Ever since the ascendancy of Xi Jinping as China’s new helmsman, at the end of 2012, Tibetans have looked for signs of fresh thinking on ethnic relations. With the optimism so characteristic of Tibetans, they scanned the media for the slightest sign in China of a shift, away from stigmatising the Tibetans and their neighbours to the north, the Uighurs of Xinjiang, as, first and foremost, a security threat.

The slightest of signs were pored over. An academic in a high level official think tank, the Party School, suggested China could make fresh overtures to the Dalai Lama, such as allowing him into Hong Kong. Nothing further was heard of her, or her ideas, but it seemed a hopeful sign.

Now, 18 months after Xi’s rise to full control of all organs of the party-state, something more definitive is on the record, coming out of the May 2014 Work Conference on Xinjiang, a whole-of-government gathering of all the agencies of party and state to come up with a coherent and comprehensive strategy for dealing with the arrival of terrorism as a regular occurrence.

Xi Jinping’s speech to the second work conference (the first was in 2010) named many initiatives to crush the car bombers and train station killers afflicting Xinjiang and several Chinese cities. Many are short term: heightened security, preventing minority nationals from travelling abroad, deeper cooperation with security agencies abroad, further restricting internet access. Xi has also praised the militarised Xinjiang Production Corps which pioneered the large scale exploitation of Xinjiang cropland and cotton plantations, using demobilised soldiers to build the dams to irrigate a dry land and make it suitable for high-yield farming, oil, gas and mineral extraction. Far from being a relic of the Maoist command economy, the Xinjiang Production Corps, Xi says, “is absolutely not an temporary improvisation but a long-term strategy. Under the new situation, the work of the corps can only be strengthened, not weakened.”

None of this is new, only an intensification of repressive policies, long in place, all intended, as Xi says, to establish ‘‘correct views about the motherland and the nation’’ among all ethnicities so that people from all the groups would recognize the ‘‘great motherland,’’ the ‘‘Chinese nation,’’ ‘‘Chinese culture,’’ and ‘‘the socialist path with Chinese characteristics.’’ These counter-productive policies, in Xinjiang and in Tibet, have long bred resentment at the relentless insistence on (Han) Chinese, put on a pedestal as the exemplary nationality, the peak of human social evolution, the model all others should emulate.

What is new is the rhetoric. Xi’s speech to the Work Conference demanded “nets spreading from the earth to the sky,” to defend against terrorist threats in northwestern region of Xinjiang. Is this just hyperbole, as exaggerated as Mao’s bold claim that “women hold up half the sky”, when all that meant was that women had to do the same work as men?

Xi went further with his metaphors, calling for “copper walls and iron barriers” as well as “nets spread from the earth to the sky.” This is interesting usage. China long had its Great Wall to keep out marauding foreigners from the north and the west, which never achieved its purpose. But China also has its natural walls, of desert, both to the west, in Xinjiang, and to the north, in the Gobi that separates China’s Inner Mongolia from the independent nation of Mongolia. In fact the –bi in Gobi is Chinese for wall.

Now it seems none of these walls, man-made or natural, suffice to keep out the knife-wielding Uighur slashers, and an impregnable copper wall is promised. Further, there is to be an iron barrier as well, an echo of the iron curtain the Second World drew around itself, around China and the entire Soviet bloc, to keep out the First World. Actually, Xi Jinping meant one barrier, not two, his classic phrase “铜墙铁壁(Tóngqiángtiěbì) can be translated into “wall of bronze”, instead of “wall of copper and iron”.

That’s still being literal: the everyday meaning is impregnable. China may, even must, impregnate backward peoples with modern ideas, but must itself remain impregnable.

But Xi Jinping has new and quite specific policies too. He talks of moving more ethnic Uighurs to inland areas of China where they can be educated and work among the ethnic Han, becoming acculturated to Han values. According to the NY Times, Xi called “for moving more ethnic Uighurs to inland areas of China where they can be educated and work among the ethnic Han.” This is new: a population redistribution according to an assimilationist masterplan that would erect the net stretching to the heavens, yet situate Uighurs on both sides, sterilizing the good Uighur learning to become Chinese from the bad Uighur remaining in the net, in their suffocating homeland.

If serious, this suggests a social engineering experiment on a larger scale than anything before, though the idea is not all that new. The neidi schools set up specifically to assimilate young Uighur into Han ways and values, were established in major Chinese cities far from Xinjiang in recent decades, a copy of the neidi school model established earlier for taking young Tibetans from their families and inculcating Chinese values . For both Tibetans and Uighurs, the attraction of these schools is that they are better than anything China offers in their homelands, with better prospects for passing the gruelling gaokao exams that open the door to university and high incomes. The price of getting a good education is a strong emphasis on Chinese language, Chinese values and patriotic education in loyalty to the party.

But how to extend to adults the socialisation of adolescent Uighurs into Chinese normality? How to get Uighurs to become factory workers in the cities of the world’s factory, at a time when most Han have learned to fear and loathe the Uighurs?

“Uighurs frequently say they’re made to feel like second-class citizens, facing difficulties obtaining passports or even travelling outside Xinjiang. Hotels and airlines are reported to have floating unofficial bans on catering to Uighurs, and many employers refuse to hire them,” said an Associated Press report in October 2013.

“Hotels won’t take us and you can’t rent if your ID shows a Xinjiang residence. People look at us with a lot of prejudice,” said Yusuf Mahmati, 33, a fur trader plying his wares on a busy sidewalk opposite the Panijayuan market, a gathering place for traders from several regional ethnic groups.”

It may be too late already, for Xi Jinping to make the Uighurs into an industrial proletariat, scattered across many provinces, wherever the factories are. The hatred, amplified until quite recently by official media, will not be easily undone; and Uighurs will be deeply unhappy if it takes force to scatter them across China. They may remain inside Xi Jinping’s net reaching to the heavens, cut off from accessing the world by internet firewall restrictions that deny them an online presence in an internet that has long reached the sky.

Nonetheless, Xi Jinping, a promising reformer in many ways, has now shown himself utterly bereft of new ideas when it comes to imagining ethnicity as anything other than a security problem. Not only does the Xinjiang Production Corps remain at the forefront of making Xinjiang Chinese, the grand strategy is more of the same old. . ‘‘Practice has proved that our party’s ruling strategy in Xinjiang is correct and must be maintained in the long run,’’ Mr. Xi said.

China’s policy in Tibet is equally sclerotic and counter-productive. As in Xinjiang, social engineering remains a tempting option for central planners, who definitely see the removal of nomads from their pastures as a first step in creating a new class of mobile workers who will be drawn to the factories, of distant lowland China, as they realise there will be no returning to their rangelands once the supposedly temporary grazing bans expire. So far, this social engineering has relied on inducements rather than coercion, and is not at all like Stalin’s ethnic social engineering, which deported entire nationalities from frontier zones to Siberia and Central Asia. So far, Tibetan resistance to China’s insistence that modernity –with Chinese characteristics- is compulsory, has been to burn themselves to death, not harming others.

Seldom have the contradictions inherent in China’s policies towards its unassimilated minorities been more obvious. In order to assimilate, or cook, the raw minorities outside the heartland of China, they must be brought in, to learn from the exemplary Han, even made to mingle, not only in special schools but in the factories and great cities of China. Yet at the same time they are to be kept out by an impregnable shield of copper and iron reaching to the sky, because roving bands of knife wielding Uighurs have succeeded in terrifying a billion ordinary Han Chinese that nowhere public is safe, no train station in any province is immune from the whirling assassins.

The same is true of Tibet, where 130 people have taken their own lives in protest against suffocation by “Chinese characteristics.” Those who burn the body, making the ultimate sacrificial offering, have chosen a decisively different path to that of the Uighurs, yet the cause is the same: a stubborn refusal of the raw barbarians, as China has always seen these peoples, to be cooked into loyal Chinese citizens. The contradictions of an assimilationist agenda imposed by force are the same, in Xinjiang and Tibet. There can be no hope of assimilation, or of mutual respect, as long as the overriding policy imperative is to build impregnable walls of copper and iron reaching to the sky, to keep the foreigners foreign.

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