and ‘human terrain’ are insufficient. Racism and mistrust runs so deep among Han residents in Xinjiang that accommodation, or even basic reinforcement of preferential minority policy, would re-catalyze the cycle of violence, mistrust, and resentment. In Xinjiang the PRC is widely perceived as an ethnic government, by and for the Han. A casual observer may take this to mean that the Han people and the Han government are for analytical purposes one single unit, but reality rarely conforms so neatly with presumption.

The state of Han-Party relations has been thoroughly studied by academics. Isabelle Côté’s 2011 study of Han protest in Xinjiang concludes that two factors are important for enabling Han mobilization: their ties to the ethnic state and subjective perception of discrimination in favor of Uighurs (p. 1855). Indeed, Côté concludes that the only thing preventing Han from increased political mobilization is the knowledge that they still receive the lion’s share of political and economic resources (p. 1869). Were the government to be perceived as capitulating with Uighur demands for a greater share of the pie in a bid to reduce violence, barriers against action would fall and Han across the region would mobilize to express their displeasure. 

Han support of the one-party government is not guaranteed. Michael Clarke, writing about the difference between state and social security, points out that a society losing its identity is just as threatening as a state losing its sovereignty. Both types of security are intimately connected in Xinjiang: the government needs the support of the Han population to fuel its territorial raison d’être, and its raison d’être is deeply rooted in identity politics. 

The use of nationalism by the state to cultivate legitimacy draws from the Chinese world view, which is influenced by the popular narrative of the Chinese colonial experience- commonly called the ‘century of humiliation’. The Party positions itself within this narrative as the vanguard of the movement to return the Han to their perceived ‘rightful’ position in the world. Michael Yahuda’s 2000 study of top-down Chinese nationalism and Simon Shen’s 2011 analysis of racism among online Chinese nationalists both corroborate this narrative of Han nationalism being intimately connected with Communist Party legitimacy. The Chinese government, therefore, is beholden to its people in a way that analysts 50 years ago could not have imagined. This conclusion about Han-Party relations, rooted in an understanding of the Chinese world view, is easily overlooked if one is satisfied with traditional assumptions about the way China works.

Pitman Potter’s 2003 study of regulation of religion in China aptly phrases the new government strategy, writing that the distinction between formal freedom of religion and practical instrumentalization of religious law to control minorities “poses challenges for the regime’s efforts to maintain political control while preserving an image of tolerance aimed at building legitimacy” (p. 317). A new degree of independence and personal efficacy brought about by marketization and emboldened by nationalist fervor has made the Chinese people much more vocal than ever before. 

Given the state of academic discourse on Xinjiang (and China as a whole), Kassel’s FP article bears all the hallmarks of a policy-oriented approach that attempts to place foreign conflicts into familiar categories without enough attention to how the ‘other side’ view themselves and their conflict. Had not the very same categorical (or, perhaps, epistemological) hubris led to such disastrous results in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would seem almost absurd to apply COIN – a strategy heavy on presumption and light on context-dependent critical thinking – to the complexity of ethnicity, identity, and state-society relations in Xinjiang.


Responsibility for the escalation of violence certainly does not lie exclusively with the repressive strategies of the Chinese government. Xinjiang is at a crossroads, and frankly, the most powerful weapon the Uighurs possess right now is the ability to take the high road. An immediate cessation of all attacks against civilian and government targets alike would deprive the Chinese government of the credibility and support it is currently receiving from the international community. This process must occur at the local community level, through social pressure exerted on would-be attackers by family, friends and local leaders. As long as innocent people are dying at the hands of Muslims, China and the West will stand in mutual solidarity. And reducing international accountability and expanding draconian security measures are certainly not what this conflict needs.

By ignoring local context, by ignoring the postcolonial or subaltern lens in favor of familiar categories that use “moral condemnation” as policy and do not require critical reassessment, international efforts are doing more harm than good. On the other hand, subaltern studies remains a somewhat nebulous concept confined to the purview of academics who in some cases (but certainly not all) are more concerned with increasingly complex abstractions than with devising a way to render their hard work practical. Both groups come from a morally upright place: patriotism and altruism realized through public service and the empowerment of marginalized groups, respectively, are not mutually unintelligible concepts.

I can’t blame policy makers for not jumping at the chance to embrace an as-yet ill-defined academic discipline. When it comes to the demands of policy-security jobs – balancing the needs of pragmatism, politics, and bureaucracy in decision making- subalternity in its current incarnation is a less than sufficient tool. Policymakers and security officials need a coherent and well-defined paradigm that includes a mechanism for bridging the gap between local expertise and (inter)national political and institutional realities. The first step, however, requires policymakers and academics to momentarily put aside their hubris and conviction and embrace the most basic element of postcolonialism: my way is certainly not the only way.