Tea Leaf Nation

Mild, Mild West

Chinese authorities promise to blanket the volatile region of Xinjiang with Communist cadres.

Xinjiang, a vast region in western China covering a surface area roughly as large as that of Iran, is known to be ethnically fraught, economically underdeveloped, and opaque to outsiders. But a new Chinese policy is giving outside observers a rare -- albeit entirely one-sided -- glimpse into what Chinese Communist Party policy looks like at the village level there.

In what authorities announced on Feb. 15 as a "Down to the Grassroots" campaign, over the next three years the government of the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi plans to rotate a total of 200,000 Xinjiang party officials in year-long stints across the region, so that it may "completely cover" even the remotest villages, "leaving no blank space." Decades of Han Chinese migration to the region and repressive government ethnic and religious policies have inflamed tensions between the Muslim Uighurs -- who number around 10 million, composing a bit over 40 percent of Xinjiang's total population -- and the majority Han, leading to periodic violence that the government often labels as terrorist attacks. In a March 17 address to Xinjiang party officials, Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang party boss and member of China's ultra-powerful Politburo whom Foreign Affairs describes as a media-savvy hard-liner with a "reputation for transparency," called the new campaign a "radical measure" to protect stability and promote religious and ethnic harmony in Xinjiang.

That might mark a strategic shift from pure economic development to a refocus on social stability in the turbulent region. But there's no need to simply take Zhang's word for it -- members of the first round of the approximately 70,000 party officials who arrived at their village destinations on March 5 have been submitting stories and photos of their work in Uighur villages to the campaign's own official account on WeChat, a mobile social network with over 271 million active users. The brief stories the account shares, numbering around five per day, portray the campaign as something akin to charm offensive-cum-ethnographic fieldwork, in which (mostly Han) party officials from more populated areas within Xinjiang trek to the furthest reaches of the autonomous region to live amongst villagers, share their daily routines, help solve local problems, and, hopefully, "garner the people's support."

Stories from different sites around Xinjiang depict party officials learning how to cook over the small coal-burning stoves common in the region, adopting Uighur names for themselves when locals evince difficulty remembering Chinese names, chatting with village elders, helping villagers open their own village WeChat account, and even rescuing local residents suffering from smoke inhalation.

Though party control over most information relating to the "Down to the Grassroots" campaign makes it hard to assess the actual goals and practices of the campaign, the effort may indeed be a genuine attempt to show the party's softer, more conciliatory side. According to Alim Seytoff, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, a Uighur exile group, the Chinese government utilizes both "carrots" and "sticks"  in the region. In the face of a looming government crackdown in Xinjiang, especially after the brutal March 1 knifing attack in Kunming which authorities say were perpetrated by Xinjiang terrorists, the "Down to the Grassroots" campaign is, Seytoff said, an example of a carrot.

One of these carrots may be the campaign's emphasis on language. A common criticism among Xinjiang's Uighurs is that top-ranking Chinese officials in Xinjiang are almost always Han Chinese who make no attempt to learn Uighur, thus placing the burden of communication completely upon Uighurs, who often don't speak Mandarin. The "Down to the Grassroots" campaign seems to be making a good-faith effort to change that. Tianshan Net, a state-controlled Xinjiang news outlet, reported on March 6 that teach-yourself-Uighur books have become hot sellers at bookstores throughout Urumqi as a result of the campaign, and photos from the WeChat account show party officials proudly hoisting bilingual Chinese-Uighur study materials. The WeChat account also regularly provides lists of key Uighur phrases, though the heavily Sinified pronunciation guide sometimes garbles the Turkic language; for example, the phrase "how are you" -- yahshimusiz -- is rendered "ya he xi mo."

Despite attempts to convey a conciliatory attitude, the Communist Party's heavy-handed policies in Xinjiang may have accompanied party officials down to the villages. According to a March 8 post on the campaign's WeChat account, one official organized an activity for village women called "Let Beautiful Hair Float Freely; Let Beautiful Faces Be Exposed; Promote Fresh Values" to celebrate International Women's Day in her new village home. While the post did not report the villagers' reactions to this effort, the government's recent anti-veiling campaign in Xinjiang has sparked anger among Muslims there and fanned fears of increasing religious repression. Although official media reports emphasize that Uighur and other ethnic minority cadres are among those sent down to the grassroots, its portrayal of ethnic relations in Xinjiang as "all one family" smacks of patronizing propaganda. And according to Seytoff, it doesn't matter how helpful or sensitive the party officials are -- the Chinese government "cannot buy people's loyalty," regardless of whether it sends "200,000 or 2 million officials." Nothing will change, Seytoff said, "until the government changes its ethnic policies, and allows the Uighurs real autonomy." (A person who answered the phone at the Xinjiang government’s foreign affairs office declined to comment on the campaign, instead referring me to the material available online.)

Since that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, Xinjiang's Uighurs will have to continue to make due with carrots and sticks. Meanwhile, outside observers must continue to read between the lines to learn what is really happening out in China's far west.

Fair Use/WeChat

Tea Leaf Nation

China, Grounded

As missing airliner continues to baffle, China confronts the limits of its power.

China's President Xi Jinping can't sleep, its Premier Li Keqiang pines for a "thread of hope," and the country's mainstream media stands flatfooted. As the mystery of Malaysian airliner MH370, which disappeared while bound for Beijing carrying 153 Chinese passengers and 74 others, continues into its tenth day, Chinese authorities are keen to be seeing as doing something -- anything -- to find the missing plane.

But the Chinese government, and the thousands of Chinese journalists watching the story unfold, are running up against geographic, technological, and political realities. The Boeing 777, last reported cruising high above the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam on March 8, may have crashed somewhere in the Indian or Pacific oceans, making it unlikely that the plane's whereabouts will be discovered soon. Beijing knows the cost of appearing impotent when its citizens face danger abroad. When expatriates in violence-wracked Libya faced attacks in February 2011, China's government moved quickly and successfully to evacuate what state media said were more than 35,000 Chinese nationals. By contrast, in 2012 and 2013, several Chinese miners were killed and more than a hundred were arrested in Ghana, angering Internet users, many of whom grumbled that Beijing had done little to help.

Beijing seems determined to avoid that outcome this time, even if it has to labor to maintain the appearance of activity. On March 11, Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily ran an article headlined "Xi Jinping Makes Late-Night Phone Call to Consular Affairs to Inquire About Developments." The article noted that on March 9, Xi had personally dialed the Chinese foreign ministry to "understand the latest developments" and to "urge an all-out search effort." For his part, Li averred in a March 14 article in the same publication that authorities would "never give up" so long as there was "a thread of hope" that the passengers were alive. And a March 16 article in Xinhua, China's largest state-run news agency, insisted that "China is pushing Malaysia to try harder in its search."

Although China's state-controlled media has kicked into high gear -- there's been no dearth of headlines and official tweets about the missing plane -- the grinding sounds are audible. By the admission of some of its practitioners, Chinese press has seemed unable to do more than pass on official accounts of events, some of which Malaysian authorities have later been forced to retract. On March 8, the evening the plane was discovered missing, members of the Chinese media could not even agree whether it was ethically responsible to interview families of the missing passengers, who were gathered in the Lidu hotel in Beijing. State-run China Central Television helplessly wrote on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, that "the Chinese side hopes the Malaysian side raises the degree of transparency of information disclosure." Meanwhile, almost all of the breaking news --- including the fact that data shows the plane was in the air for hours after its last reported position and its flight path veered far off course -- has come via Western sources.

Chinese outlets are asking themselves, and each other, why they haven't been able to do more. In a March 17 opinion piece on the Sina news portal titled "Why Chinese Media Lost the Malaysian Airliner News War," Chinese reporter Xu Jingbo mocked China's state-controlled media for being a "pampered princess" instead of a "hustling street vendor" with the necessary tenacity, technical expertise, and connections to break serious news. Xu wrote that Chinese media neglected the possibility the plane's disappearance was a terrorist act, either because "they couldn't do it" or because "they didn't dare to," as writing about it would have required approval from government authorities.

A slightly more forgiving opinion piece published that same day in respected financial news outlet Caijing argued that Chinese media's hands were tied because of the same power dynamics that likely bedevil Chinese authorities. The article argued that Chinese reporters' ability to garner exclusives rested on with whom "the party in power" -- in this case Malaysia -- selects to share breaking news, which in turn depends on whether the recipient can share that information with the outside world. That question, the article wrote, ultimately traces back to a Catch-22: Chinese media is too closely managed to build experience with deep reportage, but the lack of such experience gives authorities yet another pretext to continue tightly managing it.

Malaysian authorities have certainly given China ample room for angst. The New York Times reported on March 16 that a series of errors, delays, and obfuscations by the Malaysian government and military has hampered the search process. Chinese social media, which provides the best available public indicator of citizen sentiment, has not shown a proclivity to forgive. An online short comic series shared over 50,000 times on Weibo depicts a haggard boss (China) defenestrating a lazy employee (Malaysia) after he gives lackadaisical answers at a meeting about MH370 also attended by well-prepped Vietnamese and U.S. avatars. (In an introduction, the artist calls the Malaysians a "pig troupe.") A phrase combining the character for Malaysia with a popular Internet curse word became a Weibo hashtag and been used more than 400,000 times.

But ire at Malaysia won't quell the discontent also brewing against China's own, hopelessly compromised public voices. In his March 17 article, Xu questioned why Chinese media is only parroting government quotes while "chasing behind the asses" of major U.S. and U.K. outlets like CNN, Reuters, and The New York Times. One widely circulated Weibo quote complained that rather than doing its own legwork, Chinese media has "re-tweeted a week's worth of news." China certainly harbors ambitions to bestride the globe. But the deeply vexing case of the missing 777 helps illuminate how far it still has to go.

Bethany Allen and Xiaoran Zhang contributed reporting.

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